Aug 15, 2021
What is the nature of innovation? Is it overhearing a conversation as with Morse and the telegraph? Working with the deaf as with Bell? Divine inspiration? Necessity? Science fiction? Or given that the answer to all of these is yes, is it really more the intersectionality between them and multiple basic and applied sciences with deeper understandings in each domain? Or is it being given the freedom to research? Or being directed to research? Few have as storied a history of innovation as Bell Labs and few have had anything close to the impact.
Bell Labs gave us 9 Nobel Prizes and 5 Turing awards. Their alumni have even more, but those were the ones earned while at Bell. And along the way they gave us 26,000 patents. They researched, automated, and built systems that connected practically every human around the world - moving us all into an era of instant communication. It’s a rich history that goes back in time from the 2018 Ashkin Nobel for applied optical tweezers and 2018 Turing award for Deep Learning to an almost steampunk era of tophats and the dawn of the electrification of the world.
Those late 1800s saw a flurry of applied and basic research. One reason was that governments were starting to fund that research. Alessandro Volta had come along and given us the battery and it was starting to change the world. So Napolean’s nephew, Napoleon III, during the second French Empire gave us the Volta Prize in 1852.
One of those great researchers to receive the Volta Prize was Alexander Graham Bell. He invented the telephone in 1876 and was awarded the Volta Prize, getting 50,000 francs. He used the money to establish the Volta Laboratory, which would evolve or be a precursor to a research lab that would be called Bell Labs. He also formed the Bell Patent Association in 1876. They would research sound. Recording, transmission, and analysis - so science.
There was a flurry of business happening in preparation to put a phone in every home in the world. We got the Bell System, The Bell Telephone Company, American Bell Telephone Company patent disputes with Elisha Gray over the telephone (and so the acquisition of Western Electric), and finally American Telephone and Telegraph, or AT&T. Think of all this as Ma’ Bell. Not Pa’ Bell mind you - as Graham Bell gave all of his shares except 10 to his new wife when they were married in 1877. And her dad ended up helping build the company and later creating National Geographic, even going international with International Bell Telephone Company. Bell’s assistant Thomas Watson sold his shares off to become a millionaire in the 1800s, and embarking on a life as a Shakespearean actor.
But Bell wasn’t done contributing. He still wanted to research all the things. Hackers gotta’ hack. And the company needed him to - keep in mind, they were a cutting edge technology company (then as in now). That thirst for research would infuse AT&T - with Bell Labs paying homage to the founder’s contribution to the modern day. Over the years they’d be on West Street in New York and expand to have locations around the US. Think about this: it was becoming clear that automation would be able to replace human efforts where electricity is concerned. The next few decades gave us the vacuum tube, flip flop circuits, mass deployment of radio. The world was becoming ever so slightly interconnected. And Bell Labs was researching all of it. From physics to the applied sciences.
By the 1920s, they were doing sound synchronized with motion and shooting that over long distances and calculating the noise loss. They were researching encryption. Because people wanted their calls to be private. That began with things like one-time pad cyphers but would evolve into speech synthesizers and even SIGSALY, the first encrypted (or scrambled) speech transmission that led to the invention of the first computer modem. They had engineers like Harry Nyquist, whose name is on dozens of theories, frequencies, even noise. He arrived in 1917 and stayed until he retired in 1954. One of his most important contributions was to move beyond printing telegraph to paper tape and to helping transmit pictures over electricity - and Herbert Ives from there sent color photos, thus the fax was born (although it would be Xerox who commercialized the modern fax machine in the 1960s).
Nyquist and others like Ralph Hartley worked on making audio better, able to transmit over longer lines, reducing feedback, or noise. While there, Hartley gave us the oscillator, developed radio receivers, parametric amplifiers, and then got into servomechanisms before retiring from Bell Labs in 1950. The scientists who’d been in their prime between the two world wars were titans and left behind commercializable products, even if they didn’t necessarily always mean to.
By the 40s a new generation was there and building on the shoulders of these giants. Nyquist’s work was extended by Claude Shannon, who we devoted an entire episode to. He did a lot of mathematical analysis like writing “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” to birth Information Theory as a science.
