The Idea Factory provides a historical account of the innovations at Bell Labs and then goes a step further, attempting to discern Lab’s unique ability to effect that innovation.
Bell Labs emerged and grew under the leadership of Mervin Kelly who did his graduate work under Robert Milikin, the forefather of Caltech. During this time Bell Labs was coddled by the strong foundations of AT&T’s monopoly. Bell Labs had a clear directive from AT&T: to improve the pervasiveness, capability, and reliability of AT&T’s communication networks. It’s this focusing directive combined with AT&T’s hands-off management and a surplus of cash that resulted in Bell Lab’s golden age. During this golden age the researchers at Bell Labs laid the ground work for the modern information age. They reduced the cost of vacuums tubes by an order of magnitude, giving researchers and military applicators the ability to build some of the first (albeit sizable) computers. Claude Shannon coined the “Bit” and conceived of Information Theory, the theoretical foundation for how digital equipment could communicate reliably. John Bardeen and Walter Brattain would invent the modern transistor, the first “solid-state” logic switch. William Shockley would go on to improve the invention before taking the invention to modern-day Silicon Valley, cratering a company, from which the human effuse would go onto create some of the most consequential companies of the early information age. Bell Labs would continue to build the first communications satellite, invent the laser, perfect fiber-optic communication, and even write the UNIX operating system.
The uniqueness of Bell Labs was of course sparked by the ingenious managers and scientists who did all of the work. But the importance of Bell Labs was cemented by AT&T’s desire to gain political favor and give away as many of the Labs inventions as broadly as possible for the Public Benefit.
The appeal of working at a Bell Labs is clear. The Idea Factory. Plenty of funding on the back of a business model that is, by definition, non-competative. The directive to Bell Labs was broad enough to encompass all of the modern information age, yet practical enough to give employees and managers a measuring-stick by which they could gauge a project’s practicability. Every invention, patent, and thought that was worth its weight was published and publicized. This combination of money, focus, and openness created such a perfect place to invent the future.
Modern day tech companies have many of these components, but it’s the latitude to give away every idea that many technology companies miss. Open Source projects gets at this concept of spreading ideas widely, but these projects miss on the funding side.
There are some microcosms today in which all three of these ingredients do exist. Apple’s mobile tech stack is one in which there is plenty of money being made and incentives are aligned in such a way where Apple benefits from giving away foundational technology. Amazon AWS is another example in which Amazon shareholders financially benefit from Amazon building an AWS service out of everything.
Perhaps there might be a way to tie open source to a sustaining financial mechanism to create a modern and distributed Bell Labs. Or perhaps those in-person water-cooler conversations are part of the magic, and we’ll need to look at concentrated centers of technical power to invent today’s future.