Sunday, January 31, 2016

Innovation: You're Doing It Wrong

I'm reading a book called The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner. (2012).  

Bell Labs, and its scientists were neither perfect, nor morally impeccable, and this book does not feign the sort of pseudo-scientific hagiography that the subject matter often inspires in technophiles.  But the book does contain some kernels of what might be the nearest thing to magic that Science itself permits.  The human process of invention, the Eureka moment, provides an example that the economic value of the work we do does not correlate highly to the appearance of business.  In fact, much the reverse is true.  Let me quote a bit:

"Around the time [director] Kelly was giving his speech to the phone company executives [on the fact of Bell Labs being founded not upon magic but hard science], a metallurgist named Bill Pfann was mulling over how to raise the purity of germanium to improve it further for transistor production. Pfann had returned to his office after lunch -- 'I put my feet on my desk and tilted my chair back to the window sill for a short nap, a habit then well established,' he recalled. He had scarcely dozed off when he suddenly awoke with a solution. 'I brought the chair down with a clack I still remember,' he said. Pfann envisioned passing a molten zone - a coil of metal in effect creating a superheated ring - along the length of a rod of germanium; as the ring moved it would strafe the impurities out of the germanium. Kelly would eventually tell people that Pfann's idea was called 'zone refining'.... one of the most important inventions of the past 25 years. Kelly didn't tell people it resulted from a man sleeping on the job."

So, I'll skip the essay I could write here and instead close with this thought; Nap rooms. Good enough for Bell Labs. If I ever have a startup, I'm going to institute them.


  1. I like the idea. Thanks for sharing.

  2. The subconscious mind is more imaginative and powerful that most people suspect. I have often have often produced solutions after waking up from a good night's sleep, a nap or from taking a walk to get some fresh air. Add outside time, and I would join your startup....

  3. While the anecdote might be about the nap, I sure Pfann spent lots of time working, researching and thinking about the problem long before his epiphany. The unconscious mind requires a lot of priming before these eureka moments occur.

  4. good point Alister. And an empty mind will seldom have interesting ideas. I am reading a few chapters further along and finding the tale of Claude Shannon even more fascinating than the earlier part of this book. It's fascinating reading. I recommend this book highly.