Innovation & Insights

If Bell Labs Thinks It's Impossible...

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • In 1957, Sony released the TR-55 the Japan's first pocketable transistor radio.
  • The beauty of Akio Morita's and Masaru Ibuka's vision was that it was beyond what was thought possible at the time - even by some of the world's best minds.
  • The great lesson that's always worth repeating is that all great breakthroughs by definition must be preceded by overwhelming professional opinion that something is impossible.

Then it's probably really worth doing. That must have been the thinking in 1953 as Masaru Ibuka was told by Bell Labs, from whom they'd recently received permission to license transistors, that a "transistor radio" wasn't possible.

And at this time, they really weren't. Most radio companies were really large pieces of furniture. The thinking was probably, "Why would you ever want a small one?" But Ibuka was interested in the idea, not just because he wanted a pocket-sized radio, but because he wanted an over-sized goal to put before his engineers as a challenge. Dan and Chip Heath in Made to Stick capture Sony's approach in classical managerial themes:

"Sony will beat Bell Labs in making a transistor radio work."

"Sony will be the world's most respected manufacturer of radios."

""Sony will create the most advanced radios in the world."

In 1957, they succeeded in their goal with the release of the TR-55 the Japan's first pocketable transistor radio. The beauty of Akio Morita's and Masaru Ibuka's vision was that it was beyond what was thought possible at the time - even by some of the world's best minds.  

The great lesson that's always worth repeating is that all great breakthroughs by definition must be preceded by overwhelming professional opinion that something is impossible. Burt Rutan, who has five of his aerospace designs in the National Air and Space Museum (SpaceShipOne, the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, Voyager, Quickie, and the VariEze) - and one of the best sets of sideburns this side of Las Vegas, puts it even better:

"Revolutionary ideas come from nonsense. If an idea is truly a breakthrough, then the day before it was discovered it must have been considered crazy enough or nonsense or both - otherwise it wouldn't be a breakthrough." 

More crazy. More nonsense. Sounds like fun.

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