The Idea Factory, a brief history of Telecommunications

Today we take a few things for granted. For example, in technology companies there are R & D departments that research and develop products in a structured way. Or that telecommunications work, simply. And when we ask ourselves if there is any relationship between the two we can discover more than we think.

The Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, in an entertaining and clear way, tells the story of the research, discoveries and inventions of AT & T’s Bell Labs since the early 20th century until the great company of American telephony was left in the Baby Bells by monopoly. And not only tells what they investigated, discovered and invented, but also why they succeeded, which was their model.

Bell Labs invented telecommunications

The Idea Factory
Image Source: Google Image

It is true that Graham Bell may not have been the only inventor of the telephone in 1875, only the one who managed to register the patent before and defended it with all its resources in the courts. And that was the beginning of telecommunications, except for somewhat more primitive systems such as optical and electrical telegraphy.

From there we can say one thing: what is certain is that from the company that founded Graham Bell, the American Telephone and Telegram Company (AT & T) invented a lot, a lot. I am a telecommunications engineer and could say that 99% of what is studied in the race arose in that company.

But not only this, it was also created in this company a structured way of investigating and inventing. They created what is now quite common in technology companies, laboratories where researchers from multiple disciplines create new products and services from a powerful investment in human and material resources. Something that is normal today was not in the early twentieth century, where inventions were something reserved for “crazy” passionate about a subject.

But from AT & T Bell Labs were created and with structures that seem to us quite common today (such as open spaces, multidisciplinary laboratories, common spaces to promote the exchange of ideas) achieved a series of technological advances that today are studied without looking at the past as much the foundations of modern communications.

It is true that some of the things that came out of the Bell Labs were individual investigations, such as Shannon’s theory of communication. But there was AT & T paying him the salary for thinking and creating a mathematical model that allows, for example, that the increase of the speed of the communication networks becomes a reality.

Other inventions, such as satellite communications, were a public-private partnership with NASA. And others that came late, such as fiber optics, were driven by researchers from outside the company, but Bell Labs were the ones who managed to make a viable product.

The obvious question you can ask our readers is if you need technical skills to enjoy this book. And the answer is no. Everything is explained very well, from a historical perspective, and without going too far in technical details. Yes, they will talk about what solid state amplifiers are, but simply on a couple of lines and then explain why they are important and the process until you invent them. And so on.

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Bell Labs, great inventions but with expiration date

The Idea Factory
Image Source: Google Image

Do you want to know how the Bell Labs invented modern telecommunications? Do you want to know how they invented modern business R & D? Do you want to know how vacuum valves, horn antennas, radio relays, transistors, waveguides, communication theory, Nyquist’s theorem, PCM modulation (in general, sampling and digital transmission), photodiode and solar panels, optical fiber and optical communications, submarine cables, satellites and satellite communications, mobile telephony (both conceptual and practical)? Do you want to know the story of Shannon, Nyquist or Shockley? Then you can not miss the book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, a wonderful reading of technological history that defines our present.

It is also important to read the book to understand how monopolies manage to boost technological developments many times, since “guaranteed” revenues generate enough surplus resources to investigate that it might not exist in a competitive environment (hence there is both R & D and inventions in Google, Facebook or Apple, which in their respective areas have almost monopoly quotas).

And this is a fundamental issue, worthy of an in-depth analysis of who leads innovation and why. In an ultra competitive environment, companies are so efficient that they do not have the margin to investigate in subjects that leave a little of their focus. And it is these investigations that can bring great benefits to mankind. Without AT & T would not have been a monopoly we would not have the penetration we have today of modern telecommunications. If there had been no subsidy for long-distance calls to the premises, there would have been no such large deployment of users, it would not have had the revenues it had and would not have dedicated resources to things as rare as satellite communications, of today are hardly used for voice communications but for data, television or GPS systems.

The book also explains in detail how it achieved something so unpopular in the US, achieving a monopoly authorized for decades. And this is because of very important political relations, for example, passively investigating military projects, knowing that the Department of Defense would support them to prevent their partition. But in 1984 they failed to prevent the company from breaking up and the Bell Labs to end up in one of the baby Bells, Lucent.

Curiously, Lucent merged with Alcatel. It is difficult to survive being small in a competitive environment. And there the book remains, because it does not reach the purchase of Nokia. That is, the Bell Labs now belong to a Finnish company, world leader in networking equipment but most famous for its great mastery over the past decade in the manufacture of mobile phones.

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