Bell Labs created the things that ushered in the 20th century - the transistor, the first communications satellites, digital communications, the first cellular telephone systems and the basis for digital photography, the charge-coupled device.
It gave Silicon Valley its name.
But what made Bell Labs? Writing in the New York Times, Jon Gertner, author of the forthcoming book "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation," lists the physical proximity of its investigators, a range of talent from diverse fields of expertise, and an emphasis on making things. It understood that unmoored from the physical world, abstractions can take us anywhere - or nowhere.
For IdeaFestival fans, it will sound quite familiar. If you read the blog you'll know that diversity in ideas, backgrounds and beliefs are regularly praised. Why? Because difference makes a difference. And given my own rather intense interiority - it's a polite way of saying I can go straight days at a time without talking - I appreciate time spent living in the question. So I was glad to see this concluding paragraph from Gertner, who suggests that worthwhile innovation, innovation that matters, doesn't simply target the next great consumer technology. It takes the long view.
But to consider the legacy of Bell Labs is to see that we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps. It also shows us that to always 'move fast and break things,' as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue 'a gospel of speed' (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.