in Reviews, X-Geek

The Idea Factory

I’m reading a fascinating book about the legendary Bell Labs, called “The Idea Factory” by Jon Gertner. I knew Bell Labs was responsible for many of the innovations we take for granted now, but seeing them all in print was amazing.

It is simply astonishing to consider how this research lab changed our world. For instance, Bell Labs invented the transistor, semiconductors, and photolithography, all of which are absolutely crucial for modern electronics. Scientists at Bell built the world’s first communications satellite after serendipitously inventing the major technologies needed for it. Perhaps the most important technology that came from Bell Labs was information theory, which sprang from a brilliant Bell Labs scientist named Claude Shannon. Wikipedia explains its impact:

Information theory is a branch of applied mathematics, electrical engineering, bioinformatics, and computer science involving the quantification of information. Information theory was developed by Claude E. Shannon to find fundamental limits on signal processing operations such as compressing data and on reliably storing and communicating data. Since its inception it has broadened to find applications in many other areas, including statistical inference, natural language processing, cryptography, neurobiology,[1] the evolution[2] and function[3] of molecular codes, model selection[4] in ecology, thermal physics,[5] quantum computing, plagiarism detection[6] and other forms of data analysis.[7]

Applications of fundamental topics of information theory include lossless data compression (e.g. ZIP files), lossy data compression (e.g. MP3s and JPGs), and channel coding (e.g. for Digital Subscriber Line (DSL)). The field is at the intersection of mathematics, statistics, computer science, physics, neurobiology, and electrical engineering. Its impact has been crucial to the success of the Voyager missions to deep space, the invention of the compact disc, the feasibility of mobile phones, the development of the Internet, the study of linguistics and of human perception, the understanding of black holes, and numerous other fields. Important sub-fields of information theory are source coding, channel coding, algorithmic complexity theory, algorithmic information theory, information-theoretic security, and measures of information.

Shannon did work on cryptography during World War II; his paper A Mathematical Theory of Cryptography was so groundbreaking that it remains classified to this day.

Without Bell Labs, we’d have no home computers, no smartphones (actually no cellphones of any kind), no solar panels, no communications satellites, no lasers, no UNIX, no Internet, no C or C++ computer languages, and no Silicon Valley, for starters. Scientists and researchers at Bell Labs literally invented the future.

The Idea Factory is a fascinating look at how so many world-changing technologies could’ve come from one place. Those who walked the halls of Bell Labs were truly giants.

Here are a few other reviews of the book, from BusinessWeek and the New York Times.