The Idea Factory, by Jon Gertner

The author is a staff writer at NYMag. The book is a history of Bell Labs, a technology incubator that was for most of its existence one of three legs of the AT&T monopoly. Bell Labs developed an amazing array of technologies, including transistors, fiber optics, the first American satellite, cellular telephony, early work on radar, and a lot of advances of telephones. It yielded seven Nobel laureates. And it eventually became the Lucent part of Alcatel-Lucent.

There’s a lot of science in the book, but most interesting are the implications for how research might be funded.

It was neither a university nor a strictly government-run research center, but the industrial lab of a for-profit company; and yes it had quite a bit of government support, but not as much as you might think: many of its important inventions (including the transistor and the mobile phone) didn’t enjoy much in terms of subsidies. Instead the author attributes the success of the Labs to simply gathering great minds together and giving them a lot of freedom. And it totally belies the idea that monopolies can’t be innovative. Which other research lab can claim to have kickstarted inventions as important and diverse as the transistor, satellite, and cell phone telephony?