*The Idea Factory*

by on March 19, 2012 at 7:36 am in Books, History, Science | Permalink

I loved this book and devoured it in a single sitting.  The author is Jon Gertner and the subtitle is Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.  Here is one excerpt:

Scientists who worked on radar often quipped that radar won the war, whereas the atomic bomb merely ended it.  This was not a minority view.  The complexity of the military’s radar project ultimately rivaled that of the Manhattan Project, but with several exceptions.  Notably, radar was a far larger investment on the part of the U.S. government, probably amounting to $3 billion as contrasted with $2 billion for the atomic bomb.  In addition, radar wasn’t a single kind of device but multiple devices — there were dozens of different models — employing a similar technology that could be used on the ground, on water, or in the air.

One lesson of this book is how much war can spur innovation.  Here is one Gertner article on the themes of the book.  Here is a review of the book.  Anyone interested in the history of science, tech, or innovation should buy and read this book.

Ryan March 19, 2012 at 7:51 am

One lesson of this book is how much war can spur innovation.

Sentences to regret?

Ted Craig March 19, 2012 at 8:25 am

Why? It’s true.

Ryan March 19, 2012 at 8:48 am

As compared to what, a parallel universe where there were no World Wars? Was the world lacking real innovation prior to the World Wars, and if so, how would you classify the Industrial Revolution?

The cult of war is utter lunacy. Sorry, stuff like this just doesn’t make any sense to me. YMMV.

Andrew' March 19, 2012 at 9:20 am

I wonder if it is the sheer competition. I was trying to explain to my wife why it doesn’t matter whether the tall guy on one team puts the ball in his hoop or the tall guy on the other team puts the ball in his, and yet they appear to be trying really hard.

Finch March 19, 2012 at 10:35 am

War provides the DoD with a form of competition or peer review. That’s the most plausible explanation I’ve seen for why it seems to be the best-run part of our government. Which, admittedly, isn’t saying much.

Finch March 19, 2012 at 10:55 am

Armies also seem to get torn up and remade pretty frequently, and I imagine that helps. Examples include the US after Vietnam and Germany after WWI. This might favor the defeated over the victor.

_New_ government agencies seem to be relatively effective for some time before calcifying. Think NASA in the 50s and 60s or SDIO in the 80s.

Rahul March 19, 2012 at 11:00 am

Yes, wars produce innovation. But using a dollars-per-innovation metric are wars better at this than peacetime spending; are people adjusting for the fact that wars are enormously expensive?

Finch March 19, 2012 at 11:23 am

> But using a dollars-per-innovation metric are wars better at this than peacetime spending; are people adjusting for the
> fact that wars are enormously expensive?

Well, you are comparing a positive value to a zero value, so I guess yes. Defense spending seems to produce some innovation. Little other government spending does. Is that innovation higher in war than peace and for defense spending than non-defense spending? Yeah, I suppose so.

I think a better question is: Is this innovation worth the cost? It can be better than everything else we have and still not be worth the cost. An alternative is to just not tax and spend, of course.

Beefcake the Mighty March 19, 2012 at 10:00 am

@Ryan

+1

Ted Craig March 19, 2012 at 10:27 am
The Original D March 19, 2012 at 3:12 pm

It may not spur new innovation per se, but it certainly speeds it up. The mass production of the integrated circuit chip is a direct result of the Cold War.

One doesn’t have to endorse war to make an observation of its effects.

doctorpat March 19, 2012 at 8:38 pm

And of course a cold war is the best kind of war.

cb March 19, 2012 at 10:16 am

And by what mechanism does war do this? Private competition? Obviously not. It’s not like the government gave out grants to competing corporations to develop radar, the bomb, and the internet.

War and the military, it seems to me, are the great exceptions to conservative rules of thought. Somehow, government activity is inefficient and wasteful in conservative minds, except when it comes to war, when suddenly the same feckless government can spur great innovation and rebuild foreign nations from the (blown-to-hell) ground up. Somehow, the government can’t deliver health care, but it can change the world and form nascent democracies with bombs.

Rahul March 19, 2012 at 10:24 am

It’s not that private regiments may not be more effcient during wartime. It is what they might do during peacetime that forces us to settle for the inefficient state war-machine.

Out of work soldiers need more oversisht than out of work nurses.

Bender Bending Rodriguez March 20, 2012 at 12:00 am

Killing people and breaking stuff is, for the most part, a very straightforward exercise. People have been accomplishing it since the dawn of time.

Military spending is only cost effective when compared to the cost of not having it at all.

Josh S March 20, 2012 at 11:10 am

The difference is that war has a selection process. Governments that are bad at war don’t get to be governments any more because they get conquered by governments that are good at war. The problem is that the rest of government activity has no penalty for failure.

