Epistemic status: these are notes from a popular account filtered through my own existing beliefs. Here, I am largely trusting the book to report true things and not misrepresent them, though, in fact, I suspect the book is trying to create a certain narrative that might be misleading. If I were to get very serious about Bell Labs, I'd have to look at more source material.

Over the years, I've heard various people reference Bell Labs as a place where a uniquely large amount of intellectual progress was made, making it a worthy target of investigation if you're interested in intellectual progress.

A few days ago, I started reading The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. I'm only 20% of the way through, but I've started to note various factors that might explain their output.

Many of the factors that are salient to me were already in my bag of hypotheses and could just represent confirmation bias on my part. A few were surprising. I suppose I should also look for factors I expected to see but haven't yet (look into the dark).

Note: the most significant invention to come out of Bell Labs was the transistor and a lot of the book has focused on that, but they did other notable things too.

Factors Salient to Me

  • While the work often tended in the direction of basic science that was distant from practical application, by dint of it occurring within AT&T, it was expected that all the research done might somehow benefit AT&T and I sense a degree of backchaining from that in all they did.
  • Ten years before the achievement of the transistor, Mervin Kelly said to William Shockley that they really needed something solid state that could amplify and switch to replace fragile and undurable vacuum tubes and relays. It took a tonne of basic research in solid state physics to get there, but ultimately that was the driving motivation. (Only after its announcement did some folks from MIT write to say it might be applicable to electronic computer circuits.)
  • A lot of the innovation was motivated by concrete problem solving, e.g., needing to figure out better cable insulation and sheathing so they could run underwater cables – that and related projects required a lot of materials innovation.
  • Their work was highly empirical, highly directed, and highly applied. There was a lot of feedback. Often they were trying to build devices that did certain things and I expect it was clear when they were succeeding or not. Often they were just trying to figure how the physical world worked (conductors, insulations, whatever) but this was grounded in the hope the expectation that this understanding would help their engineer more stuff.
  • There was an overarching grand lofty mission: “Our job, essentially, is to devise and develop facilities which will enable two human beings anywhere in the world to talk to each other as clearly as if they were face to face and to do this economically as well as efficiently." It was reminiscent of Theodore Vail’s dictum of “one policy, one system, universal service.” But it likewise suggested that the task at hand was immense.
  • Although they had to figure out many pieces of their more specific paradigms (tools, methods, principles), their overall work was embedded with an established broader paradigm of physics.
  • The researchers noted in the book were typically physics PhDs from top universities who'd been working on related problems in their academic (and were offering recruiting each other because of it). To me, this implies that a) they shared a common paradigm, meaning methods, background assumptions, etc., and b) they entered Bell Labs with a lot of relevant knowledge and experience.
  • At the same time as their academic education, the book paints the researchers as having grounded backgrounds: working on farms and mills. Though I suspect this easily could be spun for a narrative.
  • If the book can be trusted, they had a lot of top talent. Bell Labs was prestigious, it had many people who were known to be good, and it paid well (better than universities).
  • Many, many people's work fed into the invention of the transistor. Shockley, Bardeen, and Brittain might be the names attached to it, but in fact they built upon the work of many others at Bell Labs and were supported by a large staff of specialists who were responsible for all kinds of little discoveries they were necessary along the way.
  • The big discoveries didn't happen that fast. Ten years between the desire for a solid state amplifier and getting there. Not one or two.
  • It was a "destination". Many people would come and visit: chat and lecture with the people there (their building had an auditorium). Very connected to a broader idea ecosystem.

Increasingly, during the late 1920s and early 1930s, ideas arrived in the flesh, too. Some years Karl Darrow would visit California to lecture; some years students in various locations would learn from a physics professor named John Van Vleck, who was permitted to ride the nation’s passenger trains free of charge because he had helped work out the national rail schedules with exacting precision. It also was the case that a scholar from abroad (a 1931 world tour by the German physicist Arnold Sommerfeld, for instance) would bring the new ideas to the students at Caltech or the University of Michigan. Indeed, the Bell Labs experimentalist Walter Brattain, the physicist son of a flour miller, was taking a summer course at Michigan when he heard Sommerfeld talk about atomic structure. Brattain dutifully took notes and brought the ideas back to New York. At West Street, he gave an informal lecture series to his Bell Labs colleagues. 

