I recently read The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner. This book tells the story of the legendary Bell Labs, with a focus on six specific individuals: Mervin Kelly (president from 1951 to 1959), James Fisk (president from 1959 to 1973), William Shockley (co-inventor of the transistor), Claude Shannon (pioneer of information theory), John Pierce (satellite communications pioneer), and William Baker (president from 1973 to 1979).
Being bankrolled by a telephone monopoly, Bell Labs was essentially government-funded, without being government-controlled. Perhaps that is why it worked so well.
The first transistor, invented at Bell Labs in 1947 (photo: Windell H. Oskay, www.evilmadscientist.com)
In this very readable history, Gertner presents a number of factors that contributed to the success of Bell Labs. These included:
- A healthy mix of short-term applied and long-term fundamental research;
- A strong practical focus;
- Technically competent management;
- The formation of interdisciplinary teams;
- Effective processes for bringing new ideas into the organisation; and
- A tolerance of eccentricity.
A less serious invention: Claude Shannon’s THROBAC calculator, which used Roman numerals (photo: Sami Oinonen)
As it faded away, Bell Labs was overshadowed by the vibrant applied research of Silicon Valley (although this relied heavily on the more fundamental research of universities in the San Francisco Bay Area). Still, Bell Labs has certainly repaid the USA many times over for the money invested in it, and it still offers a good model of how to make a scientific research organisation work.