Bell Labs Wasn't Perfect

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.

To continue reading, see the full story at InnovationGeneration.com.

— Dan O'Shea, Communications Writer, Innovation Generation

Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 5:17:04 PM
re: Bell Labs Wasn't Perfect

I have to agree I've never heard much about the "better or cheaper" aspect.  Interesting to know such things were emphasized at Bell Labs.

Were they present at all at Xerox PARC? Or was it really the research playground that people make it out to be?

AESerm 12/5/2012 | 5:17:02 PM
re: Bell Labs Wasn't Perfect

Compelling title. But beyond the clash of individuals within Bell Labs and mistakes at that level, was Bell Labs itself a mistake? Yes, I've met brilliant engineers who worked there and understand the nostalgia. But a very large research organization of a telecom monopoly sounds so ... so mid-20th Century. If I read this book, I'd be keen to keep track of the number of innovations described that made it outside of those sacred halls and into the market before de-regulation and the competition that followed. 

techspin 12/5/2012 | 5:17:02 PM
re: Bell Labs Wasn't Perfect

As a alumni of Bell Labs and a witness to the acqusition by Alcatel I can tell you the institution was a mere shell of itself in 2006. The echoes of greatness past in all of its empty halls in Indian Hill and Holmdel.  A pity.

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