Book Review: ‘The Idea Factory,’ by Jon Gertner

April 6, 2012  • Walter Isaacson

In 1909, top executives at AT&T decided to commit themselves to a challenge: building a transcontinental phone line that could connect a call between New York and San Francisco. The problem was one that required not just engineering skill but advances in pure science. They needed, among other things, to create a repeater or amplifier for the electric signals so that they would not attenuate after a few miles. Thus was the seed planted for a new collaborative industrial organization — teaming up theoreticians, experimentalists, material scientists, metallurgists, engineers and even telephone pole climbers — that eventually became Bell Labs. Jointly owned by AT&T and its affiliated equipment maker, Western Electric, Bell Labs went on to invent the transistor and make major contributions to the field of lasers and cellular telephony.

Jon Gertner, an editor at Fast Company magazine, has produced a well-­researched history of Bell Labs, filled with colorful characters and inspiring lessons. But more important, “The Idea Factory” explores one of the most critical issues of our time: What causes innovation? Why does it happen, and how might we nurture it? The lesson of Bell Labs is that most feats of sustained innovation cannot and do not occur in an iconic garage or the workshop of an ingenious inventor. They occur when people of diverse talents and mind-sets and expertise are brought together, preferably in close physical proximity where they can have frequent meetings and serendipitous encounters.

Continue reading in The New York Times Sunday Book Review.