The Idea Factory

Nobody who writes about the history of computing can ignore Bell Labs, that astonishing institution in New Jersey that created so much of the technology we nowadays take for granted. An interesting essay in the NYT has brought it back into focus for me because I’m fascinated by the problem of how to manage creative people in such a way that their creativity is liberated, not stifled, by the organisation that funds them. (Many years ago I co-authored a paper on the subject with Bob Taylor — the guy who funded the ARPAnet and later ran the Computer Systems Lab at Xerox PARC during the time when its researchers invented most of the computing technology we use today. The title of our essay was “Zen and the Art of Research Management” and it was published in December 2003 in a volume of essays dedicated to Roger Needham.)

The NYT article is by Jon Gertner, who is the author of a forthcoming book on Bell Labs entitled The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. It’s on my wish list.

At Bell Labs, the man most responsible for the culture of creativity was Mervin Kelly. Probably Mr. Kelly’s name does not ring a bell. Born in rural Missouri to a working-class family and then educated as a physicist at the University of Chicago, he went on to join the research corps at AT&T. Between 1925 and 1959, Mr. Kelly was employed at Bell Labs, rising from researcher to chairman of the board. In 1950, he traveled around Europe, delivering a presentation that explained to audiences how his laboratory worked.

His fundamental belief was that an “institute of creative technology” like his own needed a “critical mass” of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing. Like an able concert hall conductor, he sought a harmony, and sometimes a tension, between scientific disciplines; between researchers and developers; and between soloists and groups.

ONE element of his approach was architectural. He personally helped design a building in Murray Hill, N.J., opened in 1941, where everyone would interact with one another. Some of the hallways in the building were designed to be so long that to look down their length was to see the end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling the hall’s length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions and ideas was almost impossible. A physicist on his way to lunch in the cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings…