During the 1960s, I worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ. I started work there in 1961 in a deleopment department that worked on the human factors of telephony. I investigated the effects of telephone sidetone and of peak clipping. During the summer of 1962, I had a rotational assignment to the research division, working on cepstrum pitch detection. During that saummer, I also initiated my work in computer art, and later extended it into 3D computer animation. In 1971, I left the Labs for two years to work on the staff of the White House Science Advisor in Washington, returning to the Labs in 1973. A few years later, I transferred to AT&T to work in marketing.
I have written numerous papers and articles bout Bell Telephone Laboratories and industrial research. These papers and articles are:
• "Bell System R&D Activities," Telecommunications Policy, Vol. 11, No. 2 (June 1987), pp. 161-178.
• "The Effects of Divestiture on Telecommunications Research," Journal of Communication, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Winter 1987), pp. 73-80.
• "The Future of AT&T Bell Labs and Telecommunications Research," Telecommunications Policy, Vol. 15, No. 2 (April 1991), pp. 101-105.
• “Telecommunication Basic Research: An Uncertain Future for the Bell Legacy,” Prometheus, Vol. 21, No. 2, June 2002, pp. 177-193.
• “The industrial research lab: a relic of the past?” Nature Materials, Vol. 5, No. 5 (May 2006), pp. 337-338.
• "The Future of Telecommunication Research in the United States," November 17, 2006, presented at the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (CITI) at Columbia University.
• "The telecommunication research crisis," FierceTelecom, August 3, 2009.
• "Bell Labs: New Jersey's other invention factory," Daily Record, March 11, 2012, p. AA7.
I also co-edited a book about Bell Telephone Laboratories with the IEEE History Center. The book is a collection of auto-biographies of people who were at the Murray Hill, NJ facility in the 1960s. The people represent a cross-section of paople, including a glass blower, a limousine driver, a patent attorney, research scientists, and managers. The book is:
• Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation, A. Michael Noll & Michael N. Geselowitz (Editors), IEEE History Center (New Brunswick, NJ), 2011, printed by & available from Amazon.
A working paper version of "Memories: A Personal History of Bell Telephone Laboratories" is available at the Quello Center at Michigan State University. This book explores the history of Bell Labs from its beginnings with informaiton about its various locations. Personal anecdotes are sprinkled throughout to give a sense of what it was like to be employed there, particualrly during the 1960s.
Download this "pdf" file for a list of significant innovations and discoveries made at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. from 1925 through 1983.
The name “Bell Labs” can refer to any one of a number of different organizations that existed over the decades and thus can be quite confusing. This short history attempts to demystify the name “Bell Labs” and also calls for specificity in using the correct name.
Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. (BTL) was created in 1925 from the Western Electric Company’s engineering department, as a separate subsidiary owned jointly by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) and the Western Electric Company, Inc. (also owned by AT&T).
The name “Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc.” was lengthy, and it became nicknamed “Bell Labs” although the full name was always used in all official documents and publications. This original Bell Labs was located in a building on West Street in New York City. In 1942, a new location was created for Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ. The Murray Hill facility was expanded over the years, and a number of other facilities were also created for various divisions of Bell Telephone Laboratories (Holmdel, NJ; Whippany, NJ; Crawford Hill, NJ; Indianapolis, IN; Indian Hill, IL; and elsewhere).
The century-old Bell System was broken apart under the stipulations of the Modification of Final Judgment agreed to by AT&T and the US Department of Justice in 1982 and implemented on January 1, 1984. Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. ceased to exist on that date. A new AT&T Bell Laboratories (with headquarters in Murray Hill, NJ) was created as a unit of AT&T to perform R&D for AT&T. AT&T was allowed to retain the “Bell” name only for its Bell Laboratories, but placed AT&T in front to define clearly that the facility was part of AT&T, and had nothing to do with the Bell telephone companies who were given ownership of the “Bell” name.
Bell Communications Research, Inc. (nicknamed Bellcore) was created as a new corporation, wholly owned by the seven newly formed Regional Bell Operating Companies to perform R&D for them. Bellcore was renamed Telcordia Technologies, Inc. after its acquisition by Science Applications International Corporation and was then later acquired by Ericsson in 2012.
In 1996, AT&T divested its manufacturing subsidiary, AT&T Technologies, Inc. (formerly Western Electric), to create Lucent Technologies Inc. Lucent was allowed to retain most of AT&T Bell Laboratories as its R&D division, then called Bell Laboratories. AT&T organized its own AT&T Laboratories in 1996, which later in 2006 was renamed AT&T Labs and expanded to include SBC’s R&D units after SBC acquired AT&T in 2005.
