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Long before Silicon Valley, some of the twentieth century’s most influential technologies originated in New Jersey. Transistors, radars, lasers and solar cells are among the innovations to come out of Bell Telephone Laboratories during the decades between 1925 and 1984. Bell Labs also produced 13 Nobel Prize winners, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu. A new book titled “The Idea Factory,” examines the people and conditions that made Bell Labs a hotbed of innovation. Author Jon Gertner of the New York Times and Fast Company Magazines joins Diane to discuss whether a similar factory of innovation is possible today.
- John Gertner Writer, New York Times magazine, editor, Fast Company magazine.
Long before Silicon Valley, Bell Labs in New Jersey attracted the best and brightest thinkers. Some of the 20th century’s most influential technologies, including transistors, radar, lasers and solar cells started there. A new book examines the people and conditions that made Bell Labs a hot bed of innovation in the 20th century. The title of the book is, “The Idea Factory.”
The Beginning of Bell Labs
Bell Labs opened in 1925, set up as the research and development laboratory of the phone company. At the time, AT&T was a monopoly. Fostering creativity, according to Gertner, was something management was very good at. Interestingly, at the time, Bell didn’t have any competition, but Gertner believes it was “this sort of unbelievable place that just had this string of innovations that really changed the world.”
The Transistor: One Of The Big Inventions
One big invention that came out of Bell’s golden age was the transistor, which replaced the vacuum tube. The transistor really paved the way for the miniaturization of electronics, Gertner said. “They used such little amounts of power that it kind of changes the whole configuration of what electronic devices could be,” he said.
The Effects Of The Depression
The Depression ended up helping Bell Labs, Gertner said. At first, phone subscription dropped dramatically, but then they started to pick up in the mid-1930s. This allowed the lab’s director, Mervin Kelly, to hire people, and to pay well. He was able to hire some of the best and brightest people available, which led to some of the great work and innovations that came out of the lab.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Long before Silicon Valley Bell Labs in New Jersey attracted the best and brightest thinkers. Some of the 20th century's most influential technologies, including transistors, radar, lasers and solar cells started there. A new book examines the people and conditions that made Bell Labs a hot bed of innovation in the 20th century. The title of the book is, "The Idea Factory." Author Jon Gertner of The New York Times and Wired magazine joins me in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMWe invite you to participate, as well. Give us a call on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, Jon.
MR. JON GERTNERGood morning, Diane.
REHMYou know, I have the feeling that people hearing the words, the idea factory, would immediately think of Silicon Valley. You actually grew up fairly near Bell Labs.
GERTNERThat's right. I grew up really just a few hundred yards away. I guess you could say it was maybe one reason why I wrote the book, but really I had been working as a journalist for a number of years, writing a lot about technology and innovation. And Bell Labs was something -- I knew about its mystique. I knew about its achievements and it was something that in some ways had been forgotten.
GERTNERYou know, we talk so much about Apple and Google and Facebook and all these, you know, tremendous technology companies of today, but what underlies a lot of that technology really goes back to these laboratories in New Jersey and to these groups of men and women who worked there in the'40s and the '50s and the '60s. And if you pry open your iPhone or iPad, you find the DNA of Bell Labs.
REHMHow did they come together in the first place?
GERTNERBell Labs began in 1925. It was set up as the research and development laboratory of the phone company. This was AT&T when it was a monopoly. It was different than the AT&T of today. AT&T controlled a manufacturing company called Western Electric. And Bell Labs' role was to provide research and development ideas to make the products for the phone monopoly which controlled somewhere between 80 to 90 percent of the phone service in the United States.
GERTNERBell Labs wasn't just one big glob of people housed together. It had departments. About 15 percent of the people working at Bell Labs worked in research. These were mostly PhDs. They were physicists, chemists, metallurgists. They were expanding, were trying to find new knowledge or to think far, far ahead to the future of communications and what it could be in 10 or 20 or even 30 years. The larger group of people at Bell Labs worked in development. And these were mostly engineers. And they were thinking about how to put new, I guess you could say, incremental innovations into the phone and data systems that connected us all.
