The United States had always been destined to be a place where things were tried differently, set to this task by being a new nation founded by industrious people from all over the world. There was an attitude of resolve and risk-taking and while many inventions were created or otherwise adapted and applied to massive scale before the time of the Bell Labs, no single organization stands out more for having been so innovative under one roof.
The story begins with the great invention of Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone and the network it required which slowly spread across the United States. Ma Bell was a huge and ruthless corporation and the complex network of local phone systems owned by different companies was a mess and not compatible. The entire system was plagued by challenges: switching systems, reliability, equipment failures, poor signal quality and limitations. A new leader to AT&T in 1907 changed the course of the company and vowed to unify the network and the technology. The goal changed to being the technological leader and having the foresight to invest in the future.
Bell Labs was founded to solve the industrial challenges of a single industry but in the process would change the world. Full of engineers and scientists. Depending on what you needed you could walk across the building and talk with a chemist, a machinist, an electrical engineer, a physicist, a metallurgist, a mathematician and a magnetism expert. All under one roof working to solve real challenges with countless discoveries and products. An idea can only be innovative if it creates a real advantage and that’s why the Bell Labs rule was better, cheaper or both. It wasn’t enough to just make something, it had to be technologically superior or more economical.
When war with Germany became a seeming inevitability Bell Labs transformed into a military research center tasked with solving thousands of challenges from anti-aircraft gun accuracy to oxygen masks for pilots and applications for improvements to radar. As seen in the pacific during WWII and the coasts of Britain, Bell Labs designed radar systems gave the allies a large advantage.
After the war the lab transitioned quickly back to pressing scientific and communication problems and within years announced the creation of the transistor. The transistor was a monumental accomplishment and it soon changed the face of the electronics industry with a cheaper cost, more reliability and a smaller size than vacuum tubes. The scientists who created it were awarded a Nobel peace prize in 1956.
New technologies continued out of the labs, the silicon transistor, the first communications satellite and ingenious methods for getting more phone calls on a single line. Decades before video conferencing, cellular telephones and advanced digital computers – scientists at Bell Labs had grasped what was coming and developed concepts and prototypes that were far ahead of their time. In some cases it would be 40 years before the market caught up and truly took advantage of work done at Bell Labs.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s public opinion and government antitrust action finally started to go against Ma Bell and in 1982 it finally broke apart. Bell Labs continued to go on for several decades, making important contributions to digital communications. In 1996 they were spunoff to become Lucent Technologies and later Alcatel-Lucent, employing less than 1,000 employees today they at one point had over 25,000 people. Even so it still remains a focused group of scientists and engineers working to solve the challenges of communications.
In the course of its history it discovered, invented or played a major role in:
-Motion picture sound
-Six Sigma (SPC)
-Long distance television transmission (microwave)
-Solar battery cell
-Cosmic background radiation detection
-Discovery of the origin of the universe