Arnold Kling  

The Idea Factory

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It is a book about the great discoveries made at Bell Labs. The author is Jon Gertner, and I read it on Tyler Cowen's recommendation. It is definitely worth reading, although not in the elite class of new books. It gives one plenty of food for thought on issues relating to innovation.

How important is the single great individual?
How important is it to have a company with the luxury to fund research that does not have an immediate payoff?
Is the path of innovation inevitable or accidental? Does innovation Z occur because it naturally follows from innovations X and Y, or can it arise sui generis?
How variable is the timing with which an innovation takes off? Many pundits expected video phones and electric cars to take off much sooner than they have. Other inventions, such as the cell phone or Facebook, have achieved widespread adoption with surprising rapidity.

Perhaps most interesting of all: what is the lag between discovery and widespread usefulness? At the bloggers' conference last week, Michael Mandel said that the results in medicine of the discoveries of the past twenty years have been disappointing. But 20 years after the invention of the transistor, about all we had to show for it was cheap Japanese radios. It took another 20 years for personal computers to be useful (that was not until the late 1980s, in my view), and 15 years after that for the Internet to hit its stride. By those standards, are stem cells and genetic engineering such laggards in terms of achieving their potential?

Some book excerpts below the fold.

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. At the start, forces that precede an invention merely begin to align, often imperceptibly, as a group of people and ideas converge, until over the course of months or years (or decades) they gain clarity and momentum...Luck seems to matter, and so does timing, for it tends to be the case that the right answers, the right people, the right place--perhaps all three--require a serendipitous encounter with the right problem.
During World War II,
for the first time, the Labs began to hire Jews, bucking a strain of anti-Semitism that ran deep within the AT&T establishment
Bell Labs' superstars did not come from what Charles Murray would call Superzips:
Like so many of his future colleagues at Bell Labs, [Claude] Shannon had grown up in the Midwest--in tiny Gaylord, Michigan, population 3,000
Bell Labs employed thousands of full-time technical assistants who could put the most dedicated graduate students to shame. Such assistants sometimes had only a high school diploma but were dexterous enough, mentally and physically, that PhDs would often speak of them with the same respect they gave their most acclaimed colleagues.
at that time, one would not have imagined that a mobile telephone system was an on-ramp to the future...Indeed, a marketing study commissioned by AT&T in the fall of 1971 informed its team that "there was no market for mobile phones at any price."
the Silicon Valley process...was not a factory of ideas; it was a geography of ideas. It was not one concentrated and powerful machine; it was the meshing of many interlocking parts grouped physically near enough to one another so as to make an equally powerful machine.


COMMENTS (4 to date)
Ironman writes:

Arnold writes....

Perhaps most interesting of all: what is the lag between discovery and widespread usefulness? At the bloggers' conference last week, Michael Mandel said that the results in medicine of the discoveries of the past twenty years have been disappointing. But 20 years after the invention of the transistor, about all we had to show for it was cheap Japanese radios. It took another 20 years for personal computers to be useful (that was not until the late 1980s, in my view), and 15 years after that for the Internet to hit its stride.

Perhaps it's a patent issue, where key advances are delayed by years to avoid infringement litigation in the places where key developments might otherwise be made.

Chris T writes:

The problem with technologies like video phones is that their practical utility is simply much lower than originally expected. Being able to see the person on the other end is useful on occasion, but overkill for most communications (my family uses it on occasion for close relatives, but still mostly use audio).

jseliger writes:

Perhaps most interesting of all: what is the lag between discovery and widespread usefulness? At the bloggers' conference last week, Michael Mandel said that the results in medicine of the discoveries of the past twenty years have been disappointing. But 20 years after the invention of the transistor, about all we had to show for it was cheap Japanese radios. It took another 20 years for personal computers to be useful (that was not until the late 1980s, in my view), and 15 years after that for the Internet to hit its stride. By those standards, are stem cells and genetic engineering such laggards in terms of achieving their potential?

The question to me is whether, say, stem cells and genetic engineering will turn out more like transistors—inventions that take decades to really see fruition and widespread adoption—or more like, say, cold fusion, an invention whose realized potential is always about 20 years off. I don't think the answer is ever really perceivable in advance.

Ted Craig writes:

Does he get into the antitrust issues? Bell gave away innovations to protect its cash cow of telephone service.

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