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Published: May 29, 2012
 / Summer 2012 / Issue 67

 
 

An R&D Valhalla

The most vivid illustration of the Bell Labs culture came when Shockley, who was then managing the two men who first conceived of the transistor, closeted himself for a few days to advance their work. His contribution was undeniably invaluable, and Shockley was included in the group that won a Nobel Prize. But within the laboratory, his act was seen as a cardinal transgression. His Bell Labs colleagues were appalled: A director should not muscle in on his subordinates’ breakthrough. The betrayal poisoned Shockley’s status at the company.

Gertner is clearly enamored of Bell Labs, but also understands that its existence was the by-product of a Faustian bargain. The funds that enabled it to pay scientists to do the basic research were literally monopoly money. To stave off regulation, AT&T felt compelled to widely publish its findings and share its breakthroughs in the marketplace. Even a critic like Tim Wu, whose book The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Knopf, 2010) cites the original AT&T as an archetypal monopolistic predator, concedes, “Bell Labs has been a great force for good…just the kind of phenomenon that makes one [sanguine] about the blessings of a monopoly.” But unlike Wu, Gertner seems inclined to gloss over the darker side of AT&T’s market power, and instead writes about the company’s breakup with a wistful sense of disapproval.

Gertner’s account of Bell Labs is far from comprehensive. For instance, he devotes only a couple of sentences to the Bell Labs team that invented Unix, the revolutionary computer operating system that dominates today’s technology world. But generally, he is informative, clear, and convincing as he makes the case for Bell Labs’ relevance today, in both its product legacy and style of innovation.

He also doesn’t shrink from its missteps. Oddly, the one time that Bell Labs focused on creating an actual product, as opposed to theorizing and testing a technology that yielded profound effects over a period of decades, was the Picture-phone. Unveiled with hosannas at the 1964 World’s Fair and released in 1969, the Picturephone was a hobbyhorse among company leaders. They predicted it would remake geography and “solve many social problems” (sounds a lot like the early gushing about the Internet). But by 1972, a lab director would admit “attempts to introduce it…have hardly been howling successes.”

In that sense, at least, Bell Labs was just like Xerox PARC: better at inventing stuff than selling it.

Author Profile:

  • Steven Levy is senior writer at Wired and author of In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives (Simon & Schuster, 2011), which was chosen by s+b as one of 2011’s best business books.

 

 
 
 
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