March 7, 2014
For approximately 60 years, Bell Telephone Laboratories served as the research and development wing of AT&T, the country’s then-monopolistic phone company. The Labs research breakthroughs were both numerous and legendary: transistors, silicon cells, laser theory, information theory, communication satellites, undersea cables, UNIX and many others. The Labs was not only a purveyor of ideas, but boasted an immense development staff that worked closely with the phone company's manufacturing facilities. This talk will trace Bell Labs' evolution, from an R&D "startup" in 1925 to its dominant role as an incubator of new technologies in the post-World War II period. In the process, the talk will examine some of the dominant forces (human and scientific) that shaped Bell Labs' ascendancy. As example, it will recount the internal details behind two of the Labs' most noteworthy accomplishments—the transistor and the silicon solar cell. Finally, the lecture will consider a host of deeper questions for discussion: What can we learn from the Labs' innovative process? What lessons from its past might still apply to R&D work being done today? What forces led to the Labs' decline and fall?
Jon Gertner is an editor and writer whose stories on business, science, and technology have appeared in a host of national magazines and have been widely anthologized. Between 2004 and 2011 he worked as a writer for the New York Times Magazine; he is currently editor-at-large at Fast Company magazine, where he writes and edits feature stories about innovation and technology. The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, published by Penguin Press in February 2013, is his first book. A graduate of Cornell, Jon grew up in Berkeley Heights, NJ, not far from the site of the Bell Labs' Murray Hill complex. He now lives with his wife and children in Maplewood, New Jersey.