They were researching radio because secretly I think they all knew those leased lines would some day become 5G. But also because the tech giants of the era included radio and many could see a day coming when radio, telephony, and aThey were researching how electrons diffracted, leading to George Paget Thomson receiving the Nobel Prize and beginning the race for solid state storage.
Much of the work being done was statistical in nature. And they had William Edwards Deming there, whose work on statistical analysis when he was in Japan following World War II inspired a global quality movement that continues to this day in the form of frameworks like Six Sigma and TQM. Imagine a time when Japanese manufacturing was of such low quality that he couldn’t stay on a phone call for a few minutes or use a product for a time. His work in Japan’s reconstruction paired with dedicated founders like Akio Morita, who co-founded Sony, led to one of the greatest productivity increases, without sacrificing quality, of any time in the world. Deming would change the way Ford worked, giving us the “quality culture.”
Their scientists had built mechanical calculators going back to the 30s (Shannon had built a differential analyzer while still at MIT) - first for calculating the numbers they needed to science better then for ballistic trajectories, then with the Model V in 1946, general computing. But these were slow; electromechanical at best.
Mary Torrey was another statistician of the era who along with Harold Hodge gave us the theory of acceptance sampling and thus quality control for electronics. And basic electronics research to do flip-flop circuits fast enough to establish a call across a number of different relays was where much of this was leading. We couldn’t use mechanical computers for that, and tubes were too slow. And so in 1947 John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley invented the transistor at Bell Labs, which be paired with Shannon’s work to give us the early era of computers as we began to weave Boolean logic in ways that allowed us to skip moving parts and move to a purely transistorized world of computing.
In fact, they all knew one day soon, everything that monster ENIAC and its bastard stepchild UNIVAC was doing would be done on a single wafer of silicon. But there was more basic research to get there. The types of wires we could use, the Marnaugh map from Maurice Karnaugh, zone melting so we could do level doping. And by 1959 Mohamed Atalla and Dawon Kahng gave us metal-oxide semiconductor field-effect transistors, or MOSFETs - which was a step on the way to large-scale integration, or LSI chips. Oh, and they’d started selling those computer modems as the Bell 101 after perfecting the tech for the SAGE air-defense system.
And the research to get there gave us the basic science for the solar cell, electronic music, and lasers - just in the 1950s. The 1960s saw further work work on microphones and communication satellites like Telstar, which saw Bell Labs outsource launching satellites to NASA. Those transistors were coming in handy, as were the solar panels. The 14 watts produced certainly couldn’t have moved a mechanical computer wheel. Blaise Pascal and would be proud of the research his countries funds inspired and Volta would have been perfectly happy to have his name still on the lab I’m sure. Again, shoulders and giants. Telstar relayed its first television signal in 1962. The era of satellites was born later that year when Cronkite televised coverage of Kennedy manipulating world markets on this new medium for the first time and IBM 1401 computers encrypted and decrypted messages, ushering in an era of encrypted satellite communications. Sputnik may heave heated the US into orbit but the Telstar program has been an enduring system through to the Telstar 19V launched in 2018 - now outsourced to a Falcon 9 rocket from Space X.
It might seem like Bell Labs had done enough for the world. But they still had a lot of the basic wireless research to bring us into the cellular age. In fact, they’d plotted out what the cellular age would look like all the way back in 1947!
The increasing use of computers to do the all the acoustics and physics meant they were working closely with research universities during the rise of computing. They were involved in a failed experiment to create an operating system in the late 60s. Multics influenced so much but wasn’t what we might consider a commercial success. It was the result of yet another of DARPA’s J.C.R. Licklider’s wild ideas in the form of Project MAC, which had Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy. Big names in the scientific community collided with cooperation and GE, Bell Labs and Multics would end up inspiring many a feature of a modern operating system.
