Lessons from Bell Labs

In today’s NYT, we’ve got an important article lauding Bell Labs, with the headline “True Innovation: We should emulate Bell Labs, which took the long view, with a preference for usefulness.” Jon Gertner writes:

…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.

Gertner is the author of the forthcoming “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.”  He goes on to talk about how innovation was structured at Bell Labs, and what we can learn from it.It’s a really good piece. Gertner does a deep dive on issues that I just touched on in my December 2011 paper  “Scale and Innovation in Today’s Economy”. The key is that in their own way, big companies can be just as innovative as small companies, and perhaps more so.  We may need a return to the era of big, systematic innovation.

Comments

  1. It’s a very interesting article, although it’s important to point out that Bell Labs was only made possible in the form in took because it was working for a monopoly that could afford to pour money into basic research from their guaranteed profits. That system was a double-edged sword, as Tim Wu pointed out in The Master Switch; Bell Labs may have created a whole ton of innovations, but its patron blocked many of those innovations from changing its fundamental business for decades.

  2. I’m sure the book will be a great history of Bell Labs, but the premise of this article seems flawed. Big Innovation and small entrepreneurship aren’t at odds, they are complementary and sometimes small leads to big. Google would have been firmly in the small online entrepreneur category in 1998. Should their $100,000 seed have gone to Microsoft instead? Now Google is one of our current-day equivalents of a Bell Labs, carrying on the tradition of giving their researchers wide latitude for blue sky exploration.

  3. No thought as to the counter-factual?

    Maybe there’s MORE innovation happening now.

    • Mike Mandel says:

      No, I don’t believe that. Look at the falling wage for young college grads…they can’t find jobs. That’s not the sign of an innovative economy.

  4. mike shupp says:

    1) Bell Labs invented the transistor — Fairchild and Intel and other places got rich from it.
    2) Bell developed the UNIX operating system — but it took Bill Joy and Linus Thorvalds to move it into factories and businesses and homes, and Bill Gates ate their lunch with other ideas
    3) Bell developed the computer mouse — Steven Jobs made it essential.
    4) Bell was an early researcher in image transmission by electronics — but didn’t develop television

    Which is being a bit cruel, but ought to make the point: what AT&T overlooked or failed to develop is probably as interesting to students of innovation as its successes.

  5. As Mike Shupp points out, Bell didn’t actually benefit much from those innovations, perhaps similar to Xerox PARC, so it’s questionable if they even knew the value of what their researchers were doing. One thing you see over and over again with breakthrough innovation in almost any institution, including Bell Labs, is that the innovator had to sneak the project in because the overseers didn’t want him doing it. Congratulating Bell Labs after the fact because they didn’t outright kill off those projects is obtuse at best. I will agree with you in bashing Silicon Valley though, because that place has just gone off the rails.

    Finally, a big problem with these types of analyses is that they try to look back at what supposedly “worked” and blindly call for more of the same, cargo-cult style, without any reasoning about _why_ it worked and what might have changed since then. While physical proximity might have been a big benefit back then, it’s not very relevant in this age of HD video conferencing from any home computer and now smartphones and tablets. Also, maybe there was some value in physical proximity when you were working on something physical like the first transistor, but we are entering the information age and most of the value from innovation will be in information services over the coming decades, not physical goods anymore.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Mandel rightly recognizes his own work in the agenda of the author, which is to establish a strong link between these fathers [...]

  2. [...] Michael Mandel points to a long New York Times piece in which Jon Gertner argues that, though “there’s no single best way to innovate,” Bell Labs represents a model for “true” innovation: [...]

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