Many of the artifacts pertaining to Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. and AT&T Bell Laboratories, Inc. are today the property of AT&T Inc. (formerly SBC Communications Inc.).
In 2000, Lucent divested part of its business to create Avaya Inc., with its R&D division called Avaya Labs. In 2002, Lucent divested its component business to create Agere Systems, Inc., along with its appropriate R&D organization. In 2007, Agere was acquired by LSI Corporation.
In 2006, the French telecommunications company Alcatel acquired Lucent and renamed the combined business Alcatel-Lucent, with its headquarters remaining in Paris. Bell Laboratories remained as an R&D division of Alcatel-Lucent, and in 2007 Alcatel’s Research & Innovation division was combined with Lucent’s Bell Labs to form an expanded and integrated Bell Labs, with operations in Murray Hill, in France, and at smaller international facilities.
To its credit, Alcatel-Lucent, with R&D operations in the Murray Hill facility and in France, continues the tradition of innovation of Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc., and also attempts to preserve the history of the past Bell Labs.
This short summary of the history of Bell Labs shows how the DNA of the original Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. was scattered among the various organizations that followed. Thus, the name “Bell Labs” can refer to many different organizations of the past and present. To prevent confusion, the full name of the R&D organization being referenced should be used (at least initially) and not the shortened “Bell Labs.”
To add to the confusion, there is a non-telecommunications Bell Laboratories, Inc. that is in the rodent-control business. This “Bell Labs” was founded in 1974 and is based in Madison, WI. But “Bell Laboratories” still implies the telecommunication research organization to many people.In the past, there was considerable cachet associated with Bell Laboratories. Unfortunately, today most people have no idea of what was accomplished at Bell Telephone Laboratories. One person I asked thought the transistor was invented at IBM. The corporate purchasers of telecommunication equipment care most about features and price and care little about whether there is some historical tie to the Bell Telephone Laboratories of the past. The sad fact is that other than those who worked there decades ago, very few others know or care.
Now decades later after my employment at Bell Telephone Laboratories, I remember with fondness my years there. The place was indeed special and unique. You had to be there to experience it. The following essay recounts my thoughts and experiences at Bell Telephone Laboratories --
A. Michael Noll
April 8, 2012
© 2012 AMN
Bell Telephone Laboratories has a tremendous reputation and is the focus of two recent books. One by New York Times feature writer Jon Gertner [The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation] covers its history from its foundation, including the role of big-name management. The other book [Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation] edited by Michael Geselowitz and myself presents biographical snapshots of a sampling of people who were at the Murray Hill, NJ facility during the 1960s.
It is impossible to obtain a feel for what it was like at Bell Telephone Laboratories by looking at memos and other archival documents. You had to be there. This article reports my experiences in working there in the research area during the 1960sa period that is considered to be part of its golden years.
BELL TELEPHONE LABORATORIES
Bell Telephone Laboratories was responsible for the conduct of research and development for the old Bell System. All that changed in 1984 with the breakup of the Bell System and the subsequent fragmentation of Bell Telephone Laboratories. After some name changes, such as AT&T Bell Laboratories, a smaller organization known as Bell Labs remains today, but as a division of the telecommunication manufacturer, Alcatel-Lucent.
The “old” Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) was an impressive organization in terms of technological and scientific innovation, invention, discovery, and engineering. As responsible for assuring the future of telecommunication in the United States, some innovations from Bell Telephone Laboratories included the Telstar communication satellite, microwave radio transmission, coaxial cable transmission, programmable automatic switching, and optical fiber transmissionwith continued advances in these and other systems contributing to making telephone service affordable and less costly over time. New services were also invented, such as touchtone dialing. Advances in how calls were routed improved the operational efficiency of the telecommunication network.
We all know that the transistor was invented at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Telstar was invented and developed there too. But less known is that today’s digital era came mostly from inventions and discoveries made at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Claude Shannon formulated information theory, using the bit as the fundamental unit of measurement of information capacity. Some of earliest digital computers were made at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Harry Nyquist discovered the concept of sampling. Digital computer art, animation, and music flowed from the pioneering work of its research. The UNIX operating system is yet another Bell Telephone Laboratories innovation and is the foundation today of most Apple computers.
