06 February 2014

Move Deliberately & Build Things

Bell Labs technicians preparing the
Telstar communications satellite for
launch in 1962.
Describing the post World War II golden age of innovation in the US, Jon Gertner posits that the Bell Laboratories' motto might well have been:
Move Deliberately & Build Things.
And build they did. Bell Labs was the most prolific innovation factory of the 20th century.

Reviewing The Idea Factory, Gertner's book about Bell Laboratories innovations, Walter Isaacson suggests that the first intercontinental phone call between New York and San Francisco, master-minded at Bell Laboratories, ushered in the novel model of the collaborative industrial organization — an organization that deliberately seeks and models cross-functional, cross-disciplinary teams.
The problem was one that required not just engineering skill but advances in pure science. They needed, among other things, to create a repeater or amplifier for the electric signals so that they would not attenuate after a few miles. Thus was the seed planted for a new collaborative industrial organization — teaming up theoreticians, experimentalists, material scientists, metallurgists, engineers and even telephone pole climbers — that eventually became Bell Labs.
Walter Isaacson
Isaacson asks,
What causes innovation? Why does it happen, and how might we nurture it?
In The Idea Factory Gertner offers insights into how an engineered organizational structure, and an intentional physical layout led to and sustained decades of unprecedented innovation if the US until the monopolistic breakup of the Bell System in 1982.

Contrary to the popular notion of a lone genius conjuring culture-changing inventions in the isolation of a garage workshop, Bell Labs inventions grew incrementally from teams of people with diverse expertise and temperaments. It grew incrementally from people learning from and extending the discoveries and inventions of their colleagues and historic predecessors.
If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)
One of the many triumphs of Bell Labs was to connect us through digital machines shrinking our collective cultural & communication sphere. And connect us they did.

Conveying break-through scientific theory into useful consumer products is incremental and deliberate. The product development path was rarely direct, rather setbacks and diversions were not only expected but redoubled resolve ― resolve to drive toward better and cheaper products.