Every month, as it happened, seemed to bring a new study on physics, chemistry, or metallurgy that was worth spreading around—on the atomic structure of crystals, on ultra-high-frequency radio waves, on films that cover the surface of metals, and so forth. One place to learn about these ideas was the upper floor of the Bell Labs West Street offices, where a large auditorium served as a place for Bell Labs functions and a forum for new ideas. In the 1920s, a one-hour colloquium was set up at 5 p.m. on Mondays so that outside scholars like Robert Millikan and Enrico Fermi or inside scholars like Davisson, Darrow, and Shockley—though only twenty-seven years old at the time—could lecture members of the Bell Labs technical staff on recent scientific developments. (Albert Einstein came to West Street in 1935, but was evidently more interested in touring the microphone shop with Harvey Fletcher than giving a talk.) Another place to learn about the new ideas was the local universities. The Great Depression, as it happened, was a boon for scientific knowledge. Bell Labs had been forced to reduce its employees’ hours, but some of the young staffers, now with extra time on their hands, had signed up for academic courses at Columbia University in uptown Manhattan. Usually the recruits enrolled in a class taught on the Columbia campus by a professor named Isidor Isaac (I. I.) Rabi, who was destined for a Nobel Prize. - Gertner, Jon. The Idea Factory (pp. 42-43). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

  • They were strongly connected to other laboratories working on similar (or the same) problems. Top researchers would spend months touring labs in Europe and then come back and share what they had learned.
  • They had an internal scientific journal: Bell Labs Technical Journal 
  • They had study groups were researchers would together through new material on physics.

And there was, finally, another place on West Street where new ideas could now spread. Attendance was allowed by invitation only. Some of the Labs’ newest arrivals after the Depression had decided to further educate themselves through study groups where they would make their way through scientific textbooks, one chapter a week, and take turns lecturing one another on the newest advances in theoretical and experimental physics. One study group in particular, informally led by William Shockley at the West Street labs, and often joined by Brattain, Fisk, Townes, and Wooldridge, among others, met on Thursday afternoons. The men were interested in a particular branch of physics that would later take on the name “solid-state physics.” It explored the properties of solids (their magnetism and conductivity, for instance) in terms of what happens on their surfaces as well as deep in their atomic structure. And the men were especially interested in the motions of electrons as they travel through the crystalline lattice of metals. “What had happened, I think, is that these young Ph.D.’s were introducing what is essentially an academic concept into this industrial laboratory,” one member of the group, Addison White, would tell the physics historian Lillian Hoddeson some years later. “The seminar, for example, was privileged in that we started at let’s say a quarter of five, when quitting time was five.” The men had tea and cookies served to them from the cafeteria—“all part of the university tradition,” White remarked, “but unconventional in the industrial laboratory of that day.” The material was a challenge for everyone in the group except Shockley, who could have done the work in his sleep, Wooldridge would recall. Out of habit, the men addressed one another by their last names. According to Brattain, it was always Shockley and Wooldridge—never Bill and Dean, and never Dr. Shockley and Dr. Wooldridge. - Gertner, Jon. The Idea Factory (pp. 43-44). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

  • They specialized. Notably, there was a split between theorists and experimentalists who worked together. A theorist would predict something, the experimentalist would construct and run the experiment, then the theorist would interpret the data. There was also the split between physicists, chemists, metallurgists, etc.
    • And yet at the same time, this is also quoted as applying to at least one period: There was no real distinction at West Street between an engineer and a scientist. If anything, everyone was considered an engineer and was charged with the task of making the thousands of necessary small improvements to augment the phone service that was interconnecting the country. - Gertner, Jon. The Idea Factory (p. 27). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
    • The period where specialization seemed was apparent was later, when they'd moved from West Street to Murray Hills.
  • Bell Labs was large. Thousands of people worked during at least some periods (9,000 during WWII supposedly).
  • They eventually built out custom offices/laboratories in a suburban area, making me think of the Steve Jobs building at Pixar, but in the former case each lab was hooked up with "everything an experimentalist could need: compressed air, distilled water, steam, gas, vacuum, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen."
  • No one was allowed to work with their doors closed.
  • No one was allowed to refuse help to colleagues, regardless of rank or department, when it might be necessary.
  • Supervisors were allowed to guide but not interfere with research.
  • There was more chance and random experiment leading to the transistor than I expected. I'd kind of assumed the theory and experiments had proceeded in a very definite way. Instead, semiconductor doping was a random discovery they figured out after they'd been mucking around a bunch with semiconductors and just trying to understand their observations.