Over 90 percent of the work done at Bell Telephone Laboratories was in direct support of the provision of telephone service, with another component performing work relevant to the military (mostly at the Whippany, NJ facility). Less than 10 percent of the work done at Bell Telephone Laboratories was basic or fundamental research (performed mostly at the Murray Hill, NJ facility). But that research had significant impact on today’s world of communication. Of the roughly 22,000 people who worked there in the early 1980s, about 1500 were in the research area. The cost of the research portion of the R&D work was about only one-tenth of the average phone billa real bargain.
Bell Telephone Laboratories had a formal organizational structure. At the very top of its management was the president. Reporting to the president were vice presidents of various areas, each indicated by a single digit followed by zero. Area 10, for example, included research and patents, and Dr. William O. Baker was its vice president during the 1960s. Executive directors of various divisions reported to a vice president. Area 12, for example, was called the communication principles division and John R. Pierce was its executive director. Directors of various laboratories (indicated through the use of 3 digitssuch as 123) reported to an executive director of a division. Heads of departments (indicated by 4 digitssuch as 1234) reported to the director of a laboratory.
The organizational structure from top to bottom thus was area, division, laboratory, and department.
I worked in research at Bell Telephone Laboratories, after an initial stint in the development area, during the 1960s and report here on that environment and what made it so special. This environment is what made Bell Telephone Laboratories such a powerhouse of invention and discovery.
Bell Telephone Laboratories had a reputation as being the pinnacle of research, engineering, and development. All projects were exciting and challenging, and nearly everyone who worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories wanted to be there as a first choicethe place to go to do well supported research with a mission and to interact with the best scientists and researchers. It was difficult to keep us away, even at night, on weekends, and over holidays. The parking lot always had cars in it, at all hours and times. Bell Telephone Laboratories had become “home” for many.
Attempts were made to keep everyone equal. Engineers and researchers were usually all classified as a Member of the Technical Staff (MTS). Even the vice president of the entire research area, Dr. Baker, was also “just” a MTS too. Decades later, Bell Labs would create a new category, Distinguished Member of Technical Staff,” along with a plaque on a wall, for “big name” stars. This type of glorification was avoided during the 1960s.
Although most of the researchers in the research area had doctorates, we were all addressed within the Labs as “Mister.” Only Baker was addressed as “Dr. Baker” and president Fisk as “Dr. Fisk.” There were Ph.D.’s in some of the development areas also. Professors were imported from New York University’s engineering school to teach at the Murray Hill facility so that new engineers could obtain their MS degree. Education was valued very highly at the Labs.
Researchers and those in development wrote formal Technical Memoranda describing their work and its results. Drafts of these documents were distributed about the Labs for comment and also to inform. If a particular TM seemed relevant, I would then contact the author and meet to discuss the work.
Papers were written for professional journals, but drafts of these papers were distributed beforehand for review and comment in advance of outside submission. Papers also had to be reviewed and approved by AT&T and by the patent department before outside submission. This review process contributed to improvements in the quality of the papers. Presentations at professional conferences likewise had to go through internal review. Once the topic of a presentation had been formally approved, the actual presentation was rehearsed in front of colleagues and any interested parties at the Labs. Critical comments were encouragedand this too improved the quality of the presentations and also helped disseminate information within the Labs.
The cafeteria was the place for chance encounters. So too was the exhibit area in the concourse between buildings 1 and 2. The library at the very end of building 1 was also where one would bump into a colleague perhaps searching on a similar topic for books and journal articles. I would be ordering a sandwich in line at the cafeteria, when the vice president of all research, Dr. Baker, would place his tray next to mine and ask politely whether he could join me for lunch. I had a friendly collegial lunch with the noted mathematician John Tukey to discuss cepstrum pitch detection.
Accessibility was strong. If I needed help analyzing some data, I could get help from an expert just by asking. The respected mathematician Dave Slepian helped on the mathematical intricacies of a new pitch detection scheme I had invented and contributed a section to my paper about the technique.
John Pierce wrote an article entitled “Whither Speech Recognition” in a professional journal. Since Pierce believed that automatic speech synthesis was more practical than automatic speech recognition, I replied with a critical response entitled “Whither Speech Production.” John reviewed an pre-publication version of my paper and actually made positive comments on it! He had a very open mind toward ideasas did everyone at Bell Telephone Laboratories.
Unlike university research, we did not have to write proposals for our research. An informed management knew what to encourage and support. This gave us more time for the actual conduct of research.
Summers were always fun, because that is when summer interns would show up. These young people were a source of energy and enthusiasm, and also of assistance in our research. So too were the various visiting scholars who would spend months with us, offering their perspectives.
