“INNOVATION is what America has always been about,” President Obama remarked in his recent State of the Union address. It’s hard to disagree, isn’t it? We live in a world dominated by innovative American companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook. And even in the face of a recession, Silicon Valley’s relentless entrepreneurs have continued to churn out start-up companies with outsize, world-changing ambitions. Multimedia
Bell Labs: A Hive of Invention
But we idealize America’s present culture of innovation too much. In fact, our trailblazing digital firms may not be the hothouse environments for creativity we might think. I find myself arriving at these doubts after spending five years looking at the innovative process at Bell Labs, the onetime research and development organization of the country’s formerly monopolistic telephone company, AT&T.
Why study Bell Labs? It offers a number of lessons about how our country’s technology companies — and our country’s longstanding innovative edge — actually came about. Yet Bell Labs also presents a more encompassing and ambitious approach to innovation than what prevails today. Its staff worked on the incremental improvements necessary for a complex national communications network while simultaneously thinking far ahead, toward the most revolutionary inventions imaginable.
Indeed, in the search for innovative models to address seemingly intractable problems like climate change, we would do well to consider Bell Labs’ example — an effort that rivals the Apollo program and the Manhattan Project in size, scope and expense. Its mission, and its great triumph, was to connect all of us, and all of our new machines, together.
In his recent letter to potential shareholders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg noted that one of his firm’s mottoes was “move fast and break things.” Bell Labs’ might just as well have been “move deliberately and build things.” This sounds like the quaint pursuit of men who carried around slide rules and went to bed by 10 o’clock. But it was not.
Consider what Bell Labs achieved. For a long stretch of the 20th century, it was the most innovative scientific organization in the world. On any list of its inventions, the most notable is probably the transistor, invented in 1947, which is now the building block of all digital products and contemporary life. These tiny devices can accomplish a multitude of tasks. The most basic is the amplification of an electric signal. But with small bursts of electricity, transistors can be switched on and off, and effectively be made to represent a “bit” of information, which is digitally expressed as a 1 or 0. Billions of transistors now reside on the chips that power our phones and computers.
Bell Labs produced a startling array of other innovations, too. The silicon solar cell, the precursor of all solar-powered devices, was invented there. Two of its researchers were awarded the first patent for a laser, and colleagues built a host of early prototypes. (Every DVD player has a laser, about the size of a grain of rice, akin to the kind invented at Bell Labs.)
Bell Labs created and developed the first communications satellites; the theory and development of digital communications; and the first cellular telephone systems. What’s known as the charge-coupled device, or CCD, was created there and now forms the basis for digital photography.
Bell Labs also built the first fiber optic cable systems and subsequently created inventions to enable gigabytes of data to zip around the globe. It was no slouch in programming, either. Its computer scientists developed Unix and C, which form the basis for today’s most essential operating systems and computer languages.
And these are just a few of the practical technologies. Some Bell Labs researchers composed papers that significantly extended the boundaries of physics, chemistry, astronomy and mathematics. Other Bell Labs engineers focused on creating...
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