The world’s most creative scientific body: Bell Laboratories


The magic of the world’s most creative scientific body was in bringing thinkers and doers together – and giving them time
by Jon Gertner,  Feb 29, 2012
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. But we idealise 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 organisation of the country’s formerly monopolistic telephone company, AT&T.
For a long stretch in the 20th century, it was the most innovative scientific organisation in the world. How can we explain how one relatively small group of scientists and engineers, working over a relatively short span of time, came out with such an astonishing cluster of new technologies and ideas? They invented the future, which is what we now happen to call the present. And it was not by chance or serendipity. They knew something. But what?


At Bell Labs, the man most responsible for the culture of creativity was Mervin Kelly. Born in rural Missouri to a working-class family and then educated as a physicist at the University of Chicago, he went on to join the research corps at AT&T. Between 1925 and 1959, Mr Kelly was employed at Bell Labs, rising from researcher to chairman of the board.

His fundamental belief was that an “institute of creative technology” like his own needed a “critical mass” of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing.

Like an able concert hall conductor, he sought a harmony, and sometimes a tension, between scientific disciplines; between researchers and developers; and between soloists and groups.

One element of his approach was architectural. He personally helped design a building in Murray Hill, New Jersey, opened in 1941, where everyone would interact with one another.

Some of the hallways in the building were designed to be so long that to look down their length was to see the end disappear at a vanishing point. Travelling the hall’s length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions and ideas was almost impossible. A physicist on his way to lunch in the cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings.

Another element of the approach was aspirational. Bell Labs was sometimes caricatured as an ivory tower. But it is more aptly described as an ivory tower with a factory downstairs. It was clear to the researchers and engineers there that the ultimate aim of their organisation was to transform new knowledge into new things.

Dr Steven Chu won a Nobel Prize in 1997 for his work at Bell Labs in the early 1980s. He once said that working in an environment of applied science like Bell Labs “doesn’t destroy a kernel of genius, it focuses the mind”. At Bell Labs, even for researchers in pursuit of pure scientific understanding, it was obvious that their work could be used.

Still another method Mr Kelly used to push ahead was organisational. He set up Bell Labs’ satellite facilities in the phone company’s manufacturing plants, so as to help transfer all these new ideas into things. But the exchange was supposed to go both ways, with the engineers learning from the plant workers, too.

As manufacturing has increasingly moved out of the United States in the past half century, it has likewise taken with it a whole ecosystem of industrial knowledge. But in the past, this knowledge tended to push Bell Labs towards new innovations.

Mr Kelly believed that freedom was crucial, especially in research. Some of his scientists had so much autonomy that he was mostly unaware of their progress until years after he authorised their work.

When he set up the team of researchers to work on what became the transistor, for instance, more than two years passed before the invention occurred. Afterward, when he set up another team to handle the invention’s mass manufacture, he dropped the assignment into the lap of an engineer and instructed him to come up with a plan. He told the engineer he was going to Europe in the meantime.

In sum, he trusted people to create. And he trusted them to help one another create. To him, having at Bell Labs a number of scientific exemplars – “the guy who wrote the book”, as these standouts were often called, because they had in fact written the definitive book on a subject – was necessary. But so was putting them into the everyday mix. In an era before cubicles, all employees at Bell Labs were instructed to work with their doors open.

Saddled with a difficult problem, a new hire there, an anxious nobody, was regularly directed by a supervisor toward the guy who wrote the book. Some young employees would quake when they were told to ask a question of famous mathematicians like Claude Shannon or legendary physicists like William Shockley. Still, Bell Labs’ policy was not to turn them away.

There was another element necessary to Mr Kelly’s innovation strategy, an element as crucial, or more crucial even, than all the others. Mr Kelly talked fast and walked fast; he ran up and down staircases. But he gave his researchers not only freedom but also time.

Lots of time – years to pursue what they felt was essential. One might see this as impossible in today’s faster, more competitive world. Or one might contend it is irrelevant because Bell Labs (unlike today’s technology companies) had the luxury of serving a parent organisation that had a large and dependable income ensured by its monopoly status. Nobody had to meet benchmarks to help with quarterly earnings; nobody had to rush a product to market before the competition did.

But what should our pursuit of innovation actually accomplish? By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job (as Mr Kelly once put it) “better, or cheaper, or both”.

Regrettably, we now use the term to describe almost anything. It can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.

The conflation of these different kinds of innovations seems to be leading us towards a belief that small groups of profit-seeking entrepreneurs turning out innovative consumer products are as effective as our innovative forebears. History does not support this belief.

The teams at Bell Labs that invented the laser, transistor and solar cell were not seeking profits. They were seeking understanding. Yet in the process they created not only new products but entirely new – and lucrative – industries.

There’s no single best way to innovate. Silicon Valley’s methods have benefited our country well over the course of several decades. And it would be absurd to return to an era of big monopolies.

Today’s telecom industries are thriving, and customers likewise have access to a dazzling range of affordable devices and services, which most likely would not have been true had the old phone company remained intact. Though it had custody of the world’s most innovative labs, AT&T introduced new products and services slowly, and rarely cheaply. As Time magazine once put it, “Few companies are more conservative; none are more creative.”

But to consider the legacy of Bell Labs is to see that we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps. It also shows us that to always “move fast and break things”, as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going.

Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.

Jon Gertner is the author of the forthcoming The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. This is an excerpt of a longer commentary.


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