Diary of a Financier

Bookshelf update: The Idea Factory (Bell Labs)

In Bookshelf on Mon 25 Jan 2016 at 10:52

Three takeaways from John Gertner’s The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, as embodied by the following excerpts…


1. Intellectual property (#IP):

Freshmen joining Bell Labs “were asked to sell the rights to all of their future patents… to benefit Bell Labs and phone subscribers. None of the young men refused, and in exchange for their signatures, each was given a crisp $1 bill.”

2. Collaborative documentation as the original wiki:

Bell Labs’ system of documentation strikes me as the predecessor to the modern wiki — a hyper-meritocratic way of collaboratively crowdsourcing innovation…

“Every new member of the technical staff was given a stock of hardcover lab notebooks… [for recording] results or ideas that one thought were potentially valuable were witnessed and signed by another engineer for documentation of the timing of the idea…

“No erasers. Lines for mistakes, initialed by who drew the lines. Also, the notebooks were issued with registered numbers that were matched to each scientist… There was to be no confusion about who did what. The notebooks were proof for gaining a patent.”

3. Data fungibility:

Bell Labs’ John Pierce & Claude Shannon separately came to the realization that digital transmission made all media & data fungible…

“It is clear that more and more, the Bell system will be concerned with sending digital signals, both to enable machines to talk to one and other, and to enable people to hear distant sounds or to see distant scenes.”
–John Pierce (1956)

“All electronic exchanges — letters, calls, data, television — [are] likely to merge… communication is a general function… once you have the transmission facilities available, they can be used for everything interchangeably.”
–John Pierce (from an interview w Walter Cronkite, hattip to his contemporary & coworker Claude Shannon)




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