Jon Gertner's new book on Bell Labs has just been published and a few people have written to ask what I think about it. I haven't read it yet, but am very curious as I was part of that organization from the end of its golden years through its demise. It was a unique and amazing place - a fundamentally different approach to "innovation" than what is common today. It isn't clear to me which approaches are better or worse - the old Bell Labs approach doesn't square with how companies work these days.
The old AT&T was a regulated monopoly divestiture in 1984. A few percent of its income was channeled into running the labs - known as the Bell Telephone Laboratories and, through a series of regulatory consent decrees - funding was incredibly stable and sufficient to insure very long term research and development projects. After a decree in 1956, inventions were licensed under very liberal terms to the rest of the nation and the Labs had become something of a national laboratory.
I won't go into the history of the place and will be interested to see how it is charted in Gertner's book, but the core DNA of the place needs to be explained.
Innovation had a very specific meaning. It didn't mean invention or discovery, but rather was discovery taken through stages of development and finally implemented at a scale that would change society.
The Labs was primarily advanced and applied development with a core basic research arm (area 10 - later renamed area 11 about the time I joined it). Fundamental researchers were presented with an amazing array from curious problems. The notion was not the standard approach of engineering where you attack a problem by tallying your resources and try to build an optimal result, but rather something a bit more zen.
In the research unit you defined and attacked problems by looking for the unknown and then trying to understand as much as your could about it. You had to go deeply into uncharted territory not knowing if your efforts would pay off or if you had the right intellectual tools for the job.
This approach - solving a jigsaw puzzle not by identifying your pieces and putting them together, but rather looking for the missing pieces and trying to solve a puzzle by understanding what was missing - required a multidisciplinary approach. It is close to the approach of physics and basic research had a high percentage of Ph.D. physicists. Really good ones. Their specialties were not as important a their taste in problem solving. I was an experimental particle physicist. Bell Labs never dabbled in particle physics, but that was "the right stuff" and they saw an immediate match.
We worked with computer scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, opticians, chemists, acoustics experts, material scientists, psychologists, neurologists, biologists, musicians and artists to name a few backgrounds. The central laboratory at Murray Hill, New Jersey was built around a five story corridor a quarter mile long with a sometimes maze-like structure of smaller buildings. Going to lunch or visiting someone else's lab would force interaction with others. It was said a researcher going to lunch was like a magnet rolling by iron filings. It was a brilliant architecture and aspects of it have been duplicated elsewhere.1
Some of the projects had very long horizons - digital communications took about four decades and thousands of researchers years of effort. This type of time frame is only seen universities and national laboratories these days and is rarely directly coupled efficiently with commercial development.
But the next step in innovation - and one where the majority of Bell Labs people worked - was development research and engineering. This is enormously difficult to get right. Most of the projects were defined by either Bell Labs management based on needs of the Bell System or by the government for national defense. Many were difficult projects that advanced the state of the art by an order of magnitude and this was something of a model for DARPA, which came about in the 1950s with a clearer focus on military needs.
As the applied research and development proceeded it was productized and turned over to Western Electric - the manufacturing arm. People in the various units spent time with each other. Small branch development labs were built into Western Electric factories and the development folks often worked directly on the lines to understand the problems.
The approach wasn't as clean as I describe it and there were tensions that had to be dealt with, but it was an innovation engine that changed the world. It even paid a lot of attention to education creating everything from science and engineering ciricula to identifying promising students - mentoring them and getting them through their Ph.D.s in the best universities at no expense.
A very different approach than what is used, and perhaps needed, today. The model today has universities and national labs doing the basic work with companies mostly engaged in short term development - real corporate research is not common. Even long term development is rare.2 True corporate research is mostly dead as is an integrated multi-disciplinary approach.
Companies identify the pieces of the puzzle they have and try to build something optimal rather than trying to understand the missing pieces deeply.
As the Labs started to crumble in the late 80s I switched my focus from physics to something more applied - broadband to the home. The problems were how do you do it and why do you do it. The later lead to work in digital music and both led me to the notion that I *really* needed to understand social research. I immersed myself in a human computer interaction department and hopefully helped out a bit with a bit of experimental rigor, very different thinking and a lot of naïve questions that turned out not to be so naïve. I learned a lot in the process, but the efforts of the group were never coupled to the company at that point. We did a lot of neat stuff that is finally beginning to be realized now.
I still try to search for projects that are looking for a bit of deeper understanding when I consult. There are a lot of diamonds on the beach these days - as there probably always are. The approach is rare and I find it odd that I'm sometimes seen as much broader than I see myself. It is really just a bit of curiosity and the luck of having an amazingly rich chance to work in an environment that makes places like Apple and Pixar look lame when it comes to "multi-disciplinary". I think there is great value to bits and pieces of the approach as suspect we'll see more of it as the tech world matures and energy becomes a more pressing issue.
I don't know what picture the book will paint. I was witness to an amazing dinosaur and hope some of the better features of the place can be replicated.
We had a crisp definition of innovation. The physics people had a crisp definition of data and information. I find the physics defnition at odds with common usage and I'll post on that in the near future - I've hinted at it before. Data isn't basic...
Om recently commented on creativity talking about John Maeda of RISD. This caused me to think of some comments from the professor of a graduate physics course I took as an undergrad. The professor was famous for his creativity having been sprinkled with Swedish holy water. Somehow he wanted to get over a few points on being creative - he thought you could inspire it.
from my notebook:
° be curious about anything and everything. expose yourself to different people and ideas
° don’t be frightened to try the unknown. Many solve puzzles by figuring out what they can do with the puzzle pieces they have. A better approach is to figure out the missing pieces and solve a puzzle you don’t know anything about by learning about them.
° remember it must be play
° the delight is not in finding the answer, but in coming to it yourself
° be totally honest
° deeply know everything about your problem
° real creativity simplifies – aim for simplicity as it is beautiful
° get into something so deeply you forget everything else. you need large pieces of uninterrupted time
much more on these later, but back to the old Bell Telephone Laboratories for a bit. When I first started I was delighted to learn that my first director was something of an aurora expert. He was invovled in the Telstar communications project and was involved in the beginnings of creating the field of what is now called space weather. He would have loved this time lapse of the aurora taken from the ISS a few days ago...
1 Pixar uses centrally located washrooms and has a design that reminds me of Murray Hill on a much smaller scale.
2 IBM, Intel and Microsoft do longer term work in the tech sector. Apple has a ten year horizon for some projects, but anything longer than three years is very rare in industry. One of the longer term interests was video telephony. Here is something on developments in color video telephony .... in 1930.