The News of Radio

“The News of Radio” was the title of a 1948 article in the New York Times that started “Two new shows are announced by CBS to serve as summer replacements for the hour-long Radio Theater on Monday evenings… “. Nine paragraphs later the article got round to announcing what arguably turned out to be the most important invention of the 20th century: the transistor. The transistor is the solid-state switch at the heart of the silicon chips in computers, mobile phones and indeed all the rest of modern electronics. I am not sure what it says about how societies in general or newspapers in particular, react to new world-changing technologies, but I think it is pretty funny that the announcement appeared in paragraph 10 of an article on page 46.

I learnt of this in The Idea Factory by Jon Gerstner. This book covers Bell Labs over the period from the 1920s to 1980s. Bell Labs was the science and engineering research centre for the then American telecoms monopoly, AT&T. It is not only where the transistor was invented and developed but where a lot of the foundations of the modern information age were laid. Scientists working there also picked up 7 Nobel prizes.

Bell Labs has had a remarkable effect on all of us, and I think the book does the lab justice. It puts the remarkable discoveries made by Bell Labs in the context of a large industrial research lab that gave many of its scientists and engineers remarkable freedom, but did so within a structure that promoted teamwork, and that fed these brilliant scientists a stream of problems from the parent telecommunications company.

For example, before there were transistors AT&T used vacuum tubes, which were large, power hungry and unreliable, hence the need for something better: the transistor. In effect AT&T got together teams of brilliant scientists and engineers together, gave them resources, time and money, but pointed out that vacuum tubes’ limitations were an important problem. Then after about ten years (with a gap for WWII) the scientists and engineers solved the problem. Given the remarkable successes of Bells Labs there are probably lessons for us there.

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