Lessons from Bell Labs

Innovation and Bell Labs

I recently finished an excellent history of Bell Labs – The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, by Jon Gertner.  If you’re interested in innovation, I strongly recommend it.

The book raises several enticing lines of questioning.  Each deserves a full treatment, so I’ll explore one topic per post over several posts.  In these, I’ll try linking Bell Labs’ 20th century lessons with the latest academic research on innovation.  For now, here is a brief preview:

  1. What makes an inventor?  Both Gertner, and recent work by Alex Bell et al., suggest that childhood exposure to science and/or tinkering can be formative.
  2. How/when should a private R&D lab pursue outside collaboration?  Bell Labs maintained fruitful external relationships, both with universities and even rival firms.  This relates most closely to the academic literature on spillovers, and on tech alliances.
  3. What makes an R&D team productive?  Gertner suggests a host of factors, including physical proximity, social cohesion, and multidisciplinarity.  The literature in this area appears to be sparse, on first look.
  4. Why do some innovative efforts fail?  Gertner cites a couple of instances where Bell Labs failed to live up to its reputation.  We can see parallels in historical work by Joel Mokyr, and theoretical work on path dependence by Giovanni Dosi and Richard Nelson.
  5. When is a large, corporate R&D lab suited to leading the charge on innovation in a field, and when is it not?  Gertner notes that Bell Labs was very much of its time and place.  It is worth asking not only whether we can duplicate Bell Labs in the 21st century, but whether we should.  This topic relates to a number of academic lines of inquiry, including firm age/size, industry structure, and market structure.

There are certainly more themes than these in the book, and many more questions related to R&D that Gertner does not even begin to address.  Nonetheless, the text is a terrific jumping-off point for some critical discussions on innovation, with far-reaching implications beyond the narrow context of large corporate R&D.


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Jordan Bell-Masterson is an MBA candidate at the University of Chicago.

Previously, Bell-Masterson worked as an analyst in Research and Policy for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where he provided support for the department's research programs and initiatives.

He also worked on SEO solutions for Cappex.com, an online college search and matching-engine based in Highland Park, Ill., and served his senior year as station manager for the Grinnell College radio station KDIC 88.5 FM.

Bell-Masterson graduated from Grinnell College in 2012 with a dual BA in English and economics, with honors.