MIchael Foody March 19, 2012 at 7:55 am

Nearly unlimited public spending and a psuedo command economy for the win?

Andrew' March 19, 2012 at 10:12 am

Barely. Being a tank guy I’ll never forgive them for the Sherman fiasco. They could never get over themselves and just put a decent gun on it even after other countries (e.g. British Firefly) demonstrated the obvious fix. Radar and nuclear fission notwithstanding, the concept of “longer tube, faster hunk of steel was beyond them.”

Paul Zrimsek March 19, 2012 at 11:08 am

Certainly, at least in the eyes of those who subscribe to the needed auxiliary premise that more innovation is always better no matter how much it costs to get it.

affe March 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Reverse Lend-Lease (Lease -Lend ?) would have been the answer – Patton could have stormed through France faster in T-34’s with big white stars instead of big red stars…

Andrew Edwards March 19, 2012 at 8:05 am

For “war” read “huge government program”. They do spur innovation – such as what came out of NASA in the 1960s. Wars are the worst kind of huge government program, since they also destroy a bunch of wealth in a very direct way (blowing it up, shooting at it). More space races, less wars. We could be on Mars for the price of the Iraq and Afghanistan missions, and yes Mars is mostly useless as an objective but at least it’s not a negative value the way a war is.

Rahul March 19, 2012 at 8:24 am

Yet, Mars doesn’t have oil.

Andrew Edwards March 19, 2012 at 9:40 am

Most countries are surprisingly willing to sell you oil, provided you don’t bomb them.

Bill Stepp March 19, 2012 at 8:18 am

Wars don’t spur innovation–they spur mass murder and the growth of the leviathan State. The review of the book in the weekend War, er Wall Street Journal pointed out that innovation is more than merely inventing something. It entails commercializing inventions as well. The patent office is littered with useless patents long lost to history.

“…radar won the war, the atomic bomb merely ended it.”
Reminds me of Guiteau’s quip that “His [Garfield’s] doctors killed him. I just shot him.”

Rahul March 19, 2012 at 8:35 am

Did all the non-communications research earn parent AT&T a lot of money via royalties etc.? Was Bell Labs mostly a prestige enterprise for AT&T or did it make Commercial Sense (especially the research without telecom applications).

The other part that I wonder is how AT&T, a telephone company, came about fostering this massive research enterprise instead of, say, GE, GM, Exxon (then Standard Oil), Ford, Bethlehem Steel, P&G etc.

Did AT&T see itself as the biggest potential user of modern technology or did it have the largest disposable incomes. Or was this just a case of having a different (wiser?) management perspective.

spencer March 19, 2012 at 9:43 am

It came about because AT&T was a regulated, cost plus monopoly.

AT&T could include the cost of Bell Lab in their cost that the regulators used to establish the rates they could charge.

Michael Cain March 19, 2012 at 11:04 am

“…especially the research without telecom applications.”

Perhaps most surprising is just how much of the research *did* end up with applications in telecom. A vertically-integrated company that builds all of its own equipment from the ground up and operates a consumer service on a massive scale needs innovation in a wide range of fields.

Mark Dionne March 19, 2012 at 8:35 am

Another World War II project, the Dove Project at Polaroid, started developing heat-seeking missiles.
My father worked on that project and I have written about it here:
http://markdionne.com/doveproject.html

Dave Tufte March 19, 2012 at 9:08 am

A variation on radar won the war …

This was the proximity shell. In short, a small radio receiver and transmitter inside a shell. When fired from the ground, this allowed anti-aircraft shells to explode when they were close, instead of when they hit. Basically, “almost a hit” started to count in much the same way it did with hand grenades. This changed anti-aircraft fire from something that was annoying to something that was effective.

Cliff March 19, 2012 at 9:37 am

How was that useful? In England?

Ron Strong March 19, 2012 at 10:22 am

Proximity fuse was highly important. There would have been a lot more US ships sunk by Japanese without it. Okinawa might have been a disaster.

Finch March 19, 2012 at 10:31 am

There was also a war in the Pacific which involved a great deal of air defense.

Circa 1944-1945, proximity fuses began to see use in artillery (surface to surface guns) thereby greatly increasing its effectiveness.

Rahul March 19, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Do they help a lot in surface warfare as opposed to contact fuses?

Finch March 19, 2012 at 5:33 pm

I briefly looked around the web for a source and didn’t see much more than “greatly increased effectiveness” comments.

The idea is to have the shell go off 10 meters in the air, and thereby distribute fragments over a greater area and to reduce the effectiveness of cover. To oversimplify, hiding behind a rock helps you when the fragments are coming horizontally, but not when they’re coming from height. A shell hitting the ground also puts a lot of energy into digging a little hole rather than throwing fragments.

