Bell Labs: A Brief Introduction

Bell Labs was perhaps the most prolific source of innovation that has ever existed. Within the span of six decades it gave the world many of the most important inventions of the twentieth century, inventions without which the computer, telecommunications and many other industries and scientific pursuits would not exist in their present forms.


In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell received two patents for his invention of the telephone, and the following year he established the Bell Telephone Company with two financial backers.

In 1885 The American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) was formed as a Bell Telephone subsidiary for the purpose of building and operating the first long distance telephone network. It soon became the world's largest telephone company and one of the largest and most pervasive monopolies in U.S. history, although a highly regulated and generally benevolent one.

In 1925, Walter Gifford, then president of AT&T, established Bell Telephone Laboratories Inc., commonly called Bell Labs, as a 50-50 joint venture with Western Electric, AT&T's manufacturing subsidiary. Although AT&T had been a highly innovative company right from the beginning, the founding of Bell Labs facilitated the continuation and expansion of its research and development activities.

Bell Labs was designed to bring together some 4,000 engineers and scientists working on improving telephone systems. It began by taking over work that was previously conducted by the research division of Western Electric's engineering department.

But there was also an ulterior motive. One of the reasons that Bell Labs was set up was as a way for AT&T to show its commitment to the national interest in order to minimize criticism of its monopoly power. This was a brilliant strategy and it worked well for decades.


The work done by Bell Labs was divided into three broad categories: basic research, systems engineering and development. Basic research covered fields such as mathematics, physics, materials science, behavioral sciences and computer science, and it helped create the theoretical underpinnings for electronics, computers and telecommunications. Development, by far the largest of the activities, consisted mainly of designing both the hardware and software for use in building AT&T's vast telecommunications network.

One of Bell Labs' first major accomplishments was the invention of the artificial larynx in 1929. Thirty years later, it introduced an electronic artificial larynx, and its basic design is still in use today.

In 1933, Karl Jansky, while investigating the origins of the static that occurred in long distance communications, discovered that radio waves were being emitted from the center of the galaxy. This led to the founding of radio astronomy.

In 1937 Clinton Davisson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for experimental confirmation of the wave nature of the electron. He was the first of seven Nobel Prize winners produced by AT&T.

Two years later H.W. Dudley invented an artificial talking machine called the Voder, the world's first electronic speech synthesizer.

The breakthrough that is widely regarded as having the most far reaching consequences of all of Bell Labs' countless innovations was the invention of the transistor in 1947. It laid the foundation for modern electronics and thus for the tremendous advances that have occurred in virtually every field of human endeavor as a result of the availability of powerful, low cost and compact electronic devices. The three inventors, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956.

This was only the first in a series of fundamental advances in solid state electronics that occurred at Bell Labs. For example, in the 1950s R. S. Ohl discovered that sunlight shining on a silicon wafer produces a surprisingly strong electrical current. This lead to the invention of the first solar cells. And in 1980 Bell Labs developed the world's first single-chip 32-bit microprocessor, the BELLMAC-32A.

One of the biggest discoveries came in 1965. While tinkering with an antenna that was constructed to detect radio signals from a network of orbiting balloons, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson noticed a disturbance affecting the transmission. Further exploration led them to conclude that it was a lingering effect of the big bang, the explosion that many scientists believe created the universe. For this work the two were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1978.

Bell Labs was also the source of much original work on modern communications theory and technology. For example, Claude Shannon, a mathematician and widely regarded as the father of information theory, published A Mathematical Theory of Communication in 1948 in the Bell System Technical Journal, which in part built on earlier work in information theory at Bell Labs by Harry Nyquist and Ralph Hartley. This work was the first to treat communication as a rigorously stated mathematical problem and to provide communications engineers with a technique for determining the capacities of communications channels in terms of of bits (the fundamental unit of data storage and transmission in both computers and communications).

Software Breakthroughs

In addition to being the birthplace of many of the most fundamental breakthroughs in electronics for modern computer and communications hardware, Bell Labs was also the source for some of the most important advances in computer and communications software. Foremost among them was the development of the UNIX operating system, which, along with the transistor, is often considered to be one of the two greatest inventions to come out of Bell Labs.

Ken Thompson, a computer scientist, wrote the initial version of UNIX in one month (while his wife was away on vacation) in 1969. UNIX is widely regarded as the best and most influential operating system ever developed, and, despite its age, which is ancient by computer standards, it is still going strong today in its various guises, including the increasingly popular Linux.

