The Idea Factory: Industry, Monopoly, and Creativity

11:01 AM

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg.

There is something fascinating about old buildings, especially big, industrial style buildings. "Old," as a word, is rather vague, in this sense, occasionally something quite distinct from the chronological. Seeing old factories, like the remnants of the Studebaker factory in South Bend, hint at bygone days of industry. I have wanted to understand these buildings, and the people who once inhabited them. Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation is a marvelous introduction to the people and spirit and place of Bell Labs. It breathes with more than nostalgia for this earlier era.

Published in 2012, The Idea Factory tells the history of Bell Labs from the 1920s through the 1980s, in which the invention of the transistor revolutionized the world of technology. Created in 1925 by AT&T scientists at Bell Labs have won more Nobel Prizes than any laboratory in history, boasting seven in Physics and one in Chemistry. According to Gertner, part of the genius of the place was that business housed both pure and applied research, combining science and engineering. Unique conditions brought that about, specifically Bell's monopoly in communications and its commitment to quality in the materials and products used in its business. Also, the leadership of the labs understood a difference in managing "ideas" rather than people.

The author, Jon Gertner, is an editor-at-large at Fast Company magazine, a magazine built on the premise that a well-run company can change the world.

Today, no parallel place exists, but the book begs the question if we might see something new in our day. Since the break up of Ma Bell and the decline of Bell Labs, universities and government laboratories tend to do the more pure research. Nonetheless, as the privatization of the space race, perhaps we will see some new incarnation of corporate research, albeit with different outcomes and in a very different climate. One can only hope that amid the concerns of climate change and other difficulties that beset us, we will have creative persons of science who will open new frontiers and apply the learning in practical ways. that will transform our lives and our planet.

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