Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory, reviewed by Dave Tompkins.

Inside the Egghead Circus at Bell Labs

Inside the Egghead Circus at Bell Labs

Reading between the lines.
March 31 2012 12:34 AM

Sharks With Frickin' Laser Beams Attached to Their Heads

Inside the egghead circus at Bell Labs.

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Published in 2005, Philip Gerard’s Secret Soldiers details Bell Labs’ involvement in the U.S. Signal Corps’ sonic deception program, mixing battlefield noise on three turntables to essentially raise a phantom army on vinyl. Even more hushed was the Bell Labs collusion with Muzak, Inc., the waiting room god of mindless symphony. Muzak helped produce randomized thermal noise records for a top-secret phone scrambler called SIGSALY, or Project X. Restricted to bigs like Churchill, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, the system’s central component was the vocoder, a Bell Labs device that had the L.A. Times crowing in 1939: “So wondrous, so stupendous, so complicated, so confusing.” Invented by physicist/beekeeper Homer Dudley in the late 1920s, the vocoder disbanded the voice into sub-frequencies and reconstituted this information into a machine’s impression of human speech. In the interest of transparency—in the Bell Labs, the “realm of opaque chatter”—my acoustic bias toward West Street’s military affairs can be traced to a book I wrote on the vocoder. Upon receiving The Idea Factory, I raided the index for vocoders and Project Xs, found none, and realized it’s hard to compete with all those lasers, radars, satellites, transistors, and Claude Shannons.

Jon Gertner

Leslie de la Vega

Mr. Shannon is the star of The Idea Factory, and not just because he invented a flamethrower trumpet. (That one never saw combat, alas.) Shannon’s cryptography breakthroughs made him a legend among codebreakers, while the conversations—but not secrets—shared with Britain’s chief cryptanalyst, Alan Turing, in the cafeteria at 463 West Street are legendary. Apparently, the two smartest guys in the room were busy figuring out how to make machines think, while everyone else at lunch wondered what was going on in their heads.

Shannon’s wry sense of humor was manifested in his life and work. He “wooed” his wife Betty in the Differential Analyzer room and designed a Roman numeral calculator called the THROBAC. His chess-playing computer would talk trash, belittling opponent’s moves. Shannon also puckishly designed an “Ultimate Machine”: simply a box with a button and a hand that emerged to shut it off, as if anticipating Charles Addams’ one-handed record changer, Thing.

Shannon’s most important realization was that information could be quantified into bits (his word), binary switches of ones and zeros—foreshadowing digital compression and the basis of how we communicate today. Shannon liberated information from requiring meaning, an eerie prank on our TMI society, when the NSA, according to Gertner, “intercepts and stores 2-billion phone calls, emails, and data transmissions” daily.


Meanings aside, The Idea Factory is also able to enjoy the sublime poetry of scientific jargon for its own sake. Take the quantum world, where “you could no longer say a particle has a certain location and speed.” Or a measurement like “one-millionth of an atmosphere.” The wonderfully named Time Assignment Speech Interpolation scans phone conversations 2,000 times per second for the pauses and dead air in human speech, switching this information to a different channel to increase bandwidth capacity. Meanwhile, John Pierce rescued the transistor from being called “The Iotatron.” The very idea.

Gertner laments how the terms of technology have become interchangeable, if not replaceable, like the product itself. The importance of distinguishing between invention, discovery, and innovation. Scientist and engineer. (Or in the vocoder’s case, noise and sound.) “The language that describes innovations,” he writes, “often fails to distinguish between an innovative consumer product and an innovation that represents a leap in human knowledge.” As if understanding had gone the way of John Pierce’s Telstar I satellite.

According to the U.S. Space Objects Registry, Telstar has been orbiting the earth since its launch in 1962, when Bell Labs still held hope for the Picturephone. It’s now just a floating ball of space junk. There is no signal. In the satellite anthem race, the Sidney Owens soul 45 “Sputnik” far outreaches the Tornadoes’ tribute to Telstar anyway. The chorus haunts: “People are running. Where are they going?” To use up all their data, where else? Maybe the future is happening so quickly, we just don’t have time for it.

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Dave Tompkins has contributed to the New Yorker, Grantland, and the Paris Review. His first book is How to Wreck A Nice Beach. He's currently writing a natural history of Miami Bass.