Three Bell Labs researchers in particular—Jack Scaff, Henry Theurer, and Russell Ohl—had been working with silicon in the late 1930s, mostly because of its potential for the Labs’ work in radio transmission. Scaff and Theurer would order raw silicon powder from Europe, or (later) from American companies like DuPont, and melt it at extraordinary temperatures in quartz crucibles. When the material cooled they would be left with small ingots that they could test and examine. They soon realized that some of their ingots—they looked like coal-black chunks, with cracks from where the material had cooled too quickly—rectified current in one direction, and some samples rectified current in another direction. At one point, Russell Ohl came across a sample that seemed to do both: The top part of the sample went in one direction and the bottom in the other. That particular piece was intriguing in another respect. Ohl discovered that when he shone a bright light on it he could generate a surprisingly large electric voltage. Indeed the effect was so striking, and so unexpected, that Ohl was asked to demonstrate it in Mervin Kelly’s office one afternoon. Kelly immediately called in Walter Brattain to take a look, but none of the men had a definitive explanation. - Gertner, Jon. The Idea Factory (pp. 84-85). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

  • There were other people working on the same things as they were, and they were racing against them. It was Leibniz and Newton, Tesla and Edison, Graham Bell and Elisha Gray. In particular, Julius Lilienfeld had independently discovered and patented the field-effect also theorized by Shockley, and Herbert Mataré independently invented the point-contact transistor in 1948 (vs 1947 for Bardeen and Brittain).
    • This actually flies against my sense that Bell Labs was able to build the transistor because of their resources and build-up of particular knowledge and expertise they had after 20-years. Possibly their ideas were just getting spread around via their external contacts, or actually, solid-state physics was taking off generally.
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There was more chance and random experiment leading to the transistor than I expected. I'd kind of assumed the theory and experiments had proceeded in a very definite way. Instead, semiconductor doping was a random discovery they figured out after they'd been mucking around a bunch with semiconductors and just trying to understand their observations.

I wouldn't describe this as "chance and random experiment".

When running experiments in an area where we don't understand what's going on, there will definitely be "weird", unexpected outcomes, which will look "random" precisely because we don't understand what's going on. This does not mean that an experimentalist got lucky and happened to stumble on the right surprise. Rather, I think more often basically anyone running many experiments in a poorly-understood area will see similar "surprises" - the "lucky" observations are in fact extremely likely. But much of the time, investigators write off the mystery to "noise", rather than turning their full attention to figuring it out.

In other words: the rate-limiting step is not stumbling on the right experiment with a surprising outcome, but rather paying attention to the surprising outcome, and trying to figure out what's causing the "noise". (Related: Looking Into The Dark, Science In A High-Dimensional World.) That's exactly the sort of investigation required to e.g. figure out that the "random" conduction properties of chunks of silicon are caused by minute impurities.

You're right and I should have worded that better. The experiment itself wasn't random, though the outcomes might not have been predicted.

I was born and educated thus that I got the solution first: transistors are made with doped silicon that allows current to flow when such and such a field is applied because of holes and electrons, etc., etc.

Implicitly, I'd assumed that the creators of the transistor just had this theory. They knew about current and charge carriers and the electron configuration of different atoms, so they could just combine these and figure out a workable design. It was surprising  to methat key parts of the picture weren't theory driven in this way, instead the unanticipated outcome of experiments where they didn't have good theory.

This actually flies against my sense that Bell Labs was able to build the transistor because of their resources and build-up of particular knowledge and expertise they had after 20-years. Possibly their ideas were just getting spread around via their external contacts, or actually, solid-state physics was taking off generally.


Woah, this was striking to me. It seems like pretty big evidence against Bell Labs actually having a secret sauce of enabling intellectual progress. I would have to look into it more, though. (Also the update is tempered by the fact that another argument for Bell Labs' greatness is the sheer number of inventions, like UNIX, satellites, lasers, information theory, and other stuff.)

Yeah, I'll want to revisit this question a) when I've finished the book and read some other stuff, b) look into the other people who seemed to have invented the same things around the same time.

This was a great list of updates and quotes, thanks.

I quite like the genre “most surprising things to me on reading this book”, and I’d like to see more posts like this one on topics I’m interested in,

Top researchers would spend months touring labs in Europe and then come back and share what they had learned.

What would this look like for modern materials science? I suspect secrecy being the norm due to the grant ecosystem to actually be a major story here.