Looking for Dragons Drives Progress

Some problems can be labelled “dragon problems”, because they take you into the part of the map that says “Here be dragons” on it.

First, let’s talk about Bell Labs. Bell Labs was an/the R&D department at AT&T and invented a really alarmingly large fraction of the computing infrastructure we use today. I didn’t really appreciate quite how much until I read The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner (I just thought of Bell Labs as the unix and C place), but examples include transistors, information theory, mobile phones, and a whole host of other things.

People talk a lot about what it was in the environment of Bell Labs that made it so productive – whether it was the people involved, the organisational structure, or something else – but I think such discussions often miss the basic point: The thing that made Bell Labs so productive was that it was their job to make a better telephone network.

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