One of my more interesting decisions in life was to major in History (yup, with a capital “H”). Today, the only time that degree gets use is when flipping to one of the many books about the birth of the computer that are stored away on my Kindle.

Recently I’ve been reading The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation – if you’re interested in the birth of the communications age then this is the book for you. Bell Labs is a research facility that, at the peak of its influence, helped determine the outcome of World War II, gave us the transistor, and launched the first communications satellite. The way that we live today is in part owed to the people that shuffled through all the various research labs owned and operated by AT&T during the heyday of the company. Today, it is but a shadow of itself, run by Nokia (who, given the resiliency of their older products, are undoubtedly looking for ways to make a phone that can survive the crushing pressure of a black hole), operating mostly in obscurity.

If you’re interested in that sort of history, pick up the book, read it, you won’t be disappointed.

One of the more interesting concepts in the book is regarding the idea of fostering innovation. How do you put in motion the right series of events to consistently produce brilliance? In essence, inventing ways to invent things. Interestingly enough, the folks at Bell Labs came to the same conclusion that Steve Jobs did nearly five decades later – to create beautiful products and ideas, you have to foster communication between people of different disciplines.

At Bell Labs, a brilliant manager by the name of Mervin Kelly realized that they key to success was to artificially create situations where engineers and scientists were forced to commingle. He designed the Labs to be conducive to chance meetings and encouraged spontaneous exploration of ideas that came about from these meetings.

Apple Campus 2 - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
Apple Campus 2 – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Like Kelly, Jobs believed that these sorts of interactions created products that were beyond what one would build in solitude or surrounded by like-minded people. The original designs of the Apple Campus (pictured to the right) were a nod to many of Jobs’s ideas around forcing employees to walk past each other, forcing people that might otherwise never see each other to interact, and potentially create the next iPod.

Moving aside spatial concerns for a moment, the notion of corporate culture gets a fair amount of lip service, but is rarely (if ever) taken to the same extent that Bell Labs did. The bottom line was certainly of concern to AT&T, and it would be foolish to say that failure was acceptable (just a few buildings away from Bell Labs technicians were engaged in decade long experiments regarding the weatherproof capabilities of various wood treatments), but the freedom to explore was a given for many of the laboratory’s most celebrated employees. That Bell Labs’s most celebrated inventions sprung from the somewhat random relationships that grew between theoreticians and engineers and their desire to investigate the outer limits of what was known and capable is and was impressive, but it was certainly no mistake.