GERTNERSo they were thinking on a shorter time scale, but it was a very fertile combination with these sort of deep, long thinkers and ability to think long term. And then at the same time, a very real kind of day-to-day understanding of the needs of the communication systems and what kind of devices, for instance, could be easily manufacturable.
REHMAnd, of course, they could all talk with one another.
GERTNERYeah, fostering creativity was something the management there was very, very good at. I write a lot in the book about one particular person named Mervin Kelly who was perhaps, I guess you could say, the one who is most responsible, in some ways, for the culture of creativity there. He was a research director there for many years. And then he eventually became president and chairman of Bell Labs. But he was very keen on creating interdisciplinary exchanges and fostering this exchange of ideas.
GERTNERI think, you know, in some ways today there's something I sometimes think of as a kind of competition myth that we believe innovation comes from private companies competing in the marketplace. And there are a lot of innovations and amazing consumer products that come out of that, but the contradiction of Bell Labs was that it was part of a monopoly. So it didn't have any competition and yet, it was this sort of unbelievable creative place that just had this string of innovations that really changed the world.
REHMGive us some of the examples.
GERTNERI had mentioned that Bell Labs began in 1925, but it really took off after the war. There was a lot of technology that was created for World War II and a lot of funding. And in some ways that was leverage right after the war. And the great age of Bell Labs, the golden age, began in 1947, I think, and the invention of the transistor. We know the word transistor. Why does transistor matter? Transistors replaced vacuum tubes which are now a technology that's kind of in the dustbin of history.
REHMDescribe those vacuum tubes for us. I remember those.
GERTNEROkay. Well, right. Anybody who worked in radio certainly knew them and knew the value of them. Vacuum tubes could be amplifiers or switches. They looked in some ways like incandescent light bulbs, old-style light bulbs. They were more complicated than that, but they could both amplify a electronic signal or they could switch it on and off very fast. They had some problems. They were fragile. They gave off a lot of heat. They used tremendous amounts of electricity. And they were fairly large.
GERTNERMervin Kelly, the president of Bell Labs, had spent his whole early career working on vacuum tubes. And he always was looking or hoping that there would be a replacement. And the transistor, what it did when the invention occurred in the late '40s and as it was developed into a real manufacturable and reliable product in the 1950s, replaced vacuum tubes. And why that was important was it kinda allowed for the miniaturization of electronics. They used such little amounts of power that it kind of changed the whole configuration of what electronic devices could be.
GERTNERI mean, I don’t think you could build an iPad or an iPhone out of vacuum tubes.
GERTNERGod, it would probably be the size of a building.
REHMEven the word transistor had to be agreed on. There was a much longer term or terms that finally came to be transistor.
GERTNERThat's right. The guys had invented this transistor. It wasn't called the transistor. It was an amplifier. They called it a solid state amplifier. And it was much tinier. It was a little piece of germanium crystal with some slight impurities in it. And what it could do is could amplify a voice signal by a dramatic amount. So what do we call it? What do they call it? They didn't know. They took a vote and they had a list of names. One was the Iotatron. And a guy in my book who's actually a main character in my book named John Pierce, who was also something of a wordsmith said, you know, maybe we should call it a transistor.
GERTNERAnd transistor was on the ballot. And the ballot was circulated to about, I think, 49 people at Bell Labs.
GERTNERAnd transistor was the clear winner.
REHMTell me, were there women involved?
GERTNERIn those early days, not so much. They worked in the computing department. And what happened actually in the war was that a lot of women were hired. And the war kinda changed the dynamic of Bell Labs and of AT&T to some extent. There's a section in my book, too, where Jews were not allowed so much in Bell Labs. And there was a kind of strain of anti-Semitism in some of the research labs at the time. That changed under Kelly's watch and later still under another person in my book, Bill Baker, when African-Americans were brought into the labs, as well.
