Reading: The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner

I am currently reading “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” by Jon Gertner.

I’m only about a quarter of the way through the book but it has already covered the founding of Bell Labs, the invention and development of the transistor,  and now I’m at the part of the book where the mathematical section takes over and from the theorists there such as Claude Shannon, Harry Nyquist, and a host of others develop theories such as Information Theory (Shannon).

What I like most about the book is that you learn about the men behind the names. For example, Claude Shannon after delivering his profound Information Theory (ObNote: My B.Sc is in Information Science) he began getting into game theory. He was a guy who rode a unicyle, or even a pogo stick through the halls of Bell Labs. A guy who after fifteen years left Bell and went to work at MIT as effectively their Professor Kronotis. He was a character, no doubt. But his work in Information Theory and Game Theory are heavily in use today. The communication networks we use depend on the former, while the routers and pieces of the net connection owe a lot to the latter.

The book is easy to read, in non technical jargon. But the brilliance of the players, and their foibles are amusing.

For example, John Bardeen, one of the co-inventors of the transistor, was a man who was very quiet, until you got some beer into him. He was so quiet that when he actually spoke, everyone went quiet because it was likely to be profundity that he issued forth. He was the one who figured out how to overcome the  surface states as the obstacle to effectively using a silicon or germanium microscopic  slab to amplify a signal.

Like I said, I’ve read a lot on the Bell System from their internal documentation and books to external treatises. But this book is the best analysis of the people behind the greatest innovations foisted by the Bell System.

You can buy the dead tree version for $17.61 or the Kindle version for $14.99.  I do note the dead tree version dropped from $29.99. This is one I might get both versions.

3 thoughts on “Reading: The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner

  1. I have only got to page 48 and have many problems with this book, but then I am only a retired Bell Labs MTS who started at Murray Hill on July 1, 1957.

    I clearly remember getting the one dollar bill and a group lecture from M J Kelly that only one in three new hires would last three (or was it five) years in the Bell Labs environment unless we continued to “learn.”

    I find that there a many technical statements that are in misleading or presented out of context.

    The reason for this post is that when I got to the comment about the speed of the telephone dial, I know that the dial and associated switch were created by a funeral home director to climate the telephone operator who was sending all of the calls to the other funeral home in some small town where everb0dy knew the switchboard operator by her first name

    1. Yes, I know about Strowger. What Bell was good at were basic science and iprovement of the existing state. Vacuum tubes for example, they took the from only lasting a little over a month to lasting nearly a decade.

      Bell just understood the benefit of regulated monopoly better than anyone else.

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