Finished The Idea Factory, a flat, mostly chronological retelling of the Bell Labs story. It seems to be well researched, but gives all of the central characters more or less the same amount of importance. This is no Great Man story, and the lack of a single, driving character narrative to propel the story makes it drag at points.

I found myself wishing for more detail on how the outside world affected the development of Bell Labs. World War II is discussed in some depth, but mostly as a business driver and not as a cultural influence. Where were the women? The only women even mentioned were the wives of the “Young Turks” and other Bell Labs executives. Why is that? Who was the first woman scientist hired at Bell Labs? Additionally, while I understand that William Shockley’s abhorrent racism and interest in eugenics did not fully develop until after he left for Silicon Valley, were there any inklings of those ideas as he was driven to create the transistor? Did any Black people work for Bell Labs? Etc. etc. etc.

It seems remarkable to me to publish a book about an entity in 20th century America and pay so little attention to how the Civil Rights and Feminist movements impacted it. I suspect the Bell Labs largely insulated itself from those movements (on purpose), but they’re never even discussed or acknowledged in The Idea Factory.

We are not treated to any real insights into what made Bell Labs special, aside from a nearly endless budget thanks to AT&T’s monopoly status. In fact, “actually, monopolies are good” is the closest thing I could find to a “central idea” or “theme” of the book.


Len Damico @len