The support staff at Bell Telephone Laboratories was extremely qualified and dedicated. The machinist who constructed my tactile communication device (today known as haptic) was extremely talented and did some virtually impossible machining work. The drafting people were indeed artists. One of them took some sketchy ideas by John Pierce and me about a Picturephone booth for the movie “2001” and created drawings that became reality in the movie.
Unofficial “government jobs” occurred when you needed a special part for your camera or home project. Machinists would conjure up that unique part. A glassblower would create a candlestick phone in glass to present as a gift to a distinguished corporate executive from Japan. The morning of the day before Christmas was when children and family members visited the Labs to see what went on thereand sometimes leave with a special glass ornament made for them.
We were all excited to tell the world of our discoveries by giving talks, attending conferences, and publishing papers in professional journals. However, if the discovery were patentable, then any form of publication would have to wait until the patent was applied for.
There was an entire department of just patent attorneys who would prepare the official application and description of our new inventions and discoveries. Patent attorneys are a unique breed, combining engineering knowledge with law, and those at the Labs were especially talented. Many came there with an engineering background and were sent to law school at night to obtain a law degree.
A patent attorney, Al Hirsch, wrote the patent for a method I had invented for converting vector graphics for a scanned display. The invention involved software at a time when software was considered not patentable. After being denied and appealed, the case was about to be presented to the US Supreme Court when AT&T ordered the Labs to abandon the case because the Court was asked to decide some issue affecting the fate of the Bell System. Al was so personally involved in my case that he virtually cried over the case being dropped.
Professionals staffed the library. In the late 1960s, the card catalogue was computerized one of the first to be so automated. The library system included almost all scientific and technical journals and books.
Management was professionally qualified and interested in the areas that they headed. John R. Pierce was executive director, and if I reported some new research results, he would just drop in to my office to inquire and see for himself, bypassing two levels of management. His enthusiasm and interest for the research being performed in his division was tremendousalthough he also made me feel very anxious.
The “ring leader” of the research area was William O. Bakera very unique and approachable person with an incredible memory for names, faces, and facts. He also realized that it was people that created an organizationpeople at all levels. Baker was as accessible and friendly to his limousine driver as to one of his more famous researchers. Baker would meet someone in the hallways, greet them by name and inquire about their family or research, drawing from his fabulous memory. Baker actively recruited the very best minds from across the planet, bringing them to his research divisionmuch to the displeasure of AT&T that thought he should hire only Americans.
There were often interesting diversions from daily research. When the acoustic failings of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center were acknowledged, Bell Telephone Laboratories was asked to investigate. My boss Manfred Schroder was a physicist with a strong knowledge of acoustics and headed our teamI tagged along. When the space capsule ignited on the ground killing three astronauts, we were asked to help unscramble the audio recordings made at the end. James Flanagan headed the team, and I joined in to provide pitch analyses. This diversion stimulated my research investigation of the effects of shouting on speech intelligibility.
There was a steady flow of interesting visitors to the Labs. Roy Disney came by to see our early work in computer animationbut saw no relevance then to his company! We invited Leopold Stokowski to visit to hear our work in computer music. Max Mathews had many composers and musicians who visited to learn of his research into electronic music. Bela Julesz and I exhibited our computer-generated patterns at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York City in 1965the first exhibit of digital art in the US.
NOT A PERFECT PLACE
Like any large organization, there were various problems. Personality clashes would occur between individual researchers and sometimes managers. It could become complex if your manager and another were battling, since this could affect merit reviews and other evaluative dimensions.
Romantic entanglements occurred. However, Bell Telephone Laboratories had policies against couples working in the same area, Unfortunately, it would usually be the female who would be transferred, although this policy was most strongly applied in the non-research areas. It was not until toward the end of the 1960s that some women in research had acquired doctorate degrees (usually with support from the company) and gained status as a full Member of Technical Staff (MTS). But some women, even with doctorates, continued to be classified as Associate Members of the Technical Staff.
Some scientists had been acquired from England, Germany, and Japan after World War II. Although 15 years later, this could create tensions, since some still remembered the War. It could become particularly tense if one of the researchers were British and the other Germanand WW II would be fought again between them on a personal dimension.
Some people were far more adept than others at overly promoting themselves and their work and at grabbing attentionparticularly, media attention, but also professional awards and prizes. In his recent book, Jon Gertner tells how William Shockley over-promoted his involvement in the invention of the point-contact transistor, making sure that he too was credited along with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. This was just one example though of this kind of over promotion. Some managers were so brilliant that they were be able to take the germ of an idea from one of their researchers and develop it as their own. But most often, ideas and credit were shared.
In one of my interviews of William O. Baker, he stated how many innovations are sometimes the results of the work of a number of people over the years, but only one might get all the credit and attention.
The management trick was to make researchers believe they could do whatever they wanted to do. But research was managedif with subtlety. Those who were hired were in areas that management deemed important to the future of telecommunication. If an area of research went nowhere after some years, the area would be closed down and the researchers expected to pursue different interests. There was freedom to take risk and follow new directions, but not forever. We were expected to publish and also to work on various “emergencies” that might arise. I recall being diverted to work on a team that was assisting the government during the Cold War to discover new ways to detect enemy submarines.
BEGINNING OF CHANGE
After a two-year sojourn in Washington working on the staff of the White House’s Science Advisor, I returned to Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1973, but it was already starting to become a different place. The management that I had in the 1960s had changed: John R. Pierce (formerly executive director of communication principles) had left, and William O. Baker (formerly vice president research) had been promoted to president. Their replacements and other appointments in the research area, in my opinion, simply did not have the vision and wisdom of their predecessorsand this filtered down the management chain.
Although I was again in the research area, the freedom to pursue risky projects had diminished. AT&T also began to put pressure on the research area to become more relevant. I was assigned to work on a research project to illuminate why the Picturephone had failed and to investigate the nature of two-way visual telecommunication.
Walking the long hallways of the Murray Hill facility, I could feel that the environment had changed, with an emphasis in my research area on the short-term practical. The government’s anti-trust action against the Bell System was having an effectlong before the actual Bell breakup occurred in 1984.
But Bell Telephone Laboratories had also become too large, too bureaucratic. Some development projects, such as electronic switching, had become overly costly and complex, ignoring simpler solutions. Too many resources were given to electromagnetic waveguides, although it was clear that optical fiber would be the better transmission medium for the future. Low earth orbit satellites were proposed but would be very costly and complex to track. Systems engineering became an end in itself, rather than a broad perspective to be applied to most projects. The Labs’ past historical leadership in technology was steadily slipping away, perhaps starting with the market failure of the Picturephone in the early 1970s.
The factors that created Bell Telephone Laboratories as one of the great industrial research institutions would be nearly impossible to replicate today. John Pierce listed some of these factors in his 1990 book Signals: The Science of Telecommunications. For one, the monopolistic power of the Bell System assured stable long-term funding and also a strong sense of mission for assuring the future of telecommunication in the United States. Today no single company is responsible for telecommunications in the US, although it could be argued that between them Verizon and AT&T are a duopoly with that responsibility. But they do not seem to appreciate basic research of the kind that used to be at Bell Telephone Laboratories. They do no manufacturing, although research can result in new services.
Researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories had the freedom to fail and also to take a long-term perspective in their research. Some of research performed there was first developed commercially outside the Bell System, thereby benefitting the United Sates and the rest of the planet more broadly. Early use of the transistor was in portable radios, thereby benefitting everybody. Patents had to be shared and made accessible, thereby turning Bell Telephone Laboratories into the R&D organization of the planet. Today, the emphasis is on the short-term and on product development and improvement, and such past luxuries cannot be supported. The emphasis is primarily on short-term profitsnot the long-term future.
Other great industrial giants of the past also had their own basic research laboratories. Today most are relics of the past. Industrial research laboratories simply no longer exist or no longer have the freedom of the past. The times have changed.
A smaller Bell Labs remains today, but as a division of the telecommunication manufacturer, Alcatel-Lucent. Bell Labs today, remembering its heritage from the days of Bell Telephone Laboratories, still values innovation. Leaner, it occupies a portion of the Murray Hill facility and continues the tradition of invention and discovery.
There are those who believe we should rely on research done at universities with government support. University research has its place, but its distance from the real world, the grant proposal process which discourages risk taking, and its lack of any broader mission, other than to achieve next year’s funding, make it a poor replacement for the industrial research laboratories of the past.
A. Michael Noll is currently professor emeritus of communication and former dean at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California. At Bell Telephone Laboratories during the 1960s, he pioneered digital computer art, 3D animation, haptic communication, and cepstrum pitch detection. He has researched and had papers and articles published about the Labs. His recent book, co-edited with Michael Geselowitz of the IEEE History Center, is titled Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation and is printed by Amazon.