Rahul March 28, 2012 at 4:38 am

s
F

John Ellis March 19, 2012 at 10:36 am

He said “One lesson of this book is how much war can spur innovation.” because he didn’t want to say “One lesson of this book is how much GOVERNMENT can spur innovation.” which would have been a more accurate statement.

wiki March 19, 2012 at 11:03 am

But government spending on the military in peacetime doesn’t seem as productive. Is that because spending in war (real existential war, not side adventures in Nam or Mid East) has a clearer focus that serves as a kind of check on final productivity? It’s not productive in the standard economic sense, but the aims are clearer and the urge to rent seek at the expense of *any* useable output may be muted(?)

Josh S March 20, 2012 at 11:21 am

You don’t really know if peacetime war spending is effective or not until you have a war. When WWII broke out, France quickly discovered all that spending on the Maginot Line was wasted, while the Germans discovered that Panzer IIIs and Ju-87s were an extremely good investment.

In the Pacific, the Japanese learned the hard way that gigantic battleships are a terrible investments. The Americans, in teaching them this lesson, simultaneously discovered that aircraft carriers are a far better use of resources.

Today, the usefulness of Kevlar is well-established, as is the versatility of Stoner’s much-maligned AR platform. The MRAP was developed in direct response to the Hummer’s inability to withstand IEDs. And so on.

John B. March 19, 2012 at 11:13 am

It’s Jean Batiste Say all over again: we see the innovations funded by governments at war but we don’t see the innovations that didn’t happen because all those resources were redirected. Wars do cause innovations of a certain sort of technology: those which are likely to be helpful to the war effort and which are likely to have a military impact in the sort term. War causes the neglect of research in technologies which are non-military or which are not likely to pay off in the near term, no matter how valuable they might be. In peace-time, the war-time innovations would be an uneconomic investment; we’d be paying too much for them in both direct and indirect terms. E.g., in a peaceful world, radar might have shown up in the early 1950s and have cost far less, while some competing 1950s technology (cheap TVs? cheap refrigerators?) would have shown up a bit earlier; the result would have been more utility overall than actual history had.

Davis March 19, 2012 at 11:58 am

anything that goes seriously outside of current limits is likely to be innovative — i.e. the fastest collider, the furthest space travel, the most unsolvable military problems. the Web itself was invented at CERN, driven by their uniquely large collaboration needs. these opportunities are rare and expensive and most of the benefits are externalities so they are suited to government roles.

unfortunately most government R&D consists of tweaks on the margin, such as favoring Solyndra over other solar companies trying to squeeze 0.5% more out of a panel, in a competitive market where the private sector can and did move much faster than the government can adapt.

we would be far better off if all the corporate subsidy govt. research dollars were switched to Mars missions where there is no existing market to disturb.

Right Wing-nut March 19, 2012 at 2:27 pm

I’m going to credit Tyler with more intelligence than any of you. He did not say Government, he said War, and he meant it. (Real) War is not the sole province of Government. Real War involved the entire society. It creates an atmosphere of crisis, and it is this atmosphere which provides tools for accelerated innovation.

In peacetime, the inconvenience that people experience does not drive them to value innovation the way that they do when they fear (rightly or wrongly) that their way of life is at stake or the lives of their loved ones.

The fact that “War is the health of the State” is irrelevant to the issue that Tyler mentions.

Seriously, does anyone here think that Tyler is a warmonger?

Mark Thorson March 19, 2012 at 5:45 pm

I did some contracting work for Bell Labs about 20 years ago, after the break-up. I was sitting around in a conference room in the building where the transistor was invented with a bunch of their guys talking about 1.2-micron CMOS ASICs on a hot day in the middle of summer in New Jersey, but we were all freezing our butts off because the air conditioning was running full blast into this room and there was no way to turn it down. Previous occupants had stuffed paper plates into a ceiling vent that the cold air was pouring from, but they were ineffective. I thought it was an interesting metaphor for what had happened to the formerly powerful company.

dearieme March 19, 2012 at 7:06 pm

“war can spur innovation”: that’s an interesting choice of verb. Radar, after all, was invented before WWII in expectation that WWII was on the way. And it was not invented, of course, at Bell Labs.

Joe Esty March 19, 2012 at 7:33 pm

C’mon Tyler. Bastiat? The unseen? Those resources would likely have been even more productive in the private sector satisfying consumer needs. Tom Wolfe in his collection of shorts stories Hooking Up writes about Bob Noyce who knew that it was the private sector, through satisfying the private market, that made the space program possible. Too many think it’s the other way around.

