Bell Labs enabled free radicals

Bell Labs narratives consistently touch on the theme of many very smart individuals who could attach themselves to different projects. In chemistry, free radicals are molecules with unpaired valence electrons - a state which makes them extremely reactive. The idea of free radicals captures a feeling one gets about Bell Labs that people were not on a project all the time, or at least had the bandwidth to engage with various projects they weren’t assigned to. There is also a sense that people also had a degree of autonomy over which projects they worked on.

From The Idea Factory - ”The Solar cell just sort of happened,” he [Cal Fuller] said. It was not “team research” in the traditional sense, but it was made possible “because the Labs policy did not require us to get the permission of our bosses to cooperate—at the Laboratories one could go directly to the person who could help.”Bell Labs management was extremely light

Bell labs also used both culture and architecture to enable free radicals. It’s almost a trope now, but Bell Labs may have been the origin of the building design that maximized interactions. Bell Labs had high quality seminars starting in the 30’s that got people from different projects in a room talking about ideas. Culture and architecture combined in the practice of people always leaving their office door open so someone could come by and ask questions. ^1Architecture matters for creativity].

Of course, this isn’t to say that people just worked on whatever they wanted. Bell labs asked people to do useful things but left them room to say huh that’s funny so the freedom was usually within the scope of an area that would be useful to AT&T. Luckily that was a lot of areas. It’s also unclear how much this applied to the majority of Bell labs that was working on more direct product development instead of research and then how much that (less credited) group was responsible for Bell Labs’ perceived success. The famed bell labs research was a fraction of their activity.

Enabling free radicals is line with how J.C.R. Licklider managed the IPTO but stands in contrast to many other DARPA and corporate R&D filled overlapping but different niches programs. However, DARPA is actually woven into the US innovation ecosystem. The fact thatDARPA doesn’t do any research in house means that it cannot exist separately from The changing structure of American Innovation - some cautionary remarks for economic growth. It also means that any DARPA technologies cannot be attributed solely to DARPA, especially if they succeed. One must also consider the fact that program initiation is a spectrum from complete PM initiation to complete performer initiation. My hunch is that programs on the performer end of the spectrum had a chance to ramp up in a corporate lab.


^1: I suspect that open door policies are subtle and differ from open office plans. An open door says “I am in my own space and welcome you to come in — be considerate” while an open office says “I am at your disposal constantly without thinking.”

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