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Brainiac

How to build an idea mill

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Andres Amador

Art built to vanish

If all this warm weather has you thinking of the beach, consider the impermanent sand paintings of Andres Amador. Amador, who is based in San Francisco, sometimes uses a team of artists or schoolkids to construct his paintings. On his website, he explains that his interest in “the incredible canvas of the beach” has its roots in his work as a conservation worker in Ecuador. The paintings are always washed away by the tide, sometimes while they’re still being completed. The ephemerality is part of the beauty.

You may be eating designer fruit

Smithsonian magazine has just launched a great new blog, Design Decoded, by the writer Sarah C. Rich--and Rich has started things off with an absolutely incredible history of the seedless mandarin orange. It might seem odd to write about a citrus fruit on a design blog, but, as Rich shows, the orange is one of the most deeply designed products in the world. It’s “the iPhone of the produce aisle.”

istockphoto; globe staff illustration

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Oranges, Rich explains, have gone on a long journey. Today, they’re specially bred to have easy-to-open, “unzippable” skins, and are marketed to kids as a healthy snack. New varieties are given catchy, consumer-friendly names like “Cutie” and “Tango” (researchers have discovered that “the public prefers two-syllable words” for oranges). Some of today’s most forward-thinking citrus growers are even using unmanned drones to monitor the water consumption of the orange trees, with the aim of ensuring that all the oranges come out the same size, with identically smooth skins.

What does the future hold? Probably even more innovation, leading to even more perfectly designed oranges. “What would the produce aisle look like if every piece of citrus were palm-size, unblemished, and the same deep, glossy shade of carnelian?” Rich asks--or, if growers made cube-shaped oranges, “for more space-efficient shipping?” We might be only a few years away from finding out the answers.

How to build an idea mill

What made post-Depression America so economically dynamic? In part, it was that lots of great inventions, like automobiles, air travel, telephones, and computers, became cheap enough to raise everyone’s standard of living. Jon Gertner’s “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” is a wide-ranging, detailed, and deeply fascinating look at the New Jersey lab which helped make that possible, by churning out an extraordinary stream of useful discoveries, including the transistor (the essential ingredient in all electronic devices), the radio telescope, the theory of information, the communications satellite, the digital camera, the laser, and the UNIX operating system--not to mention, of course, our entire modern communications infrastructure.

Fox Photos/Getty Images

An engineer at work on a Project Telstar communication satellite at the Bell Telephone Laboratory.

The Bell Laboratories were formally created in 1925, when different engineering departments within the massive American Telephone and Telegraph Co. were consolidated into one giant lab. Thousands of engineers and scientists worked on its New Jersey campus, all united in the goal of extending and perfecting the telephone network. No detail was too small, and no problem too big: Labs scientists figured out how to make telephone poles gopher-proof; invented the telephone ring (before telephones rang, Gertner explains, you shouted “Ahoy!” through the phone until someone on the other side heard you); and also explored basic scientific questions in physics, chemistry, and other fields. Scientists like William Shockley (inventor of the transistor) and Claude Shannon (inventor of information theory) were spurred on by an unending stream of practical engineering problems, like how to cram as many conversations as possible into a single phone line. In part because it was funded by an unending stream of telephone revenue, the lab could produce innovation on a truly industrial scale. (Ironically, Gertner notes, the technologies invented there were what eventually undermined the phone company’s business model.)

Today, the Bell Labs model seems anachronistic: We tend to think of innovation as flowing from small firms and entrepreneurs. But Bell Labs, Gertner argues, should stand as an important counter-example to our obsession with start-up culture. There’s a difference, he believes, between the small, iterative, market-driven successes created by start-ups and the truly huge technological revolutions created by well-funded research institutes, in which scientists and engineers can work together in an open-ended, interdisciplinary way. “Some contemporary thinkers,” he writes, “would lead us to believe that twenty-first-century innovation can only be accomplished by small groups of nimble, profit-seeking entrepreneurs working amid the frenzy of market competition”--but Bell Labs, by contrast, shows how much more “large human organizations might accomplish.”

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at joshua.rothman@gmail.com.
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