Ray Lopez March 20, 2012 at 2:09 am

This book was written by a journalist and feature vignettes of famous inventors of the modern era. I’ve seen too many of these shallow breezy books and I think I’ll pass. If Tyler “devoured” it in a single sitting it can’t be all that deep either, notwithstanding the blogger is a speed reader apparently.

tse March 20, 2012 at 2:51 am

Listen, y’all…All real innovation takes time, patience, free form thinking, PHD level expertise, and free mobility of those with PHD expertise, as well as there expertise. This is not possible whatsoever in market based institutions. In fact, capitalism, at a basic science, fundamental idea level is utterly noninnovative. All, I mean all ideas in capitalistic systems, of any noteworthy level, derive from government, foundation, or monopoly subsidized (Bell Labs) institutions. So, all y’all libertarians out there, just get back to the stone age. There is a place, mind you, for capitalistic institutions to run with it, but the gun that starts the race, especially 1940 onwards, is government. Sorry to burst the ideological bubble of those Ayn Rand illiterates.

BTW, for you Apple lovers out there:

DOD(DARPA)>SRI(Mother of all demos 68)>Xerox PARC>Apple (Macintosh)>Windows ripoffs.

DOD(DARPA)>SRI (Calty project 95-05)>SIRI Startup>Apple Purchase>SIRI based 4S phone*
*Should have stayed in gov subsidized lab a bit longer.

Josh S March 20, 2012 at 11:26 am

Wright Brothers say hi.

The DoD receives far too much credit for the computer. The ENIAC was simply an electronic Babbage machine. Making electric versions of everything was hardly confined to the DoD, and it is unlikely that the 20th century would have progressed much further without someone hitting on the idea of an electronic rather than mechanical computer.

Dandude March 21, 2012 at 7:59 am

If you read the official OECD book on “Sources of Economic Growth” you wouldn’t have shot off your cretin mouth like that.

Since I doubt a book would tickle your fancy much, I’ll link you to a video instead and maybe next time you’ll spare yourself the embarrassment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_PVI6V6o-4

Ray March 20, 2012 at 3:06 am

An glaring oversight to the statement that war spurs innovation ignores the innovation that was foregone in the prewar years due to information about these technologies being withheld from the public.

Roberto March 20, 2012 at 3:18 am

Aircraft could be and were damaged (capability degraded) by AA fire even if no piece of the shell contacted the plane, if it exploded near enough.

You can knock a mosquito out of the air by clapping your hands near it (you won’t trap the insect between your hands, of course).

The insect will fall to the ground. It will recover after a short period of getting itself back together.

You can then spare its life, or your can step on it.

It’s the same thing with planes.

Chad March 20, 2012 at 11:56 am

It seems to me that Cowen is making an argument similar to that of you see what someone’s made of when their back is against the wall. In the case of war the enterprising individuals who come up with the inventions of things such as radar or the atomic bomb were certainly innovators. I think that Cowen’s point is that they worked much harder than they otherwise would have because of threats observed during wartime and the sense of urgency it creates.

However, it is also true that we see a similar type of innovative spirit that takes place in the private sector especially among entrepreneurs. It would be impossible to quantify but I’m almost certain that the sense of urgency between a business owner with a deadline to meet and a scientist developing radar for “king and country.” The main difference between the two is of course the one alluded to by a number of commenters. War is destructive. Even though from one perspective it may be necessary to put an end to hostilities once they have been started. It is undeniable that the world would be more prosperous if the war had not been started in the first place and if the resources redirected for defense had been put to more productive use.

For instance, one can easily see the added security benefits of installing a dead bolt lock or an alarm system at their home or business. However, the home or business owner would have been better off if they had not redirected resources from buying other goods or services and devoting them to an added sense of security. Basically, the world would be more prosperous if we didn’t have to lock our doors at night.

Brandon March 20, 2012 at 2:08 pm

War, DIVERTS innovation. Money is stolen(taxed or devalued) from one group, or many groups of people, and DIVERTED to “war innovation.” Who is to say that innovations through war are better than innovations through the free market? Does war itself have a better understanding of the innovations that people truly want and need than the market place itself?

A) You have to STEAL from people first to get war innovation.
B) You simply DIVERT that money to war profiteers and government.
C) You waste precious capital and time, rather than focusing on truly needed innovations.

Julien Couvreur March 22, 2012 at 2:31 pm

As others pointed out, it seems Tyler missed the unseen in this case.

Anyways, this reminded me of an excellent Google TechTalk on the history of Sillicon Valley (much of it is related to R&D in radar technology). The Secret History of Sillicon Valley: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFSPHfZQpIQ
I especially like the bit about using the moon to spy on soviet signals (by using the bouncing radio waves).

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