WAMU 88.5 : The Diane Rehm Show

Jon Gertner: "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation"

Long before Silicon Valley, some of the twentieth century’s most influential technologies originated in New Jersey. Transistors, radars, lasers and solar cells are among the innovations to come out of Bell Telephone Laboratories during the decades between 1925 and 1984. Bell Labs also produced 13 Nobel Prize winners, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu. A new book titled “The Idea Factory,” examines the people and conditions that made Bell Labs a hotbed of innovation. Author Jon Gertner of the New York Times and Fast Company Magazines joins Diane to discuss whether a similar factory of innovation is possible today.

Program Highlights

Long before Silicon Valley, Bell Labs in New Jersey attracted the best and brightest thinkers. Some of the 20th century's most influential technologies, including transistors, radar, lasers and solar cells started there. A new book examines the people and conditions that made Bell Labs a hot bed of innovation in the 20th century. The title of the book is, "The Idea Factory."

The Beginning of Bell Labs

Bell Labs opened in 1925, set up as the research and development laboratory of the phone company. At the time, AT&T was a monopoly. Fostering creativity, according to Gertner, was something management was very good at. Interestingly, at the time, Bell didn't have any competition, but Gertner believes it was "this sort of unbelievable place that just had this string of innovations that really changed the world."

The Transistor: One Of The Big Inventions

One big invention that came out of Bell's golden age was the transistor, which replaced the vacuum tube. The transistor really paved the way for the miniaturization of electronics, Gertner said. "They used such little amounts of power that it kind of changes the whole configuration of what electronic devices could be," he said.

The Effects Of The Depression

The Depression ended up helping Bell Labs, Gertner said. At first, phone subscription dropped dramatically, but then they started to pick up in the mid-1930s. This allowed the lab's director, Mervin Kelly, to hire people, and to pay well. He was able to hire some of the best and brightest people available, which led to some of the great work and innovations that came out of the lab.

You can read the full transcript here.


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