The Oil and the Glory

What Obama could learn from Bell Labs

The name Bell Labs is synonymous with cutting-edge invention, winning seven Nobel Prizes (including by Energy Secretary Steven Chu) and turning out world-changing inventions like the transistor (pictured above), the silicon photovoltaic solar cell and radio astronomy. Jon Gertner, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, spent five years on a history of ...

OFF/AFP/Getty Images
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

The name Bell Labs is synonymous with cutting-edge invention, winning seven Nobel Prizes (including by Energy Secretary Steven Chu) and turning out world-changing inventions like the transistor (pictured above), the silicon photovoltaic solar cell and radio astronomy. Jon Gertner, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, spent five years on a history of Bell, called The Idea Factory, which came out today and is reviewed at O&G. Below, Gertner replies to questions from the Oil and the Glory.

O&G: The characters in your book often seem to be just wandering around, only to hit upon a fantastic leap of inventive and ultimately commercial imagination. Given how many countries are all about very targeted scientific and technological inquiries, is the Bell Labs formula applicable today?

Gertner: In Bell Labs’ old days, an informal exchange of ideas (over lunch, during a stroll in the hallways, and so forth) was part of the innovation process. At universities and research institutions everywhere, it still is. But I don’t want to give the impression that members of Bell Labs’ technical staff were unfocused or lazy. They worked hard — days, evenings, and even sometimes on weekends. And I think this hits on one of the essential challenges of writing about scientific research and engineering: Do you dramatize the two years the men worked diligently in the lab in the face of grinding frustration? Or do you focus more on the weeks when their efforts yielded real results and progress? For compelling reasons, I often chose the latter.

Whether the Bell Labs formula is applicable today is an excellent and complex question. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has a complicated answer. First, I don’t think there was one overarching Bell Labs approach. Structurally, what defined Bell Labs was a large, brilliant, interdisciplinary work force that was supplied with freedom and vast resources and a never-ending stream of technical problems within the phone system that drew on the staff’s expertise. With an invention like the transistor, Bell Labs used an orchestrated effort and a mid-sized team; but the silicon solar cell was quite different. Indeed, the latter breakthrough was serendipitous: Three men, each working in different buildings, somehow connected the right technology with the right problem at the right time. Meanwhile, later innovations such as cellular phone networks and the development of fiber optic systems required vast teams of hundreds of people. I think all these approaches — perhaps with the exception of the solar cell — were quite targeted, and are thus still viable today. I would note some caveats, however: Research efforts are expected to move faster today, and there seems to be a lower tolerance for failure, especially if any public funding is involved. Also, an ability (or willingness) to invest for the distant future, and to thus work with a new technology through an arduous and expensive development process, seems to be in shorter supply.


If President Obama reads this interview, what would you say he should be doing in order to advance his stated aim of putting America ahead in cutting-edge technologies, especially in the clean-energy space?

My advice would be to do everything he can to support initiatives like ARPA-e. We need those breakthrough ideas. But at the same time, we’ve already got a lot of promising clean-energy technologies that may soon be on par, cost-wise, with fossil fuels. And I think we need to help deploy those as quickly as possible. The faster we scale up with solar and wind, for instance, the better we’ll do, both in terms of lower costs and bigger impacts. So I still think the biggest difference on Obama’s part would be one of policy — for instance, a carbon tax or fee. Look, we have to give up eventually on fossil fuels. They had a good run. But they are wrecking our environment and our climate and our health and are creating political instabilities across the globe. And they are being sold and burned without any true pricing of their externalities. So why not try to embrace what is inevitable sooner rather than later? At the very least, it could prove a real boost to the economy.


Go to the Jump for the rest of the interview.

Could Bell Labs under Mervin Kelly have made a sufficient leap in advanced batteries to enable a commercially competitive electric car?

Actually, he wouldn’t have to, if Envia Systems’ new breakthrough on lithium-ion cells actually cuts the cost of [electric vehicle] batteries by about half. I bring this up for another reason, though: I think what happened with Envia — a handoff of an idea from the federally funded Argonne National Laboratory, to the private sector — is a contemporary equivalent of a process common at the Labs of long ago. It will now be interesting to see if Envia, with General Motors’ help, can increase the battery’s reliability and bring it to scale, which still poses real challenges. At Bell Labs, Mervin Kelly’s shorthand definition of innovation was something that is "better, or cheaper, or both." If this succeeds, it will certainly fall into that category.


Does China have a Bell Labs-like enterprise? If so, what is it? If not, should we be aware of anyone else out there?

I’m not an expert on innovation in China, but I’m not aware of any efforts there with Bell Labs’ ambitions or capabilities. But I would make two related points. First, that high-tech manufacturing in China, Korea and Japan is now largely ahead of what goes on in the U.S. Andy Grove has made an eloquent case in BusinessWeek why this matters; Gary Pisano and Willy Shih did so in the Harvard Business Review. Put simply, a capacity for manufacturing ultimately goes hand in hand with a capacity for innovation.

Second, I would add that it may be the case that the great unplowed fields of innovation are not in information technology but in biotechnology and energy. One place I point to in the book where a free-form, interdisciplinary approach has taken root is Janelia Farm, a research campus in Virginia that is part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.


Bell Labs has become a catch-phrase like the Manhattan Project and Apollo, a synonym for big, concentrated, imaginative, inventive accomplishment. Have these places become exaggerated in our minds? To what degree are these successes aberrations?

As much as I tend toward skepticism, I don’t think the accomplishments of these efforts are exaggerated — all three were the exemplary instances, at least in the 20th Century, of what large human organizations can accomplish. These teams solved the most difficult problems imaginable, and their successes speak for themselves. But what I think is nevertheless true, and perhaps what your question hints at, is that we tend to think of these organizations as perfect. And I think that’s a mistake. Bell Labs was not a great experience for everyone employed there; there were internal politics, personality clashes, miscommunications, and every other problem that affects a big organization. More important, perhaps, was that the Labs management at times made big errors in judging what technologies to pursue for the future. In my book I focus on two in particular: the waveguide and the Picturephone. These were fabulously expensive follies. The waveguide was a kind of hollow pipe for transmitting calls and data, via microwaves, that was made irrelevant by the invention of fiber optic transmission; the Picturephone was a visual communications device that flopped immediately in the marketplace. So I think the point here is that we shouldn’t only learn from Bell Labs’ successes. Failure is a big part of the innovative process, too.

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