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The Idea Factory

Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

This book can be downloaded and read in Apple Books on your Mac or iOS device.


From its beginnings in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s, Bell Labs-officially, the research and development wing of AT&T-was the biggest, and arguably the best, laboratory for new ideas in the world. From the transistor to the laser, from digital communications to cellular telephony, it's hard to find an aspect of modern life that hasn't been touched by Bell Labs. In The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner traces the origins of some of the twentieth century's most important inventions and delivers a riveting and heretofore untold chapter of American history. At its heart this is a story about the life and work of a small group of brilliant and eccentric men-Mervin Kelly, Bill Shockley, Claude Shannon, John Pierce, and Bill Baker-who spent their careers at Bell Labs. Today, when the drive to invent has become a mantra, Bell Labs offers us a way to enrich our understanding of the challenges and solutions to technological innovation. Here, after all, was where the foundational ideas on the management of innovation were born.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Feb 20, 2012 – New York Times Magazine writer Gertner provides a view of American research and development that will take engineers, scientists, and managers back to the golden age of invention in the U.S. "To consider what occurred at Bell to consider the possibilities of what large human organizations might accomplish." Tracing the lives of key contributors including Bill Shockley, John Pierce, Claude Shannon, and Mervin Kelley Gertner provides a compelling history that moves quickly through an era that provided many of the advancements of modern life. From Bell Labs personnel working for AT&T as well as the government during wartime came an astonishing array of technology, from the telephone (which originally didn't have a ringer), to radar, synthetic rubber, and the laser. According to Pierce, the Bell Labs environment nurtured creativity by simply allowing scientists and engineers the time and money to research; its management was able to "think long-term toward the revolutionary, and to simultaneously think near-term toward manufacturing." Readers will glimpse the inner workings of the famed scientists, particularly Shannon, who "frequently went down the halls juggling or pogoing" and occasionally doing both. Gertner follows these odd and brilliant thinkers to the end of Bell Labs in the 1980s and to their own ends, providing readers with insight into management, creativity, and engineering that remain applicable today. Scientists, tinkerers, managers, and HR professionals will find plenty of inspiration here.

Customer Reviews


Anyone who is interested in this subject, or was lucky enough to be involved in any of the later parts of the history of Bell Labs will find this chronicle of the lab and its major characters a delightful and fascinating read. People who like books recommended by Oprah, not so much.

Ever wonder how IT all started?

Well researched, well written. Story flows and gives a great peek into a world that will likely never exist again in corporate America. Also a great look back at the birth of modern electronics.

Surprisingly Enthralling Book

To be honest, I at first expected a kind of dull corporate brag fest.
But to my surprised delight, this book was smoothly written, incredibly well-research and a total pleasure to read.

The reality is that the history of Bell Labs (and AT&T) traces the history of 20th century America. Jon Gertner brilliantly ties the personalities to exciting technical developments and explains it all so anyone can understand.

Yet he maintains an objectivity of the organization and its challenges that reflect so well on his journalist credentials. Bottom line, not many corporate history books have grabbing power, but I could hardly put this one down.

The Idea Factory
View in iTunes
  • $14.99
  • Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.
  • Category: Business & Personal Finance
  • Published: Mar 15, 2012
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Print Length: 432 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: This book can only be viewed on an iOS device with Apple Books on iOS 12 or later, iBooks 1.5 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

Customer Ratings