Review: The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner

04 Apr

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

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars for general readers; 4 of 5 for the target audience.

Summary via Penguin’s web site:

Bell Laboratories, which thrived from the 1920s to the 1980s, was the most innovative and productive institution of the twentieth century. Long before America’s brightest scientific minds began migrating west to Silicon Valley, they flocked to this sylvan campus in the New Jersey suburbs built and funded by AT&T. At its peak, Bell Labs employed nearly fifteen thousand people, twelve hundred of whom had PhDs. Thirteen would go on to win Nobel prizes. It was a citadel of science and scholarship as well as a hotbed of creative thinking. It was, in effect, a factory of ideas whose workings have remained largely hidden until now.

New York Times Magazine writer Jon Gertner unveils the unique magic of Bell Labs through the eyes and actions of its scientists. These ingenious, often eccentric men would become revolutionaries, and sometimes legends, whether for inventing radio astronomy in their spare time (and on the company’s dime), riding unicycles through the corridors, or pioneering the principles that propel today’s technology. In these pages, we learn how radar came to be, and lasers, transistors, satellites, mobile phones, and much more.

Even more important, Gertner reveals the forces that set off this explosion of creativity. Bell Labs combined the best aspects of the academic and corporate worlds, hiring the brightest and usually the youngest minds, creating a culture and even an architecture that forced employees in different fields to work together, in virtually complete intellectual freedom, with little pressure to create moneymaking innovations. In Gertner’s portrait, we come to understand why both researchers and business leaders look to Bell Labs as a model and long to incorporate its magic into their own work.

I read this book because Bell Labs has an almost mystical reputation, and I was intrigued by the possibility of learning more about the reality behind the image.

The book did a very good job of describing an almost magical place and time, and almost caused me to mourn the demise of the old monopolistic phone company, which certainly is a large part of the reason so much could happen when and where it did.

I didn’t know much about this era, and liked hearing about the personalities that made the transistor a reality, and that started looking into information science years before anyone else even conceived of the necessity. These men (and they were all men) all looked at the world a little differently than everyone else around them.  There are very few places they would have been allowed the latitude to follow the sometimes esoteric, often far fetched paths they went down.

I appreciated how the book wove the personalities and the science of the discoveries with the business and the politics of the monopoly. For me, the most interesting part was at the end, where Jon Gertner analyzed the conditions that supported such an environment, and speculated on how such a place could happen today, and the aspects that exist in modern companies.

Personally, I was hoping for more of the computer history, more insight into the development of Unix. The book never promised this, and so it’s my own fault I was disappointed in this aspect.  I also was frustrated by the lack of women in the book.  I do realize that is likely a realistic representation of the time, so that’s another personal issue as opposed to a weakness in the writing.

However, even for the areas the book did cover, it never brought it all to life.  The information was presented effectively, but I felt I knew about the men described, but I didn’t know them.  The events never popped off the page or led me into new ways of thinking

I’d recommend The Idea Factory to anyone that is curious about the history of technology, but it isn’t the book I’d suggest to stoke that interest in someone who isn’t already intrigued.  I’m glad I read it, and found it worth the time it took.

I read The Idea Factory as part of a TLC Book Tour.  Thank you for the opportunity to read and review this book.  For other views, check out the tour stops:
TLC Book Tours


Posted by on April 4, 2012 in books, reviews, tour


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5 responses to “Review: The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner

  1. patricia60

    April 4, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    Thanks for the ping about this book.
    I really enjoyed this book, and for very personal reasons because it was about my Father’s era and experience with working with the deaf and the Bell Labs made a big difference in their lives

    But I have been amazed by all the friends who had parents who worked there and family members who did internships there and were delighted with the book and the reviews.

    As a matter of fact, 6 of us are getting together for a mini- book group after everyone has had an opportunity to read it.

    Lack of women – yes indeed, I agree and think it was the very time period problem
    when I posted on facebook an amazing number of folks came out of the wordwork to comment on this one – hope that will happen for you also
    Nice review

    • Laura

      April 12, 2012 at 10:08 am

      Thank you. I suspect if I’d had any personal tie to the people there, I would have loved the book– I just needed some link to it. I hope your discussion goes well!

  2. Howard Sherman

    April 12, 2012 at 9:51 am

    The geek in me is intrigued by this book! I certainly heard of the legendary, almost magical Bell Labs but not this book — until now! I’m debating whether or not to add it to my TBR list because I would be more intrigued by the computer history than anything else.

    • Laura

      April 12, 2012 at 10:06 am

      The book really emphasizes the earlier days, and the innovations that were necessary before the computer revolution could happen. I probably learned more this way, but I’d still love a similar look at the personalities involved in some of the later projects!


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