A great opinion article about innovation by Jon Gertner →appears in the New York Times discussing Bell Labs, a legendary font of American innovation, and drawing on Gertner’s forthcoming book “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.”
When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, and for a time living in New Jersey near Bell Labs’ home, Bell Labs enjoyed near-mythic status as the place from which the future would (one could argue, did) spring. The only place that comes close to it today is Apple, and possibly Silicon Valley in general, though Apple’s focus on a narrow set of products pales in light of the incredible number of innovative and transformative products that emerged from Bell Labs – Transistors; lasers; the mobile cellphone; fiber optics; digital photography and synthesized music; fax machines; information theory; direct-dialing of long-distance telephone calling. Countless more in both basic research and applied.
In a recent set of posts here on Reparametrization, I wrote about the role of architecture and design in nurturing the interdiscplinary collaboration essential to science research as well as education. So I was delighted to read in Gertner’s article, in connection with Mervin Kelly, chairman of the board at Bell Labs and, to Gertner, a key visionary in setting up Bell Labs as the pioneer in American science and technology education:
At Bell Labs, the man most responsible for the culture of creativity was Mervin Kelly… His fundamental belief was that an “institute of creative technology” like his own needed a “critical mass” of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing. Like an able concert hall conductor, he sought a harmony, and sometimes a tension, between scientific disciplines; between researchers and developers; and between soloists and groups.
One element of his approach was architectural. He personally helped design a building in Murray Hill, N.J., opened in 1941, where everyone would interact with one another.
As for other factors influencing innovation, Gertner would say that it depends on what kind of innovation you’re talking about. And I think he suggests that much of what passes for innovation today is, at best, incomplete and misdirected. For Gertner, and for the pioneers at Bell Labs, innovation was most effective, and most effectively accomplished, when it was directed, focused, a process that made it clear
to the researchers and engineers there that the ultimate aim of their organization was to transform new knowledge into new things.
Though that doesn’t mean the end product had to be well-defined, understood, or even glimpsed at the outset. Gertner distinguishes between today’s innovation-fast and innovation-slow at Bell Labs, where Kelly gave researchers lots of time – years if necessary – along with great freedom, to travel up and down the byways of research on a problem looking not only for solutions but connections.
A fascinating graphic by the Times accompanies Gertner’s article, showing the interconnected array of ideas and inventions that flowed from Bell Labs.