Last week, on the recommendation of a co-worker, I started reading The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner.  At just under half way through, I’m really finding the book to be fascinating.  The focus so far has been on the evolution of the vacuum tube and the invention of the transistor as a solid-state amplifier.

In the early 1900’s, vacuum tubes were a key piece of technology for AT&T’s telephone network.  I have yet to fully grasp how the technology worked (a personal goal of mine for the future), but they allowed for an electric signal to be amplified and travel a greater distance through an electric wire.  The downfall to the vacuum tube is that they were extremely unreliable.  By construction, they were essentially glorified light bulbs and like early light bulbs they emitted a tremendous amount of heat and needed to be replaced often.  For Bell Labs (the innovation group inside AT&T), replacing the vacuum tube was mission critical to expanding their nation-wide telephone network.

The value of the telephone was tied directly to the network of people using the technology (the classic “network effect”).  It’s the same principle behind the fax machine, the postal system, and even Facebook.  That is, the only thing that makes these technologies valuable is that other people are using them as well (having a telephone wouldn’t be nearly as valuable if you couldn’t call anyone, and we wouldn’t go on Facebook if our News Feed came up empty).  Due to the fact that the value proposition of AT&T was tied to bringing service to every household, inventing an easier way to extend the area of service was paramount.  Also, World War II added some pressures to innovate in the area of trans-continental communication, as well as remote object detection technologies (Radar).

With these motivations, and funding from a government-backed monopoly, Bell Labs went to work in the 1940’s to invent a replacement to the vacuum tube.

One of the most interesting dichotomies underpinning this time of rapid innovation is that of experimentation vs. theory.  Inside the walls of Ball Labs, there were really two kinds of people – people that primarily conducted experiments looking to find some meaningful results, and people mused over blackboards, focusing primarily on theory to solve their problems.

Prior to reading the book, I had figured that the invention of the transistor and modern electronics had primarily been a work of theory.  I had conjured a mental image of the famous Bell Labs that included lots of tall skinny men in beige suits drawing on a blackboard discussing the behavior of electrons.  These were the smartest people in the world – surely they solved the problem in a logical, orderly way.

Reading the book, I was surprised to find that my mental image was totally wrong.  At Bell Labs it seems that experimentation always trumped theory.  In fact, many of the key inventions that came out of Bell Labs were discovered before any relevant theory existed to explain how they worked!

I found this one piece particularly interesting.  The best scientists in the world stumbled upon the truth before they truly understood what they were dealing with.

This single insight is incredibly interesting.  It seems to me the lesson is clear: when solving a problem, make sure you’ve done all the appropriate research to learn from others, but at the end of the day, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and try something new.

The (supposed) words of Thomas Edison are prescient here after he conducted 10,000 different experiments in his effort to develop the electric light:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Experimentation vs. Theory
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  • Simon Dexter

    Andrew,

    The idea of experimentation before theory reminds me of gene microarray experiments – subjecting cells to multiple different conditions and scanning for desired effects (like protein expression, etc). This is very much like Bell Labs approach scaled up. Great post!

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  • Nice! Thanks for the comment here Simon (sorry for the delay following up – saw this a month ago, but didn’t reply)