The book of this week’s post is a personal favorite, or soon to be, of mine- The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner. In a clear and engaging manner, Gertner aims to give a biography of the Bell Labs, a subsidiary research and development laboratory of AT&T. The history of the lab alone is intriguing. It was founded by none other than Alexander Graham Bell in 1880 and seven Nobel Prizes have been awarded to work stemming from the lab. And talk about innovation! The technologies and hardware that were produced by the reserachers in this lab have forever altered the way we live- and I’m quite sure none of us really know just how much!
Created here and the results enjoyed by us: WLAN (wireless Internet), TDMA and CDMA (wireless phone signal systems), C programming language, then the C++ programming language, the first semiconductors, cross-ocean telephone cables, and so many other techy things that I simply don’t understand. I am always fascinated by these kinds of laboratories or businesses that allow for and encourage creativity and spontaneity in the work of their employees. Previously, I’ve gobbled up every bit of information about Xerox PARC that I could, amazed to learn that so much of the modern computer structure stemmed from engineers sitting on beanbag chairs and eating pizza. (That’s the image they present, at least.)
Curt Schleier, from the Seattle Times, writes about the director of the lab, Mervin Kelly: ”Kelly did a number of interesting things. Obviously, he hired similarly minded young scientists — many, like William Shockley, future Nobel Prize winners. But then he created interdisciplinary teams, something unheard of at the time, so that physicists worked with chemists who worked with engineers.” Such a basic concept that is still underdeveloped today. We have evidence at Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, and Apple/Pixar that integrated teams with different backgrounds and skills can really jump start creativity and innovation. My personal hope is that this kind of thinking makes the move into classroom soon- just think of the ideas that could stem from an entire university blurring the lines between departments and colleges!