Touring The Idea Factory….or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bell Labs

A Special Guest Post from Ben Gross, Research Fellow, Center for Contemporary History and Policy, at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (Thanks Ben!)

First off, I would like to thank Dan and the other members of the AmericanScience community for offering a forum to discuss a subject near and dear to my heart: the history of corporate science. Specifically, I would like to take a moment to reflect upon the significance of this place:

Bell Labs, courtesy of Wikipedia

Behold, Bell Labs! Located in Murray Hill, New Jersey, during the quarter century after World War II, this facility rose above all others to become synonymous with American innovation. Although a relative newcomer compared to research organizations at General Electric or Du Pont, the technologies developed within its walls—most notably, the transistor—prompted Fortune magazine to identify it in 1958 as “the world’s greatest industrial laboratory.” Further achievements over the coming decades, such as the launch of the first commercial telecommunications satellite (Happy 50th birthday, Telstar!) and pioneering work on solar panels, lasers, charge-coupled devices, and mobile telephony reinforced the Labs’ reputation.

Indeed, by almost every measure—the size of its technical staff, the number of patents it generated, total Nobel Prizes won—Bell Labs eclipsed all rivals. Industrialists and policymakers scrutinized the work underway at Murray Hill, eager to replicate its scientific and commercial accomplishments. Corporations like Allied Chemical and Standard Oil, attributing Bell Labs’ success to its campus-like atmosphere, went so far as to construct their own research centers in suburban New Jersey. These firms, and many others, also broadened their investments in fundamental research, due to shifts in Cold War funding policies formulated in consultation with Bell research managers like Mervin Kelly and William Baker.

Given this prominence, it is unsurprising that Bell Labs has secured a central position in the historiography of corporate science. Leonard Reich’s comparative analysis of G.E. and Bell, for example, was among the first books challenging historians to treat research conducted in for-profit settings on equal terms with academic laboratories. Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life echoes Reich’s argument and cites the behavior of Bell Labs’ managers both to call attention to the artificiality of the sociological distinction between not-for-profit and industrial science and to promote increased discussion of the latter. (Though as Will Thomas recently observed, the scope and objectives of such a research agenda remains a matter for debate among scholars like David Edgerton and Philip Mirowski.) Whether compiling surveys of 20th century “big science” or focused case studies of the constituent technologies of the digital age, a mention of Bell Labs is almost inevitable.

Which is why my immediate reaction to the news that journalist Jon Gertner had published another volume on the subject was a combination of curiosity and frustration. For although I am always pleased to see the history of industrial science receive greater public attention, I worried that this new book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, would merely rehash the earlier literature and reinforce the notion that Bell Labs was the be-all and end-all of corporate R&D. “Thank goodness,” I joked. “Bell Labs hasn’t received enough attention over the years. Finally, someonewill take a  momentto recount the originsof the transistor!”

Sarcasm aside, I was excited to read Gertner’s account, particularly after learning he would be dropping by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), where I am currently working as a postdoctoral researcher, for a public conversation with fellow electronics historian David Brock. The event was held last Wednesday and on the whole I was pleasantly surprised, both with the book and Gertner’s willingness to acknowledge the challenges associated with compressing nearly a century of complex scientific and political history into a relatively brief 350 pages.

The sheer scale of the Bell Labs organization forced Gertner to confront a question familiar to historians of collaborative research: how to winnow down an otherwise overwhelming array of actors into a coherent cast of characters. In the CHF discussion, Gertner acknowledged that his initial approach utilized technologies as an organizing framework (one chapter on the transistor, one on satellites, etc.), but that he ultimately discarded that scheme to concentrate on a handful of key figures ranging from managers like Kelly and Baker to scientists like William Shockley and Claude Shannon. While his choice of actors was not arbitrary—nearly all self-identified as members of a prominent group of researchers nicknamed the “Young Turks”—Gertner’s final chapter hints at a persistent tension between “the individual versus the institution.” (358) To what extent, he asks, can the efforts of a select handful shed light on the dynamic realities of the corporate research enterprise? Gertner never provides a decisive answer, either in his book or his CHF visit, preferring to concentrate on his chosen few while occasionally gesturing towards the otherwise unrecognized masses of technicians and development engineers working behind the scenes.