GERTNERBut the diversity of Bell Labs increased from the late '40s on, but in those early days, no, it was not a diverse place. These were men.
REHMIt's interesting to me in the first place that AT&T did decide to spin off and invest so heavily in Bell Laboratories in the 1920s. Why?
GERTNERAT&T and its manufacturing company Western Electric had what I guess I could say is a never-ending stream of problems. They were overseeing a phone system that was growing constantly. And what that meant was that traffic was increasing and they constantly had to come up with new ways to increase the traffic capacity for transmission and for switching. So they always had engineering departments to solve these problems. They had mathematicians figuring out how to manage the traffic and circuitry experts and physicists and the like.
GERTNERBut what happened was there was a certain amount of tension between all the different engineering departments in Western Electric and AT&T. And so creating Bell Labs as a sort of stand-alone entity, which was a fairly revolutionary practice. There wasn't really such a big R. and D. lab at the time. GE eventually had a large R. and D. lab. Some of the German pharmaceutical companies in the late 1800s had done this on a much smaller scale. And of course Thomas Edison had two in the early 1900s in the U.S., but this was really taking it to a scale that had never really existed before.
REHMAnd was everyone at AT&T in agreement that this was the way to go?
GERTNERI think they felt it was a necessary endeavor, that it would simplify the process. That it would also be a great boon to the phone companies reputation. In its later years Ma Bell was had this great marketing campaign as, you know, reach out and touch someone or, you know, it was seen as a benevolent company. That was not at all the case in the early days. They called it the Bell octopus. It was a ruthless company. And when it fought its competition it did so with dirty tricks. Having the world's greatest industrial laboratory gave it some very, very good PR.
REHMAnd when we come back, we'll talk about why the telephone business was exempted from federal antitrust laws. Short break here. We'll take your calls soon. Please join us. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMWelcome back. And here in the studio, Jon Gertner. He's a reporter/writer for the New York Times magazine and editor at Fast Company magazine. He's written a new book called "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation." We were talking just before the break about Ma Bell, the fact that AT&T did decide to spin off and invest heavily in Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1920s. So the question becomes, why was the telephone business exempted from federal antitrust laws and what advantages that gave them?
GERTNERIf you go back to the teens and even before that to the early part of the 1900s, Theodore Vail who was the president and chairman of AT&T at the time would argue to congress that the telephone service was a natural monopoly, that it required such intricate engineering that it would work far better for the United States and the population if it were controlled by one entity.
GERTNEROne entity. Now there were a tremendous number of independent phone companies and there was endless squabbling. And AT&T was by no means without blame. They were just as aggressive and contentious as these other phone companies. So what eventually came down was there was a consent to create -- they were allowed to operate, I guess you could say, just to the edge of what the antitrust laws would allow.
REHMWhat does that mean, just to the edge?
GERTNERGood question. It meant that they controlled almost all of the phone service in the United States. They did not control all of it. There were still some independent phone companies that were allowed to exist and even continue to exist throughout the '50s, '60s and '70s. AT&T was required to carry their phone transmissions on its long distance lines. But in turn what AT&T got was permission to control all of long distance telephone service in the United States. They owned either part or whole of somewhere between either 22 or 23 local operating companies. These were, you know, Pacific Bell, New York Bell, the local...
GERTNERAnd then of course they owned this huge manufacturing company Western Electric and Bell Labs itself. So what you had was -- the term was it was a completely vertically integrated company. Ideas in research and engineering began at Bell Labs and moved up a step to Western Electric where those ideas were made into things, phones, switches, wires, everything that was required to create a nationwide telephone service. And then it was implemented by AT&T.
