Questions and answers with Jon Gertner

In his first book, The Idea Factory, technology writer Jon Gertner explores the socioeconomic forces and quirky cultural habits that drove and defined Bell Labs.

By Jermey N. A. Matthews

Cornell University graduate Jon Gertner is editor-at-large at Fast Company magazine, where he writes and edits features about innovation and technology. Between 2004 and 2011, he worked as a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, covering stories on science, business, and technology. 

Gertner's first book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation , was published by Penguin Press earlier this year. Physics Today recently caught up with him to discuss the book.

PT: What motivated you to write this book, and why did you choose this topic for your first book?

Gertner: A few reasons, actually. I had grown up a few blocks from Bell Labs' Murray Hill campus, so I was familiar with Bell Labs' achievements, and its mystique, from a very young age. But it was while working as a magazine journalist that I found myself increasingly drawn to topics that presented some kind of intersection between science, business, and culture. I was interested in how breakthroughs in science led to commercial technologies that were broadly deployed to society. The transistor is a good example of that. So I very much wanted to do something in this vein that was longer than a magazine feature, and I was looking for an ideal topic. And really, Bell Labs struck me as so utterly perfect. The only problem is that I thought the book would take two years. It took five.

PT: How would you describe the relationship that Bell Labs had with the academic community, and to what extent did Bell Labs benefit from government spending and policy?

Gertner: In many respects, Bell Labs waspart of the academic research community. Researchers did experiments. They delivered papers at major conferences. They often taught at esteemed universities after their careers at the Labs ended. Some members of the technical staff, such as the mathematician John Tukey, even worked half-time at Bell Labs and half-time at Princeton University. Also, on occasion, ideas that arose from university research—certain kinds of masers, for instance—were licensed by the Labs for its communications technologies. 

The relationship with government was more complex. You could argue that Bell Labs' success was due to explicit policy decisions, on both the federal and state levels, made throughout the 20th century. The permission by governments given to AT&T and local telephone companies to operate what was effectively a phone monopoly allowed for the extraordinary funding and mandate—to plan for the future of human communications—that drove this remarkable R&D organization. What's more, the military work at Bell Labs, which in some years [made up] 40 percent of its budget, was quite substantial. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, Labs engineers played a big part in designing and building missile systems like the Nike Zeus.

PT: What do you think led to the decline of Bell Labs?

Gertner: The precipitating factor, without question, was the breakup of the Bell system in the early 1980s. Without the monopoly, funding for research was substantially curtailed, and AT&T was thrust into a competitive marketplace that it neither understood nor was prepared for. But I think, too, there are some secular factors here. Organizations can't last forever; industries evolve, and the players inevitably change. Sure, IBM just turned 100 years old, but I think what you see there is a wholly different business model, one based mostly on consulting and software, from the one that existed only 30 years ago. 

In the case of AT&T and Bell Labs, I think our communications industries had matured by the 1970s to a point that competition was inevitable. And to a great extent that competition was brought on by the advances at Bell Labs—transistors, lasers, digital communications. The Bell Labs patents had all been licensed for a modest fee or given away for nothing. In the book, I make the point that in Bell Labs' great successes were the seeds of its own undoing.

PT: Which historical Bell Labs figure do you wish you had a chance to talk to?

Gertner: One of the main characters in my book is Mervin Kelly, a physicist who served as president of Bell Labs in the 1950s and in many ways was [the Labs'] great visionary and driving force. It was Kelly who in the late 1930s suggested to Bill Shockley that the phone company could use a solid-state switch. The conversation eventually led Shockley's team to the transistor. Now there happens to be an abundance of historical information about Bell Labs. The AT&T archives contain over a million documents. But Kelly's papers have apparently not survived. I spent several years, and looked all over the country, to see if I could track them down. But no luck. If those papers someday turn up, I imagine they'll help us understand Kelly in a much deeper way. 

PT: What do you think were some of the drawbacks of the so-called Bell Labs model, and what model do you see working just as effectively today? 

Gertner: Bell Labs enjoyed a unique historical situation. There was no Silicon Valley to woo the brightest engineers. At the same time, there was this incredible funding stream allowing it to do basic research. But putting too much faith in one organization means that if they make a mistaken bet on a future technology, as sometimes was the case at the Labs, millions or billions of dollars are wasted. But all that said, I tend to think that Bell Labs was the right model for the right era, when electronic communications was still an immature industry. The Labs created the infrastructure for the modern era. Our economy is essentially based on its advances.

Today we have more distributed innovation models, where government, industry, and universities work together, often with the help of venture capital money. I think it works quite well. The big gap, to me, is that we often overlook the incredible amounts of time and money it requires to bring a truly novel technology to market, especially in the energy sector. Think about the silicon solar cell, which was invented at the Labs in 1954 and is only now approaching parity with other fossil fuels. My point is that Bell Labs often gains accolades for its research breakthroughs. But sometimes I wonder if its greater service to society was in its ability to exhaustively develop new technologies for the market in ways no private company, and probably no democratic government, really could. 

PT: What books are you reading at the moment?

Gertner: I tend to alternate between nonfiction and fiction, and like a lot of writers I have about 10 books on my nightstand right now. I'm interested in climate change, so I've been reading several books about Greenland's glaciers. I'm also reading two new books on innovation—The Architecture of Innovation (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012) by Josh Lerner, and Innovation Economics (Yale University Press, 2012) by Robert Atkinson and Stephen Ezell. And I just finished two wonderful novels, Wolf Hall (Picador, 2010) by Hilary Mantel, and Let the Great World Spin (Random House, 2009) by Colum McCann.


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Scitation: Questions and answers with Jon Gertner