Caltech and the Factory of Ideas


Long before Google, Apple, or SpaceX got in the game, the most powerful company to pursue privatized basic scientific research belonged to “Ma Bell.” For a long stretch of the 20th century, Bell Laboratories was one of the most innovative scientific organizations in the world, producing a steady stream of discoveries that heralded the modern age of communication, electronics, computer programming, and more. We spoke with Jon Gertner, author of the book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, about the iconic company and some of the intersections it had with Caltech.


The Caltech Contingent

A generation of gifted and influential scientists graduated from Caltech and joined Bell Labs. Pictured from left: Charles Townes (PhD ’39), who passed away this year, William Shockley (BS ’32), Frank Jewett (BS 1898, Throop Polytechnic Institute), and John Pierce (BS ’33, MS ’34, PhD ’36).

What interested you in Bell Labs?

My main interest in writing the book was to try to understand innovation. Bell Labs offers a unique case study into how scientific ideas ultimately become applied to society. 

For those who don’t know, tell us a bit about the early Bell Labs.

Bell Labs began as a research arm of the American Telegraph and Telephone company (AT&T). Formed in 1925, its original and primary mission was to design equipment to further the phone system. AT&T then controlled somewhere between 80 to 90 percent of the phone service in the United States and thus could funnel truly significant amounts of money into research and development. As a result, Bell Labs was able to pursue a wide range of basic research, propelling discoveries over the course of the 20th century.

One of the things that stood out in reading the book was the intersection between Bell Labs and Caltech, and the surprising number of graduates who spent all or part of their careers there.

Absolutely. It’s safe to say that Bell inherited a great deal of intellectual capital from Caltech. 

You could start with Frank Jewett, the founding president of Bell Labs, who graduated from Caltech in 1898, when it was named Throop Polytechnic Institute. From the beginning, Jewett really leaned on his relationships to find and acquire young talent, particularly Robert Millikan, with whom he worked at the University of Chicago. When Millikan became president of Caltech, Jewett called, saying, “Who are your best students? Send them to us.” 

This, in turn, facilitated the movement of a generation of gifted and influential scientists from academia to industry. Brilliant people such as Dean Wooldridge (PhD ’36), who went on to cofound the aerospace company TRW [with Simon Ramo (PhD ’36)], and Charles Townes (PhD ’39), who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for the invention of the maser.

You write that equally important to the discoveries that came out of Bell Labs was its process of innovation.

That’s right. There had long been this notion of the “lone inventor in the lab.” But as the research became more and more complex, that idea was untenable. Discoveries were now more reliant on teams of scientists.
Perhaps the best example of this evolution involves the transistor, which was invented in 1947 by two of Bell’s researchers, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain (for which they won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956), who both worked in a group headed by physicist and Caltech graduate William Shockley (BS ’32).

Unfortunately, Shockley was an incredibly flawed and controversial figure who, especially in his later years, harbored a number of deeply unappealing ideas for which he was rightly ostracized. But there was this other Shockley, this young Shockley, who cast a large shadow at Bell as a sharp scientist and a strong manager. He can be credited with recognizing the significance of Bardeen and Brattain’s work, for championing it, and for developing with them the first point-contact transistor. This, in turn, really heralded the era of all modern electronic devices.

Credit certainly goes to the scientists involved, but it’s worth noting that they operated in a new working environment: These were scientists unified by a process. I think that’s perhaps another way that Caltech impacted Bell Labs, by sending people trained in its methods of discovery who in turn developed and led these larger teams that allowed Bell Labs to grow.

Project Echo  was the first passive communications satellite experiment. Two balloons were launched in 1960 and 1964 and floated into low Earth orbit. Communications signals, broadcast from Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, bounced off Echo’s reflective metallic surface and were then received at Bell Labs in New Jersey.

Project Echo was the first passive communications satellite experiment. Two balloons were launched in 1960 and 1964 and floated into low Earth orbit. Communications signals, broadcast from Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, bounced off Echo’s reflective metallic surface and were then received at Bell Labs in New Jersey.

And it really did grow. By the 1950s, the scale and the diversity of pursuits at Bell Labs was unparalleled. What drove that?

Well, it was a combination of available resources matched with the ambition of the researchers. In my opinion, of all the graduates from Caltech who went to Bell Labs, by far the most influential was John Pierce (BS ’33, MS ’34, PhD ’36). I call Pierce “the Great Instigator.” He was not so much a manager as a propeller; he had a real talent to get individuals interested in something that had not occurred to them. He’d walk into a room and say, “Hey, why don’t you work on this?” with no particular road map. And with hundreds of people working for him, he pushed Bell Labs in a staggering variety of directions.

It was Pierce’s vision for communication satellites that led to Project Echo, which was an enormous silver balloon about eight stories high, sent up by NASA, off of which they reflected a signal from California to New Jersey. That eventually gave rise to Telstar, which was really the first active communication satellite. Pierce gave the early pushes for cellular telephones, wireless technologies, and even envisioned one day having handheld computers. 

In the book, you mark the 1970s as the changing of an era for Bell Labs.

Several things began to happen by then. A movement to break up AT&T’s monopoly gained momentum, outside competition became more intense, and new technologies like computing began to rise. Little by little, Bell Labs became smaller and smaller. By the 2000s, it began to look like a much more conventional equipment laboratory serving the needs of Alcatel-Lucent, which owns it as of this year. There were and still are good people doing really interesting work there, but the mission and ambition of Bell Labs is much smaller.

[Editor’s note: Another Caltech alum, Eric Betzig (BS ’83), started his career at Bell Labs in 1989, where he made advances in optical microscopy. This work set the stage for future discoveries after he left Bell that would eventually earn him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014.]

Is there a company today that calls to mind the earlier Bell Labs?

That’s an interesting question. I think the answer is no. I spend a good amount of time writing about innovation at private companies. Some might say that Google [or now its holding company Alphabet], with its riskier projects like the self-driving car or Project Loon, or SpaceX, with its focus on privatizing space exploration, might be considered close to Bell.

But not even these companies can approach the sheer scale and diversity of research interests that Bell Labs pursued. This was very much a singular company at a particular point in time, very much a product of its era. What Bell Labs could do, and what is potentially missing in today’s blisteringly fast tech industry, is to take a very long view, to focus on work with payoffs 10, 20, 30 years down the line. 

Again, my interest was to try to trace the roots of innovation. You need not look far to see how Bell Labs shaped the world around us. And through a number of very talented individuals, I believe Caltech made its mark on Bell Labs.