GERTNERI think that one advantage that AT&T -- and I'm certainly not defending their monopoly, but what they would maintain and what they did maintain very strenuously later on when the breakup became imminent was that they created a sort of leveling that they could provide phone service in rural areas where it was not at all economical because they could also provide phone service in urban areas where it was very easy to do. And then rather than pass on the high cost to rural Americans, they could sort of level the costs. And therefore they could give everybody phone service because they could average those costs.
REHMWhat about the depression and how that played into how this company functioned?
GERTNERIt did great things for Bell Labs oddly enough eventually. In the early days of the depression phone subscription dropped dramatically. And what would happen is if AT&T was having a tough time Bell Labs was too because the revenues of AT&T directly affected the budgets of its great laboratory Bell Labs. And in the early 1930s there was a hire increase at Bell Labs.
GERTNERBut phone subscriptions started to pick up in the middle of the 1930s and it enabled Mervin Kelly, who was then the research director of Bell Labs, to hire some people. And he had a great advantage in that he could hire people when almost no one else could. And he could also pay them a much better salary than some of the best universities. And the people he ended up hiring in the late 1930s, who in some ways have formed the core of my book, were really the best and brightest. And they weren't necessarily from elite families. A lot of times these guys were from nowheres-ville.
GERTNERIn the book I say they're, you know, towns -- small towns, intersections of nowhere and nowhere. They were the sons of farmers sometimes or small town lawyers. They sometimes were identified by local school teachers who would tutor them on their own, sometimes on the side of the room, sometimes after school in the hope that they could get them to a local college.
GERTNERAnd a lot of them would go to a local college and then they would move on to a more prestigious graduate school like MIT or Caltech or University of Chicago. And their names would quietly be passed along to people like Kelly at Bell Labs. And that's how they eventually ended up there.
REHMMervin Kelly is certainly one of the really important characters in your book. But another I wanted to ask you about who seems a little more complicated in terms of his behavior within Bell Labs is William Bradford Shockley. Talk about him.
GERTNERShockley grew up in Palo Alto. He was educated at Caltech and then MIT. Kelly hired him at the labs in the late 1930s. And what Shockley became was at the time they called it solid state physics. Now it's sometimes called condensed matter physics. By the late 1940s, he was the greatest solid state physicist in the world. And he was put in charge in 1945 as sort of a co-leader of this group that eventually discovered the transistor.
GERTNERHe was, many people said, the fastest mind they'd ever met. I interviewed one fellow, Phil Anderson, who won a Nobel Prize and said, he was the quickest mind I've ever known. A lot of other people concurred with that opinion. He could be incredibly aggressive. He could be bullying to other physicists. He had ways of solving problems that would astound some of his coworkers. He would find a kind of trapdoor sometimes, a backwards way to solve a problem.
GERTNERAfter the transistor was invented, actually by two of the people working underneath Shockley, he had a kind of emotional reaction. He was very seriously jealous actually. And it sparked in him a kind of competitiveness that led him to another iteration of the transistor. The first transistor invented was called the point contact transistor. And within a year Shockley came up with a new variation, perhaps driven by envy, called the junction transistor. And it's probably one of the great inventions driven, you know, sparked by envy.
REHMDidn't he have some time away from Bell Labs and then sort of felt as though he had wanted to be more involved in the creation of that transistor?
GERTNERThat's right. There's a story of him, you know, taking a train to Chicago and on New Year's Eve sitting alone in this hotel room and started madly scribbling some of these ideas for this device, the junction transistor, that eventually he developed a bit more over the following month. In those years after this work was done Shockley's life became ever more complicated. He stayed at the labs and in an increasingly frustrated position he was not a good manager. As bright as he was, he just could not manage people.
GERTNERHe eventually decided, okay I'm going to go to Silicon Valley, which was certainly not called Silicon Valley at the time. He returned to Palo Alto to the town of his childhood. And with the help of the dean at Stanford he set up a fledgling company called Shockley Semiconductor. He hired the best physicists and engineers he could find. And he was the first semiconductor -- the first silicon in Silicon Valley occurred because of Bill Shockley's company.
