Why was Bell Labs so important to innovation and creativity in the 20th century? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.
Bell Labs was hugely important to innovation in the 20th century. If you can imagine a freak merger of Facebook, Apple, and Google, you’d have some sense of its impact in its day. Bell Labs scientists were responsible for the transistor, the solar battery cell, the fax machine, touch-tone dialing, the early communications satellite, improvements to radar and sonar, and much more—not to mention the six Nobel Prizes Bell Labs scientists won along the way. And not to mention Claude Shannon’s information theory, which laid the intellectual foundations of the internet.
The success of Bell Labs was a combination of resources, concentrated talent, and a powerful workplace culture. Let’s go down the list:
Bell Labs had a tremendous amount of money to plow into basic, long-term, no-immediate-payoff research. That’s because it was a subsidiary of AT&T, which benefited from a government-guaranteed telephone monopoly.
That meant Bell Labs could support Claude Shannon as he conducted years of research into the nature of information, with no immediate commercial payoff. Or it could support the likes of Clinton “Davy” Davisson, who won the Nobel for proving that electrons moved in a wave pattern, knowledge he gleaned by smashing a piece of crystalline nickel with electrons.
Given the uniqueness of its circumstances, Bell Labs may not have much to tell us about building a wealthy company. But it has a great deal to tell us about managing abundance—about putting resources to far-sighted and transformative use.
Rather than letting its org chart dictate its hiring practices—as in, “We’d love to hire you, but you don’t have the particular skills we need right now”—Bell Labs prioritized hiring talent, period, even when it wasn’t immediately clear where in the organization that talent would fit. This was especially true for Bell Labs’ mathematics group under the leadership of Thornton C. Fry. As Fry explained to a mathematically-inclined interviewer, “Mathematicians are queer people. You are and I am. That’s a fact. So that anybody who was queer enough that you didn’t know what to do with him, you said, ‘This fellow is a mathematician. Let’s have him transferred over to Fry.’”
Rather than jettisoning those employees whose fit with the company was not immediately apparent (or failing to hire them in the first place), the Labs found valuable work for them as in-house consultants. Under Fry’s leadership, mathematicians were free to pick their own internal “clients,” working with the Labs’ engineers, physicists, or chemists as they saw fit.
This gave the group a broad mandate, flexible even within the famously loose culture of Bell Labs. As one researcher from that era put it, “Our job was to stick our nose into everybody’s business.” Shannon himself did his groundbreaking work as a member of the math group. As he recalled, the group “was kind of free-wheeling and not so oriented on projects as people trying to do individual research as fast as they could… I enjoyed it more that way, where I was working on my own projects.”
That sort of freedom allowed the Labs to stockpile talent, and to exploit inefficiencies in the hiring market. Few organizations outside of academia were hiring top-level math minds; Bell Labs’ loose structure allowed it to tap into a talent pool for which it had few private-sector rivals.
Bell Labs managed to strike a precarious balance between the open-plan, so-noisy-I-can’t-think workspace, and the hierarchical world of hermetically-sealed departments and permanently closed doors.
Its culture of collaboration was strengthened by the way the Labs made room for games and diversions, in an anticipation of Silicon Valley’s ubiquitous foosball tables. Chessboards were a frequent site in the cafeteria, and for the more mechanically-inclined, there were robot face-offs. Shannon himself was known for juggling while riding a unicycle down the office corridors.
At the same time, there was little compulsory about this culture. Some of the most creative people are introverts, and the Labs were an introvert-friendly space. Shannon reported that he faced little stigma for habitually keeping his office door closed.
Just as fundamentally, the Labs’ culture prioritized long-term thinking. One Bell employee of a later era summarized it like this: “When I first came there was the philosophy: look, what you’re doing might not be important for ten years or twenty years, but that’s fine, we’ll be there then.”
That was the spirit that gave Bell Labs researchers the time and space to develop the transistor, that gave Shannon the freedom to spend years working out the puzzles of information theory, and that gave the Labs’ leadership the authority to invest in projects even more tangentially related to telephones.
We’re not the first writers to lament the ways in which corporate short-termism ultimately costs all of us, depriving us of transformative innovations whose benefits might not be evident by the next quarter. But suffice it to say that if Bell Labs had been hostage to that same short-termism, I might not be writing this article on a laptop, and you might not be reading it on the internet.
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