Books I've read

The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner

Date read: 2023-09-20. How strongly I recommend it: 7/10

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Recommend for those who want to delve into the history of Bell Labs and how the labs produced numerous innovations. It is packed with many interesting stories about the renowned researchers and inventions. Some of the most fascinating topics include the Transistor, Information Theory, and the works and life of Claude Shannon. This book also sparked my interest in physics and the inner workings of older technologies that we often take for granted. However, it might be too long for those who are just looking to know the process of innovation.

My Notes

#book #history #innovation #business

What must we do to change "possibly" into "probably"?

Basic research is a research that generally has no immediate application to a product or company effort, but seeks fundamental knowledge about the deeper nature of things.

Allocate 10% of the time and resources to basic research. The more foundational it is, the greater its potential for future application. New innovations emerge from connecting these fundamental dots.

Most of the influential lab engineers grew up in small towns. Since their resources and tools were limited, they needed to figure out a way to learn things or solve practical problems by themselves with what was on hand.

Inhabit a problem-rich environment. Good problems led to good inventions, then good inventions likewise would lead to other related inventions.

We usually imagine that invention occurs in a flash, with a eureka moment that leads a lone inventor toward a startling epiphany. In truth, large leaps forward in technology rarely have a precise point of origin. (e.g. Transistor)

Telstar was not one invention but rather a synchronous use of sixteen inventions patented at the Labs over the course of twenty-five years. “None of the inventions was made specifically for space purposes,” - The New York Times.

Science had no true owners, only participants and contributors (a shared reservoir of knowledge). Engineering, however, was different. Engineers dipped into the "common reservoir" of science on behalf of their own industries and countries.

Innovation = invention + market + manufacturing. If you haven’t manufactured the new thing in substantial quantities, you have not innovated; If you haven’t found a market to sell the product, you have not innovated.

Marvin Kelly's rule of innovation: "Better, or cheaper, or both."

It was the individual from which all creative ideas originated, and the group (or the multiple groups) to which the ideas, and eventually the innovation responsibilities, were transferred.

An instigator: a polymath, an idea sparker, who gets people interested in something that hadn't previously occurred to them before.

In the right environment, a group or wise colleague could provoke an individual toward an insight. Some lawyers in the patent department at Bell Labs decided to study whether there was an organizing principle that could explain why certain individuals at the Labs were more productive than others. They discerned only one common thread: Workers with the most patents often shared lunch or breakfast with a Bell Labs electrical engineer named Harry Nyquist. It wasn’t the case that Nyquist gave them specific ideas. Rather, as one scientist recalled, “he drew people out, got them thinking.” More than anything, Nyquist asked good questions.

At the Labs, researchers and engineers would find themselves discussing their respective problems in the halls, over lunch, or they might be paired together on a project. This was sometimes known as going to “the guy who wrote the book.” The guy who wrote the definitive book on a subject — Shockley on semiconductors, John Tukey on statistics, Claude Shannon on information, and so forth — was often just down the hall.

“It’s the interaction between fundamental science and applied science, and the interface between many disciplines, that creates new ideas,” - Herwig Kogelnik.

Great projects often combine elements of exploration, self-expression, and usefulness. (See: Information Theory, Shanon's Chess Machine, and Shanon's Mouse)

“Building devices like chess-playing machines might seem a ridiculous waste of time and money. But I think the history of science has shown that valuable consequences often proliferate from simple curiosity.” - Brock McMillan

“You get paid for the seven and a half hours a day you put in here,” Kelly often told new Bell Labs employees in his speech to them on their first day, “but you get your raises and promotions on what you do in the other sixteen and a half hours.”

The Solar Cell: a huge technical success, but a financial failure. The solar battery could power the remote telephone equipment with ease. But for the power they generated, at $700 per watt, simply cost too much. In 1956, Daryl Chapin figured that it would cost the average homeowner nearly $1.5 million to buy enough Bell solar cells to power his house. (A solution looking for a problem. Later used in Telstar.)

Early invention of video communication: Picturephone. The Picturephone failed because the cost was too high and too few people had it.

When the AT&T market researchers asked Picturephone users whether it was important to see the person they were speaking to during a conversation, a vast majority said it was either “very important” or “important.” Apparently the market researchers never asked users their opinion about whether it was important, or even pleasurable, that the person they were speaking with could see them, too.

Inventions don’t necessarily evolve into the innovations one might at first foresee. Humans all suffered from a terrible habit of shoving new ideas into old paradigms. “Everyone faces the future with their eyes firmly on the past and they don’t see what’s going to happen next” - John Pierce.

Popular technologies spread quickly through society; inevitably, they are duplicated and improved by outsiders. As that happens, the original innovator becomes less and less crucial to the technology itself.

All the innovations returned, ferociously, in the form of competition.

In 1957, Moore and seven other colleagues, later nicknamed the “traitorous eight,” decided to leave Shockley’s company to form their own. Shockley felt that someone within the office was sabotaging the firm’s work. “The final straw,” Moore noted, had been when Shockley asked his entire staff to take polygraph tests. “One of Shockley’s characteristics, was that he didn’t like to be ignored. He didn’t like people to reject his ideas. And that’s really what got him started on this unfortunate path that he ended up on.” - Ian Ross, Shockley's former colleague.

"The history of modernization is in essence a history of scientific and technological progress. Scientific discovery and technological inventions have brought about new civilizations, modern industries, and the rise and fall of nations." - Wen Jiabao

For creativity to flourish, it needs both freedom and structure. Freedom in research was similar to food; it was necessary, but moderation was usually preferable to excess. (Related: Lifelong Kindergarten)

Interesting story behind Information Theory and Claude Shannon's Life: Chapter 7 (The Informationist), Chapter 8 (Man and machine), and Chapter 18 (Afterlives).