The Oil and the Glory

Book Review: Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory”

Book Review: Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory”

See O&G’s interview with Jon Gertner

In 1964, two major inventions emerged from AT&T’s Bell Laboratories and into the world. One would let people make phone calls the same way they always had — pick up a phone, dial some numbers, and speak to someone far away. The other would be a revolution: It was called the Picturephone, and it let you see the other person as you spoke to them, and let them see you. The Picturephone, as is well known, was a flop; its failure is one of many well-told tales in Jon Gertner’s new book. But it is the success of the Electronic Switching Station (ESS), the other 1964 invention, that is at the heart of Gertner’s story. The ESS replaced the electromechanical switchboards and iconic telephone operators with a computer — a revolution at the junctions of the network that was a crucial step down the road to modernity.

"One of the more intriguing attributes of the Bell System was that an apparent simplicity — just pick up the phone and dial — hid its fiendish and increasing interior complexity," Gertner writes. His book is a history of that interior complexity, told through the lens of a handful of the Labs’ most significant creations — the transistor, the first undersea telephone cable, the first communications satellites, fiber optics and lasers, and early cellular telephone systems. Gertner is an astute analyst who avoids whiz-bang conceptions of technological innovation.  "It is not just the discovery of new phenomena, nor the development of a new product or manufacturing technique, nor the creation of a new market. Rather the process is all these things acting together in an integrated way toward a common industrial goal," he quotes Jack Morton, a Bell Labs engineer.

Gertner set out, he says, to write an ensemble biography of six men — Mervin Kelly, Jim Fisk, William Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and William Baker.  He begins shakily, with supposition about what things must have been like when AT&T was first getting started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, no doubt dogged by scant records. But the book quickly gets good and then better in the telling. At his best, Gertner captures the excitement of being around a place where new ideas are being forged.

The new devices that came out of Bell Labs are well described. While the tenor is rightfully admiring, Gertner is careful to refrain from hagiography. In part he does this by writing about the Labs’ failures. Aside from the Picturephone flop, Gertner relates how Bell Labs came up with all the necessary tools to build integrated circuits (i.e., modern computer chips) but failed to become a pioneer in building the circuits themselves.

But, as Gertner writes, "Bell Labs’ most durable contributions were not things that could be touched or seen." He is less able in explaining these intangible things. Gertner is more comfortable with the achievements of the administrators as administrators than he is with those of the scientists as scientists. (The relationship between Bell Labs and government — especially the National Security Agency-is one of his most interesting themes.) Claude Shannon, one of his main characters, is given as much attention for his quirks (riding a unicycle, juggling) as he is for his core intellectual achievement: information theory. Writing about something as abstract as the nature of information is difficult. The failure (by design) to engage with what Gertner calls "the details of various innovations" is problematic: It’s a bit like writing about Beethoven and Mozart while neglecting the details of the music.

Gertner writes that Shannon and Pierce "had put forward the notion that digital pulses, rather than waves, were certain to be the future of information transmission." But the crux of modern communications is precisely in how "digital pulses" are encoded and transmitted as waves. This sort of infelicity creeps up repeatedly when Gertner turns to technical matters, and is the book’s major shortcoming. It makes it impossible for Gertner to fully succeed in his aim of explaining how and why innovation happens when he fails to capture more of the underlying technical flavor. For instance, multiplexing — sending many messages simultaneously over the same channel — is a fascinating , and central, intellectual achievement, glossed over by Gertner with a wave of the hand.

He gives more detail on the origins of the transistor, which is consequently a much stronger section of the book. Similarly, a section on early cellular telephony systems developed at the Labs is rich with color and detail; it is a pleasure to be taken along for the ride as Gertner tells the story of the "guys who made cellular real," driving around suburban New Jersey with antennas, trying to measure how radio signals fade and bounce.

Gertner grew up "a few hundred yards away" from Bell Labs main campus at Murray Hill, New Jersey. It is fitting that he has good instincts on what the place was like. He is similarly good in describing the Labs Holmdel campus (though he mistakenly places it in "southern New Jersey"). (Disclosure: my father worked at the Labs site in Holmdel when I was young, and would bring me punch cards home to fiddle with.)  The Holmdel campus now lies fallow, victim of the Labs decline after AT&T was broken up in the mid-1980s. Gertner skims through the afterlife of the Labs, and some of his central figures (such as Shockley, who descended into paranoiac racist imaginings) ably. He is perhaps too swift to write off Google’s laboratories as the modern-day analogue of Bell Labs. But he is correct in quoting John Pierce: "Bell Labs functioned in a world not our own."

That was a world where Guy Lombardo, playing a concert on Jones Beach on Long Island, across the water from the Labs, would, in Gertner’s telling, look at his watch and stop the concert, directing the audience to look overhead as Echo, a shiny balloon made at the Labs, passed overhead in space, twinkling in the night sky. Despite his stated intention of writing a business book about innovation, one gets the sense that what Gertner was really trying to do was to convey a sense of wonder at the new. This he has done.

Konstantin Kakaes is a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation