The Lasting Legacy of Bell Labs
"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? "
I've mentioned the important work of Bell Labs in previous newsletters. But to really appreciate that smartphone in your pocket, that music you're listening to on your stereo, and the newest episode of The Game of Thrones, it deserves our full attention. It was born more than a hundred years ago out of the need to improve the nascent telephone. It grew into a pure research facility that made an astounding number of scientific discoveries, improved or invented new technologies, and even influenced art and music.
In 1907, Western Electric, the manufacturing subsidiary of a young AT&T, started a research department to improve, develop, and patent telephone technology. By 1925, the department had grown to 3,600 employees. AT&T split the department into two groups, one of which was for pure industrial research–Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. Because their efforts required much experimentation, some interesting new technologies were developed in the early days of Bell Labs, such as:
- Electrical sound recording
- Television transmission
- The fax machine
- The quartz electric clock
- A wearable electronic hearing aid
- An artificial larynx
- Transatlantic telephone system
- And the sampling theorem – or more precisely, digital audio and communications.
All of these were conceived by the brain pool of Bell Labs before 1930. The next decade would bring even more unbelievable new discoveries and technology:
- The moving-coil microphone (basically the modern microphone)
- Radio astronomy
- Stereo sound recording, transmission, and phonograph
- Raster scan television (standard TV until Hi-Def came along)
- Vocoder speech synthesis
- Boolean Logic Relay Computer
When, as one author put it, "The Second Great Inconvenience" broke out, many Bell Labs inventions were, ahem, "convenient" for war:
- Vocoder Speech Secrecy System
- Acoustic Homing Torpedo
- Horn-Reflector Antenna
- Echo-Ranging Sonar
- Synthetic Rubber
- Computer Controlled M5 Gun Director
- Nike Anti-Aircraft Missile
From after the war until the early 1980s, Bell Labs invented, developed, or improved:
- Coax cable
- The silicon and photovoltaic solar cells
- The words "software" and "bit"
- Wireless cellular communications
- The transistor
- Computer music
- Digital computer art
- The "laser"
- Electret microphone
- Big Bang radiation detection
- Van Allen belt detection
- UNIX operating system (Apple, Linux, etc.)
- C, C++ programming language (leading to Java, Python, Perl, and other internet programming languages)
- CCD (video and digital photography sensor)
- The hologram
- Fiber Optics
This list is by no means exhaustive. They produced thousands of theorems, discoveries, and innovations that surround each of us everyday. There were hundreds of scientists who worked at Bell Labs, many of whom won the Nobel Prize, that are now legends in their respective fields:
- Joseph Maxfield - recording and acoustical engineering work on the phonograph and movie sound recording
- Harvey Fletcher - acoustic engineering work on the electric hearing aid, stereo recording and stereo transmission
- Harry Nyquist - communications engineering on thermal noise, television transmission, and the sampling theorem that led to digital audio and communications
- Arthur Keller - audio engineering on stereo recordings, and sonar systems for the US Navy
- John Bardeen - electrical engineering on the transistor and semiconductors
- Chapin Cutler - communications engineering on Telstar and Project Echo satellites
- John Pierce - electron theory and devices for NASA's first communication satellite Echo 1, the Telstar 1 satellite with the first intercontinental TV broadcast, and the electron gun used in CRT televisions and computer monitors
Bell Labs continued to be the world's largest and most significant industrial lab after the war through the 1970s. In 1984, when the Ma Bell monopoly was broken up by the courts, Bell Labs was broken up into smaller units as well. With unlimited funding virtually gone, it was no longer dominant. Today, the much, much smaller Bell Labs is part of the Alcatel-Lucent Corporation under Nokia. It still creates, enhances, and produces innovative technologies for voice and data communications. With all those big brains over there, I wonder if I can get them to fix my iPhone dropping calls whenever I walk into my kitchen?
- The history of Bell Labs on the Engineering and Technology History Wiki
- The New York Times has a great article on Bell Labs
- A list of significant innovations and discoveries by Bell Labs, plus comprehensive biographies and oral histories of many of its scientists
- A corny music video from 2000 called "The Bell Labs Innovations Song." Listen at your own risk.
- Nokia bought Alcatel-Lucent, which owns Bell Labs. This article at Quartz has a nice history of the labs.
- Forbes Magazine explains why Bell labs was so important to innovation. The article skirts the technology in favor of its resources, talent, and culture.
- Vintage computer chip collectibles, memorabilia and jewelry made from actual products of Bell Labs