Older generations talk about
Bell Labs in terms so reverential that younger generations may be forgiven for their disbelief that technology innovation could occur under such perfectly agreeable conditions.
Those older folks may talk about the singular personalities -- Mervin Kelly, Claude Shannon, and John R. Pierce, among others -- who forged the future we now call the present with the power of their unbeatable ideas, their unselfish teamwork, and the collegial nature of their organization. It sounds like such a simple, wonderful process.
To the younger folks, innovation is often a sloppy process wrought more by failure than unbeatable ideas and rife with personal challenge, professional conflict, and greedy power moves. It's a process that is anything but simple.
The finest accomplishment of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Age of American Innovation, the rich chronicle of Bell Labs' history by Jon Gertner that came out this year, is that it shows us the past wasn't so perfect. Mistakes were made. Engineers butted heads. Innovators almost always had their eyes as much on the corporate bottom line as on their ideas, and there was always pressure to deliver something "better or cheaper, or both," as Kelly, the eventual president of Bell Labs, put it.
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â€” Dan O'Shea, Communications Writer, Innovation Generation