History is rife with examples of breakthroughs and innovative leaps. However, if we look to the past 150 years, we begin to notice a clustering of breakthroughs around a handful of organizations that set themselves apart from the rest of the world. While many individuals and companies have contributed significant efforts to the development of innovative technology, specific labs like Menlo Park, Bell Labs, PARC, and Google X have become veritable innovation factories. Most for more than a decade and in some cases, for an entire generation, the culture and structure of these labs provided the perfect storm of people, processes, placement and problems to nurture technological genius.
So what is this perfect storm? Far from being chosen ones with crystal balls, these organizations had targeted, calculated strategies and approaches to generating consistent breakthroughs. By analyzing four of the most successful labs in the history of human kind, we hope to uncover their approaches and shine a light on what creates the culture of innovation.
Menlo Park would serve as the location for Thomas Edison’s groundbreaking research lab. It was opened in 1876, operated for roughly a decade and, at its peak, occupied more than two square city blocks. Edison’s “Invention Factory” applied for about 400 patents and gave the world the phonograph, a practical incandescent light, the carbon microphone, the electric generator, and the electric power distribution system.
Edison’s team was populated by brilliant individuals from all over the world who were largely engineers and master tradesmen – clockmakers, machinists, glassblowers, etc. His lab became a small industrial city, housing nearly all conceivable materials and the equipment necessary to turn these into new inventions. While Edison was a controlling visionary with his work, he pushed his employees to work long hours and to constantly tinker, build, test and refine. Many of his patents were filed as improvements (albeit drastic ones) to existing inventions as the strength of Menlo Park came not necessarily in its ability to generate unforeseen concepts, but in making breakthroughs that optimized and improved existing inventions to make them inexpensive and robust enough for the consumer market. Edison had created the first industrial laboratory that, instead of leaving research to the academics and application to the factories, brought the conceptualization, development and production of new technology under one roof.
Bell Labs, Alexander Graham Bell’s namesake research lab, was the creative brain trust of AT&T and Western Electric. Formally formed in 1925, this powerhouse of technology would spend more than five decades as the world leader in communication technology. A staggering seven Nobel Prizes were awarded for work completed within the Labs, including the invention of the transistor, discovering cosmic background radiation, creating the CCD and – though never awarded a Nobel Prize – Claude Shannon produced the foundational approach to information theory in 1949, laying the pathway for computers.
While not headed by a singular, controlling demi-God such as Edison, Bell Labs housed its share of techno-heroes to be idolized: Jewett, Shockley, Shannon, and Fletcher. Similar to Menlo Park, Bell Labs brought together multidisciplinary teams that worked to control the full cycle of concept development: theorization to production. However, Bell differed in two major ways. In addition to hiring tradesmen and engineers, Bell was staffed by a number of theoretical academics – physicists, chemists, etc. – who were largely held unaccountable for their output and given the autonomy to research by their own interests, sometimes without a clue of what potentially lay at the end of the tunnel. Realities of business existed and the Labs were not without focused projects and deadlines, however, the senior management believed in the scientific pursuit of knowledge and that financial benefit would ultimately emerge. Yet perhaps the most important element of Bell Labs’ success was its endless challenges. Due to the sheer enormity of the AT&T network and the problems and realities of scale, incoming employees were surrounded by problems to solve and stimulus on how they could improve the world.
Photo: Affiches Poster Edison Phonograph by Jalal gerald Aro