Similarly, while Gertner sometimes called attention to the fact that Bell Labs was not the only industrial research laboratory exploring solid-state phenomena, he was less interested in highlighting interactions between Murray Hill and other firms. Indeed, Bell Labs scientists in Gertner’s account might as well have been working in a bubble, isolated from counterparts at GE, IBM, RCA, and other companies sharing an interest in electronically active materials. Situating Bell Labs as one research center among many, however, would have strengthened his case that its accomplishments were only possible due to its unique status as the research arm of a government-sponsored monopoly. So long as AT&T retained its position as the sole caretaker of America’s telephone network, it could pursue a wide range of research projects without worrying about time pressures associated with competition. Once the government forced AT&T to divest of its local affiliates, the so-called Baby Bells, in 1984, the Labs found itself under the gun as money was diverted towards short-term projects. Having never needed to worry about market research in the past made the successful commercialization of such work all the more challenging.

Gertner’s success in driving home the point that Bell Labs was the exception rather than the rule so far as industrial research was concerned is, I believe, his most lasting contribution to the historiography of corporate science. One could see hints of this in the questions following his CHF talk, where several audience members asked him to speculate about what would have happened if AT&T had retained its monopoly beyond the 1980s. Rather than delve too deeply into the counterfactual, Gertner responded by noting the contrasting attitudes of Bell Labs personnel and modern venture capitalists concerning competition. While contemporary firms tend to frame competition as a driver of innovation, Bell Labs provides a powerful counterexample, suggesting that the absence of rival firms can facilitate the maturation of technological projects that might otherwise be canceled due to concerns with short-term profit margins.

Regardless of the merits of either position, Gertner emphasized that the economic and legal frameworks associated with Bell Labs’ successes were historically contingent. One could not simply transplant their research model to another firm or industry and recreate the atmosphere of Murray Hill. This willingness to treat Bell Labs not as some idealized endpoint that other research organizations failed to reach but as the beneficiary of a unique set of economic and legal circumstances, is the most compelling aspect of Gertner’s book. It is certainly enough to differentiate it from the vast majority of writing on the subject and persuade even the most jaded historian of corporate science to give Bell Labs another look.


5 thoughts on “Touring The Idea Factory….or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bell Labs

  1. Dan

    Ben: this is fascinating. Thanks for contributing. I appreciate the opportunity to hear about Gertner's choice to abandon the technology as an organizing device in favor of individuals. (And I love Claude Shannon!) But I also appreciate the central tension you identify in many industrial histories: how to balance the larger institutional story against the work of individuals. Inevitably we use individuals to tell our stories (they're more interesting), but it's crucial to remember how much individuals are shaped by their institutions.

    It occurs to me that I really need to join some self-identified club—the X club, Metaphysical Club, Young Turks…They're all so cool.


  2. Dan

    …would be on the same level as this blog…

    But let's not get side-tracked from Ben's great questions. Was it the man or the institution that built Theseus, the maze-solving robot mouse? I do not recall where I read it, but I think Shannon and his colleagues spent many an afternoon racing mechanical mice through mazes while betting on the results. Now that's an institutional culture!


  3. Hank

    Hear, hear. So, here's what interesting to me:

    It seems like you can tell a racing-mechanical-mice-through-mazes-while-betting-on-the-results story as part of an argument (1) that institutions (or “institutional culture”) drive innovation, (2) that particular individuals (who create said culture) drive it, *or* (3) that isn't about “what drives innovation” at all.

    Which is to say: human/institution, agency/structure questions only have to get answered if you ask them, and lots of books don't – they either ask other questions, or just tell a good story.

    Ben, here's a question: how do we square the cultural similarities between Bell Labs and more recent SV firms (Google, Facebook), which more or less consciously imitate the climate of BL with a rhetoric of “insulating” creative (at least in part) from the demands of short term profits?

    Has BL's fun basic-research culture actually been “incorporated” into the system from which it was formerly insulated? If so, is it still seen as important to pretend like it's all fun and games, or is there now a way of squaring profit-speak and just-for-fun-research-speak within the firm?


  4. Ben


    From where I sit, the discrepancy you mention is a consequence of the very large shadow that Bell Labs and the linear model have cast upon the discourse of American innovation. Firms like Google and Facebook may frame themselves as modern day Murray Hills. (Google, Gertner notes, has gone so far as to reinstate the old Bell Labs tradition of encouraging workers to devote up to 20% of their time to undirected research.) But none of them is in a position where it can, for all intents and purposes, ignore the pressures of an ever expanding, increasingly globalized market. The only way to survive in such an environment is to recruit the smartest people on the block, and the most effective means of accomplishing that task is to present oneself as, to borrow a phrase from Mervin Kelly, “an institute of creative technology.” While executives may therefore shudder at the prospect of sponsoring fundamental research to the same degree as Bell Labs, they can take comfort in the fact that adopting aspects of that model will benefit their company, either directly (i.e. through the creation of a new technology) or indirectly (i.e. through the cultivation of a highly trained workforce).



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s