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The Idea Factory

Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

By Jon Gertner
15-minute read
Audio available
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

The Idea Factory (2012) charts the influence of Bell Labs, the research arm of telephony monopolist AT&T. This innovative laboratory, established in the 1920s, was the source of dozens, if not hundreds, of technological innovations, effectively ushering in our modern digital age.

  • People curious about the history of modern technology
  • Entrepreneurs or business leaders wanting to encourage innovation
  • Employees of tech giants such as Google, Apple or Microsoft

Journalist and author Jon Gertner writes for the New York Times Magazine and edits for Fast Company. He grew up just around the corner from Bell Labs in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.

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The Idea Factory

Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

By Jon Gertner
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner
Synopsis

The Idea Factory (2012) charts the influence of Bell Labs, the research arm of telephony monopolist AT&T. This innovative laboratory, established in the 1920s, was the source of dozens, if not hundreds, of technological innovations, effectively ushering in our modern digital age.

Key idea 1 of 9

Bell Labs was born from the early AT&T, which hired top scientists to improve telephone service.

Alexander Graham Bell patented the first working telephone in 1876. Looking to capitalize on his groundbreaking invention, Bell founded the Bell Telephone Company, which later evolved into the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, or AT&T.

In the 1890s, however, Bell’s telephone patent expired, opening the door for other companies to take advantage of the technology. To remain competitive, AT&T resolved to use the power of science and research to provide better service to its customers.

This is how, in 1925, AT&T founded Bell Telephone Laboratories.

One of the goals of the labs was to make phone service more reliable, and cheaper. At the time, the telephone was still a rudimentary technology. Phones did not ring; dial tones and busy signals had yet to be invented. A caller would shout into a receiver until someone on the other end noticed!

Yet Bell Labs’s overarching focus was to investigate communication in its many forms, whether through a cable or over a radio wave, with recorded sound or using visual images. AT&T president Theodore Vail was the driving force behind this vision, encouraging teams to explore advances in physics and chemistry that might transform the way people communicate.

Bell Labs hired top scientists, and a majority of its employees were graduates of the leading universities in the United States, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago and the California Institute of Technology.

Mervin Kelly, for example, was one of the most gifted physics students at the University of Chicago before coming to Bell Labs. In 1951 he was named director of the labs, and his work was pivotal in changing the communications industry.  

Bell Labs became an intellectual hub for many eminent scientists, some of whom even went on to win the Nobel Prize.

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