Author Says Bell Labs Invented the DNA in Electronics


When telephone executives in 1909 decided to build a trans-continental phone line, they called up theoreticians, experimentalists, material scientists, engineers and even telephone pole climbers. That team invented the transistor and became Bell Labs. The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation author Jon Gertner told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that he believes Bell Labs invented the DNA that is in electronics.

“I think the fact that Bell Labs invented what I tend to call the DNA that’s in all of the electronic devices, really in the world today but you can’t see it,” said Gertner. “We know it’s there. The patrons reside with Bell Labs but really the influences of this lab exist in everything that we do from making phone calls and using our mobile phones, from surfing the web, lasers in surgeries, all sorts of things that really define our world and define our economy. And it really all started here in New Jersey, over the period of time from 1925 until the 1980s.”

Gertner said that Bell Labs was in a curious position and that it is hard to imagine a company like it today because it was not like other corporations such as Apple or Microsoft. According to Gertner, Bell Labs was part of AT&T which he said was a phone monopoly and had certain restrictions. Bell Labs could not get into other businesses and could not use the technology that it had invented to become a computer company or become a mobile phone company.

“What it did was it used that technology from AT&T and then it shared it and everybody else got rich except for Bell Labs,” Gertner said.

In his book, Gertner said that Bell Labs’ innovations sprung from people and various disciplines brought together in one place. He said that it was a kind of template for the ages and that it was the greatest scientific laboratory of the 20th century. Gertner said that the way Bell Labs structured itself was a way to manage scientific creativity.

On why Bell Labs closed, Gertner said that the company’s budget started getting smaller and that the company had been broken up.

“Well the phone company was broken up and at that point the budget really got smaller and smaller and in many ways the technologies that came out of Bell Labs kind of unleashed this huge wave of technology and technological wealth,” said Gertner. “Bit by bit, a lot of that infrastructure started moving to the West Coast. And what we have in Silicon Valley is maybe we can really directly trace it back to Bell Labs, which was really the Silicon Valley of its day.”