Historical Society Presents “Jon Gertner Describes Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation”
Sunday, March 10, 2013 • 9:25pm
On Tuesday, March 19, the Madison Historical Society will present author and editor, Jon Gertner, who will discuss “Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.” Gertner’s presentation will take place in the Chase Room of the Madison Public Library at 7:15 PM. Light refreshments will be available from 7:00.
Gertner’s first book—The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (Penguin Press, 2012)—tells the story of the origins of modern communications technologies and Bell Labs' extraordinary influence on America's culture of technological innovation. As Gertner observes, his book is very much “about innovation – about how it happens, why it happens, and who makes it happen. It is likewise about why innovation matters, not just to scientists, engineers, and corporate executives but to all of us”
Bell Laboratories, which thrived from the 1920s into the 1980s, was the most innovative and productive scientific institution of the twentieth century. It was the place where the transistor, laser, communications satellite, mobile telephony, radio astronomy, information theory, stable electronic amplification and a lot of modern computing technology were invented. Gertner concludes that “it was where the future, which is what we now happen to call the present, was conceived and designed.”
At its peak, Bell Labs employed nearly fifteen thousand people, twelve hundred of whom had PhDs. Thirteen would go on to win Nobel prizes. The book, however, does not address those many thousands of Bell Laboratories workers. Rather, Gertner focuses his narrative on the lives and contributions of a representative few – scientists like Mervin Kelly, Claude Shannon, John Peirce, and William Shockley – who left a major mark on technology and the culture of innovation.
“The history of Bell Laboratories is also a history of Madison and its surrounding communities,” observed Cathie Coultas, Madison Historical Society Vice President and Program Chair. “Two of the individuals described in the book, Shockley and Charles Elmendorf, lived in Madison, as did many other Bell Laboratories scientists and engineers. Also during the late 1960s and early 70s, the former Verizon building on Park Avenue served as a Bell Laboratories facility.”
Jon Gertner is an editor and writer whose stories on business, science, and society have appeared in numerous national magazines. Between 2004 and 2011 Gertner worked as a feature writer for The New York Times Magazine, where he wrote about science, business, society, and economics. He has also served as a senior editor for Money Magazine and The American Lawyer. Jon Gertner is currently editor-at-large at Fast Company magazine, where he writes and edits stories about innovation and technology. A graduate of Cornell University, Gertner lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and two children.