GERTNERAnd the people he hired, as poor a manager as Shockley was he was an extraordinary, I guess, impresario of talent. He hired Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce who eventually set up Fairchild Semiconductor and the Intel Corporation and really, I guess, jumpstarted what became the transistor and integrated circuit revolution.
REHMBut not your warm sweet fuzzy kinda guy.
GERTNERNo. And if I've already described chapter one and two of Bill Shockley's life there was chapter three, which becomes ever darker when Shockley became increasingly enamored by the ideas of eugenics and how race affects intelligence. And, in fact, the last years of his life were really spent in a kind of disgrace as he tried to get fellow colleagues, fellow scientists to believe in his...
REHM...to go along with him.
REHMBut he shared in that Nobel Prize.
GERTNERHe did. It was a bit controversial to some people that Shockley didn't actually invent the first transistor. Scientists and engineers sometimes discuss whether he was worthy of the citation of being included. The two people, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain who invented that first transistor worked under Shockley, and yet his name was on the citation, too.
GERTNERFrankly, I think he was very deserving. It was his ideas that gave rise to a lot of this work. He supervised it, not always closely. Sometimes he was distracted. And yet his junction transistor was a great improvement on that first transistor as well. He was the face of solid state physics at Bell Labs.
REHMInteresting. We've got lots of callers with some experience with Bell Labs through their own relatives. First, to Jan in Rochester, N.Y. Good morning.
JANGood morning. It's very fascinating, Jon. You have brought so many memories back to mind, I can't even number them.
JANMy dad worked for the Bell Labs for 48-and-a-half years, my husband for nine-and-a-half and I for several. My dad was a high school graduate, very good in physics and math. And his mother wanted to make sure he got a good job and a neighbor advised her to send him to Western Electric. This was in, oh, 1917, to '18. And he went to Western Electric and eventually, as you have recalled just in your conversation about Western Electric turning into AT&T Bell Labs.
JANAnd my dad was sent to what was then called Kelly College. M.J. Kelly was a fascinating character as you have detailed. And he decided that these kids could do better than just technical assistance. And so he had classes for them for I think two or three years.
JANAnd then it was recommended that my dad either go to the University of Illinois or Purdue where all the engineers were coming from. And he couldn't do that. He was the oldest of six. His father was deceased. But he stayed there and actually worked early on in the putting of sound with film so that we would have talking movies and did some presentations with fellow engineers. He became a member of technical staff, which is the highest rating or was then, let me put it that way, and worked there until he retired.
JANHe worked on the answering machine.
JANIn World War II, he was at Whippany.
GERTNERThat was where a lot of the military work was done.
JANA lot of military secret where -- my grandmother said to him one day, what were those gentlemen who came in their dark suits that wanted to know all about you?
REHMOh gosh, Jan. You've got lots of great memories to look back on with your father's history. And that sort of rings true in terms of how Bell and Western Electric and Bell brought these people along. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." That actually happened to a lot of people.
GERTNERYeah, and the book focuses on some of the great minds of PhDs. But, I mean, it was really an A to Z place. There was every kind of person, every kind of work being done, you know, again, people who were investigating the deeper nature of the sciences. But sometimes it was just technical assistants who were doing incredibly valuable work. And...
REHMBut, you know, what I got from her call was just how talented these high school kids were. No college degree, but the ability and the interest in learning. And that's what came along here.
GERTNERThat's right. And it could nurture people. I think that, you know, that came out in my interviews again and again that a person without the pedigree of a fine school could come there and both, you know, go back to school through the company or could get a very specialized education in engineering or, you know, telephone maintenance or technology.
REHMAnd here's another. Good morning, Janet. Pronounce the name of your city in Florida.
JANETAlachua. It's near Gainesville.
REHMOh, good. Okay. Go right ahead.