The crew at Bell Labs knew they could do better and so set out to take the best of Multics and implement a lighter, easier operating system. So they got to work on Uniplexed Information and Computing Service, or Unics, which was a pun on Multics. Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, Doug McIllroy, Joe Assana, Brian Kernigan, and many others wrote Unix originally in assembly and then rewrote it in C once Dennis Ritchie wrote that to replace B. Along the way, Alfred Aho, Peter Weinber, and Kernighan gave us AWSK and with all this code they needed a way to keep the source under control so Marc Rochkind gave us the SCCS, or Course Code Control System, first written for an IBM S/3370 and then ported to C - which would be how most environments maintained source code until CVS came along in 1986. And Robert Fourer, David Gay, and Brian Kernighan wrote A Mathematical Programming Language, or AMPL, while there.
Unix began as a bit of a shadow project but would eventually go to market as Research Unix when Don Gillies left Bell to go to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. From there it spread and after it fragmented in System V led to the rise of IBM’s AIX, HP-UX, SunOS/Solaris, BSD, and many other variants - including those that have evolved into the macOS through Darwin, and Android through Linux. But Unix wasn’t all they worked on - it was a tool to enable other projects. They gave us the charge-coupled device, which resulted in yet another Nobel Prize. That is an image sensor built on the MOS technologies. While fiber optics goes back to the 1800s, they gave us attenuation over fiber and thus could stretch cables to only need repeaters every few dozen miles - again reducing the cost to run the ever-growing phone company.
All of this electronics allowed them to finally start reducing their reliance on electromechanical and human-based relays to transistor-to-transistor logic and less mechanical meant less energy, less labor to repair, and faster service. Decades of innovation gave way to decades of profit - in part because of automation. The 5ESS was a switching system that went online in 1982 and some of what it did - its descendants still do today. Long distance billing, switching modules, digital line trunk units, line cards - the grid could run with less infrastructure because the computer managed distributed switching. The world was ready for packet switching.
5ESS was 100 million lines of code, mostly written in C. All that source was managed with SCCS. Bell continued with innovations. They produced that modem up into the 70s but allowed Hayes, Rockewell, and others to take it to a larger market - coming back in from time to time to help improve things like when Bell Labs, branded as Lucent after the breakup of AT&T, helped bring the 56k modem to market.
The presidents of Bell Labs were as integral to the success and innovation as the researchers. Frank Baldwin Jewett from 1925 to 1940, Oliver Buckley from 40 to 51, the great Mervin Kelly from 51 to 59, James Fisk from 59 to 73, William Oliver Baker from 73 to 79, and a few others since gave people like Bishnu Atal the space to develop speech processing algorithms and predictive coding and thus codecs. And they let Bjarne Stroustrup create C++, and Eric Schmidt who would go on to become a CEO of Google and the list goes on. Nearly every aspect of technology today is touched by the work they did.
All of this research. Jon Gerstner wrote a book called The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. He chronicles the journey of multiple generations of adventurers from Germany, Ohio, Iowa, Japan, and all over the world to the Bell campuses. The growth and contraction of the basic and applied research and the amazing minds that walked the halls. It’s a great book and a short episode like this couldn’t touch the aspects he covers. He doesn’t end the book as hopeful as I remain about the future of technology, though.
But since he wrote the book, plenty has happened. After the hangover from the breakup of Ma Bell they’re now back to being called Nokia Bell Labs - following a $16.6 billion acquisition by Nokia. I sometimes wonder if the world has the stomach for the same level of basic research. And then Alfred Aho and Jeffrey Ullman from Bell end up sharing the Turing Award for their work on compilers. And other researchers hit a terabit a second speeds. A storied history that will be a challenge for Marcus Weldon’s successor. He was there as a post-doc there in 1995 and rose to lead the labs and become the CTO of Nokia - he said the next regeneration of a Doctor Who doctor would come in after him. We hope they are as good of stewards as those who came before them.
The world is looking around after these decades of getting used to the technology they helped give us. We’re used to constant change. We’re accustomed to speed increases from 110 bits a second to now terabits. The nature of innovation isn’t likely to be something their scientists can uncover. My guess is Prometheus is guarding that secret - if only to keep others from suffering the same fate after giving us the fire that sparked our imaginations. For more on that, maybe check out Hesiod’s Theogony.
In the meantime, think about the places where various sciences and disciplines intersect and think about the wellspring of each and the vast supporting casts that gave us our modern life. It’s pretty phenomenal when ya’ think about it.