Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Innovators #2

A top locus of collaborative invention was Bell Labs, especially in the 1940's. Its Wikipedia page lists by decades the many discoveries and developments there. Isaacson's The Innovators says nothing about many of them, but devotes many pages to some.

"Bell Labs ... was a haven for turning ideas into inventions. Abstract theories intersected with practical problems there, and in the corridors and cafeteria eccentric theorists mingled with hands-on engineers, gnarly mechanics, and businesslike problem-solvers, encouraging the cross-fertilization of theory with engineering. This made Bell Labs an archetype of one of the most important innovations of digital-age innovation" (48).

There Claude Shannon saw up close the wonderful power of the phone system's circuits, which used electrical switches to route calls and balance loads. In his mind, he began connecting the workings of these circuits to another subject he found fascinating, the system of logic formulated by George Boole. Boole revolutionized logic by expressing logical statement using symbols and equations.  Shannon figured out that electrical circuits could execute Boolean logical operations using an arrangement of on-off switches, making relays and logic gates (48).

Another milestone at Bell Labs was the invention of the transistor (Chapter 4). John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley were later jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their achievement. The transistor provided the foundation for transistor radios, missile guidance systems and radar, and the invention of microprocessors, which came to be often called "integrated circuits" or "microchips." Microchips later became foundational for hand-held calculators, computers, and cell phones.

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