The C programming language, which was written at Bell Labs in the early 1970s chiefly by Dennis Ritchie, is in many ways the most important of the hundreds of programming languages that have been developed in the world to date. For example, it is by far the most frequently used language for writing system software, (e.g., operating systems and other programming languages), and it is also widely employed for writing application programs.

C is important not only because of its own usefulness but also because many other programming languages are based on it. Among the most popular of them is C++, an object-oriented language that is used mainly for the development of application programs. C++ was also developed at Bell Labs, by Bjarne Stroustrup in the 1980s, and it brought object-oriented languages into the programming mainstream. Such languages make extensive use of objects, which are software packets that contain a collection of related data and procedures for operating on that data, in order to greatly increase programmer productivity.

What Made It Unique

Bell Labs' main facility consists of a vast complex of buildings located in the tranquil-looking town of Murray Hill, New Jersey, which is about 20 miles west of New York City. Working there was sometimes described by its researchers as like being at a top notch university but without the distractions of having to teach classes and grade papers. It was widely felt that one of the most productive locations at this site was the cafeteria, where researchers from various disciplines mingled freely and exchanged ideas without the strict divisions that typically exist in universities.

Unlike some large monopolies, AT&T was carefully regulated by the government. This helped ensure that its mission was not merely to accumulate massive profits at the public expense and to squander them on projects of dubious merit. Rather, it helped guarantee that it was to provide benefits to the country as a whole in the form of reasonable rates, excellent service and first-class innovation, including the output from Bell Labs.

The artificially high phone rates enabled AT&T to spend lavishly for Bell Labs. For example, researchers could obtain approval within a matter of days to purchase costly equipment, and numerous librarians were available to order any book or periodical subscription that staff scientists requested.

The freedom to spend created a culture of independence and unhampered scientific inquiry. The brightest and most imaginative researchers from around the world were attracted by the opportunity to pursue their work unrestricted by short-term business considerations. Only a huge monopoly such as AT&T could afford the luxury of thousands of top researchers working on projects of their own choosing and without concern for profits or patents (although Bell Labs did produce more than 28,000 patents while still part of AT&T).

Although AT&T could be criticized for not fully capitalizing on these achievements, it should be kept in mind that even a moderate shift in emphasis towards being more market-oriented could have had a negative effect on what made Bell Labs so uniquely creative and productive. It should also be kept in mind that many of the advances that were not commercialized by AT&T were put to good use by others, thereby possibly maximizing the benefits to the economy and society as a whole.

Bell Labs Today

Today the massive cluster of buildings is still there. The name is unchanged. Some of the same people remain there, and Bell Labs remains one of the world's largest telecommunications research facilities.

However, Bell Labs is vastly different from what it was. In recent years there have been few of the truly revolutionary breakthroughs that characterized the Bell Labs of earlier decades. In fact, it is now often characterized as just another industrial research laboratory; some people go so far as to describe it as a national tragedy.

The transition began in 1984 when AT&T was broken up by the U.S. government by removing the local phone operations and splitting them into seven independent regional carriers. The remaining core of AT&T was then divided into three more units in 1996, one of which combined Bell Labs and Western Electric into a new company named Lucent Technologies. After initially prospering during the telecommunications boom of the late 1990s, the new company suffered massive losses in the bust that followed, and at one point even resorted to such measures dimming lights in the Murray Hill facility to help cut expenses. This, together with Lucent's narrower focus (mainly communications networking), caused it to drastically reduce expenditures in areas unrelated to telecommunications. Although many of the remaining scientists at Bell Labs wanted to maintain their research autonomy, they felt both pressured and personally motivated to help the company through its difficult times.

Another factor was the massive cutbacks in outlays for basic research by the U.S. government, which had funded about two thirds of it during the 1960s and 1970s largely because of the Cold War.

This phenomenon of a period of peak creativity is certainly not unique to Bell Labs. It is also commonly seen with regard to other organizations (as well as for individuals and even countries and empires). An example is Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which was established in 1970 by Xerox Corporation in Palo Alto, California. At its peak, PARC produced an array of innovations that few other research facilities have been able to match, with the exception of the much larger and more diversified Bell Labs, and it was the source of many computer technologies that remain among the most useful even today. Like Bell Labs, it still exists, but its accomplishments in the past several decades rarely makes the headlines and seem to pale in comparison to its earlier achievements.

Created May 26, 2005.
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