JANETGreat show. I can't wait to buy this book.
JANETMy dad was an employee of the telephone company in Delaware. He started there shortly before World War II and after the war went right back there after his four years in the Signal Corp. He wanted to be a pilot. However, they said, no, you've worked for the phone company. You're going into the Signal Corp. And he went right back to the phone company after the war. And he was recruited by Bell Labs in 1955.
JANETAnd we stayed in Delaware and my dad was sent up to Bell Labs and he worked there for a year or two working on computer applications. And I can remember as a very small child going up and visiting him up there and how very beautiful the campus was up there. Was it East Orange it was in?
GERTNERThere were a few campuses actually. When we talk about Bell Labs there were actually a couple different buildings. It could've been Murray Hill which was in Berkley Heights. It could've been in Whippany. There were also a couple places down near the shore.
REHMBut how old would you have been when you went to visit him? Were families with them?
JANETI was five. And I can remember that the campus was in hills.
REHMBut what does that say about Bell separating families, Jon?
GERTNEROne story that was told to me a few times was that there was a lab down in Homedale where families would always go on the weekends. You know, there weren't a lot of stories of bring your family to work day but it was a pretty open company in that sense.
REHMBut when she says I went to visit him, it sounds as though her home was not particularly nearby so one wonders about that. Well, we have to take a short break here. We'll take more calls when we come back. Join us. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMWelcome back. We'll go right to the phones as we continue our discussion with Jon Gertner on his new book "The Idea Factor: Bell Labs and The Great Age of American Innovation." Let's go to Norfolk, Mass. Good morning, Steven, you're on the air.
STEVENThank you very much, Diane. Enjoying the program.
STEVENI was a student reporter, actually news director, at the Dartmouth College radio station, back in the early '70s. And the National Science Foundation had their annual meeting on campus that year. And Shockley, I believe was a fellow of the organization and therefore had the right to speak to the organization and he could speak on any topic he wanted. And they were dismayed that he wanted to speak about eugenics. And, of course, it was the time of the black power movement, we had a very active Afro-American society and they were up in arms about his speaking to the group.
STEVENI got a chance to interview him at the radio station prior to the meeting. And one of the questions I asked him was why, if you're expertise is in the area of solid state electronics, are you interested in this area? And he told me that he had read about a murder that a black youth had committed. And that that individual was found to have a very low IQ and therefore he felt that he should investigate to find out whether this was something that was common to African-Americans. And so it was his indignation over a crime that caused this. And I told him, you know, you may feel this is a legitimate area of study, but don't you think this is going to fuel the prejudice of people who are not as smart as you are?
STEVENAnd he said, well, maybe they wouldn't be so wrong. So it was very clear that his motivation was not scientific inquiry. And he did finally get up to speak because the university President, John Kemeny, who was a great scientist himself as that, you know, this is a university and we should honor free speech. The Afro-American society let him get up to speak. but when they introduced him, they got up to applaud and they wouldn’t stop clapping, so that he couldn't speak.
REHMOh, my goodness.
STEVENAnd he never did give an address.
GERTNERYeah, you know, there were different explanations given by Shockley as well as other people who knew him as to why he went down this path. And even early on, I interview people who had noted that, even in the early 1950s he would ask fellow scientists to take IQ tests and sort of these creativity tests that he had done in conjunction with a local psychologist. He was trying to find out the relationship between intelligence and IQ and creativity and scientific achievement.
GERTNEROver time, that perhaps his more pointed interested in race. I think that, you know, he's a very good example of somebody who's incredible accomplished in one area and yet we might pause to sort of accept the ability to speak expertly in any other area such as creativity and intelligence and certainly his ideas on race were just, you know, so outlandish and often met with protests, as you say, all over the country, really, where ever he went.
REHMSteven, thanks for calling. To Moses Lake, Wa. Good morning, Don.
DONOh, good morning, Diane. We're enjoying your program.
