Sunday, January 17, 2016

Materials made inventions possible

In later years, it would be a kind of received wisdom that many of the revolutionary technologies that arose at Bell labs in the 1940s and 1950s owed their existence to dashing physicists such as Bill Shockley, and to the iconoclastic ideas of  quantum mechanics.  These men could effectively see into the deepest  recesses of the atom, and could theorize inventions no one had previously deemed possible. More fundamentally, however, the coming age of technologies owed its existence to a quiet revolution in materials. Indeed, without new materials—that is, materials that were created through chemistry techniques, of rare  and common metals that could now be brought to a novel state of ultrapurity by resourceful metallurgists—the actual  physical inventions of this period might have been impossible. Shockley would have spent his  career trapped in a prison of elegant theory. 
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 81

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