DONMy dad. whose name was Chester Calbick, he worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories and hired in 1925, after graduation from Washington State College. And his first job there was to work with a gentleman named C.J. Davis (sic) . And they worked on electron diffraction. And as a result, my dad was part of the team. In fact, it was him and C.J. Davis who invented the television picture tube and in the book, which I have, I'm looking at "A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System." There's a picture of my dad on the back cover.
DONAnd it covers the Bell Labs from 1925 until 1975. He first worked at Bell Labs in New York City and then when they built the lab out at Murray Hill. He transferred out there and he became an electron microscopis (sp?) with the physics, right. And grew up as a Bell Labs baby and I didn't go over there too often, but I remember once, when I was 14, and I was studying for my ham radio license and I went over there.
DONAnd we were walking down a hallway and this gentleman in one of the offices -- I can't remember, it was Joe Becker or Walter Brattain, he says hey Chet, come in here, I gotta show you something. And he had this little tiny thing hooked up to a scope. And he says, here, look at this signal going in. It's this big. And, of course, I knew as a 14-year-old, reading for a ham radio, I says, yeah, this is an amplifier. And here was a little sine wave going in. It was this high and it was big and it was coming out the other side and it was amplifying and my mouth dropped.
REHMI'll bet it did. Don, I'm glad you shared that memory with us. Thanks for calling. And then Paul, in Texas, wants to ask about Claude Shannon. And the Shannon Theorem on information capacity.
REHMNo. Go ahead.
GERTNEROh, can I talk about it now?
GERTNEROh, I'm happy to.
GERTNERClaude Shannon's, I guess, I could say a main character in the book, not everything that was done at Bell Labs had to do with solid state physics by any means. Shannon was a mathematician who was fascinated, also, by machines. And in the late '30s at MIT, he laid the ground work for starting to think about information, not as waves. The previous caller had mentioned sine waves. But, maybe, as digits, that information was, as he later said, a kind of quantity like mass or energy. And throughout the '40s, at Bell Labs, he was working on information systems. During the war he became an expert in cryptography and coding.
GERTNERShannon kept his door closed a lot. He was kind of a model of a lone genius which was fairly unusual at Bell Labs. It was a very collaborative place. And Shannon was different, his colleagues held him in awe and then suddenly in 1948, he published with the Bell Labs and the Bell Telephone Technical Journal a long treatise called Communications Theory that eventually became known more informally as Information Theory. It was long, it's very, very complex. Perhaps the most important things to come out of it was to think of information all as the same, that it can all be expressed digitally, that in some ways a phone call, a television signal, any kind of conversation are essentially information.
GERTNERThat they're not distinct kinds of things and that they can all be expressed in code. The other part of that was, he figured out how quickly and how well you could send a signal, any kind of information signal. And he gave Bell engineers a road map for sort of understanding how much information a channel or a transmission channel could carry. And he did one other thing in this incredibly acclaimed theory.
GERTNERAnd that was, he gave something called -- he suggested that there was something that could be used called Air Correcting Codes, that you could essentially send any transmission, almost error free, as long as you included kind of extra bits of information too. And that's formed the basis, in some ways, for CDs and DVDs and that's why you can scratch up a DVD. It has extra bits of information that correct the errors.
REHMHere a number of our listeners have sent in emails similar to this. This is from Marilyn who says, when I was an early 1960s grade schooler, I was thrilled by the Bell educational films featuring Dr. Baxter, shown during assemblies. Please comment on them.
GERTNERI watched a lot of those too when I was researching the book. They're great. I just want to mention, I think, that they did, in the late '50s I believe, the first film I've ever seen on CO2 and the atmosphere and what it could do for influencing climate. So in some ways, these are ahead of their time but they were also just such a great way to kind of make the work at Bell Labs and science in general accessible to a general audience. They were terrific.
REHMMore fun and in terms of science and what it could accomplish.
REHMOkay. Let's go now to South Bend, Ind. Good morning, Rich.
RICHHi, good morning.
RICHI work for Western Electric and, well as a division of AT&T in the late '80s, early '90s. And the amount of technical phonics that were coming out at that time was incredible. I was doing a fiber optic upgrade project and in a nine-month period, I had three different versions of fiber optic equipment installing in this one particular building. And in that series, they came out the 1.7 gigabit per second signal rate and wave division multiplexing where you put two different signals across one single fiber.
RICHAnd I'm actually a computer network designer now and that technology is finally made it into the public sphere for information systems. And I talk to people about, you know, what you can do with wave vision multiplexing your fiber network and going gigabit signals. And they say, wow, that's pretty neat. You know, it's the latest and greatest. And I say no, well, that's actually 1988 technology, but it's just finally made it to you.
GERTNERYou know, it's interesting. You could never really buy a Bell Labs technology at the store. They weren't making consumer products. They were making things like the ones you just described. And sometimes they took years to kind of infiltrate our common everyday technologies. But they were really what made these technologies work. But again, they were deep inside and they were, I guess, you could call platform innovations, that's a term I use in the book. They were innovations that sort of sound like what they are, you built a platform of other technologies on top of them as well. In some ways, there's a platform of jobs and industries on those, too.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." When did Ma Bell break up and what effect did that have on this kind of thinking, process, innovation?
GERTNERMa Bell, officially the divestiture as they called it, the split up of the phone company occurred in the early 1980s. Bell Labs had a, kind of, long complicated evolution afterward, as did the phone company itself. Right now, Bell Labs still exists. It's part of a telecommunications company called Alcatel-Lucent which is a big multi-national company. It plans for the future of Alcatel-Lucent. The old Bell Labs plan for the future of human communications, it was a much, much broader mission and a much grander organization. The models for innovation have changed dramatically.
GERTNERIt's not a matter of better or worse, but as we all know, to a large extent, it's shifted to Silicon Valley and outside of Boston to the Route 128 area. Also, in a since, in corporations increasingly, very much so, fund almost not basic research or even have difficulty funding applied research. Things that Bell Labs did a tremendous amount of. And for today, I think, for a company, it's very hard to capture the value of science experiments. We live in a world where companies have to create shareholder value. They have to justify their expenditures in some ways.
GERTNERSo for now, that basic in applied research is done more at universities, at national laboratories. The United States government funds a tremendous about of R & D. I think something to the tune of about $145 billion a year. A lot of that's done for the Defense Department. But other parts of that go to the Department of Energy and Light. And so now, whereas in the old days, Bell Labs, a lot of that research would move over to development, all under one roof so to speak, it's more distributed model. Where research is done in other places and then transferred over to private sector companies who then develop it and use it in products.
REHMNow, considering Shannon's -- sorry, Shockley's wide range of interests, didn't he and another physicist come close to building a nuclear reactor?
GERTNERYeah. In the early part of the war the President at Bell Labs had asked Mervin Kelly, who was then the research director, to find out -- to answer some questions about Uranium that were percolating in the elite circles of science in Washington and whether you could create a nuclear reaction. And Kelly, in turn, assigned it to two of his brightest people, William Shockley and Jim Fisk who's also a character in the book. And said, you know, is this possible? And they spent, I think, you know, a few weeks or even a few months on the problem, stopped doing their Bell Labs work, just to answer this question for the science mandarins in Washington.
GERTNERAnd Shockley, I think, was taking a shower one day and it came to him, that, yes, this was possible. With ordinary Uranium, you couldn't create a nuclear explosion, that might require a separate kind of purified uranium. But you could create something that we now think of as a nuclear pile for nuclear power.
REHMJon Gertner, his new book is titled "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and The Great Age of American Innovation." Really interesting, thank you so much.
GERTNERThank you so much too, this was great.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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