In the town where I grew up, Greenville, South Carolina, there is a statue of one of Charles Townes, a physicist who invented the laser while working for Bell Labs, who for years was the research arm of the former AT&T phone company monopoly. There is a statue of Mr. Townes in the downtown of Greenville. He had the idea that if he shined a beam of light through a certain gas he could focus the light to a point and greatly amplify its power. This technology proved immensely valuable to the phone company allowing them to transmit phone calls digital through fiber optic cable. Of course its import to medicine and other fields has been enormous as well. And for the imaginative kid and movie producer it became the weapon which could be used to battle one’s adversaries on the planet and in space as well.
Growing up in Greenville at that time one could not own a telephone. Rather your rented it from AT&T who was the only phone company in the country except for certain local cooperatives. This device–built by the manufacturing arm of AT&T, Western Electric– was rugged. You could throw it across the room without damaging it. You could push it off the shelf or let your kids pound on it. While it had no dial tone, no speaker, no caller ID you could depend on it to work. Contrast that with where I live today, Chile, where the one and only telephone I received with my subscription to the VTR phone company no longer can be used to dial numbers. My wife replaced that one with a number of used telephones that she had lying around her law office and most of those are in varying stages of disrepair. No one wants the phone company monopoly and its reliability to come back but it did have its advantages like universal service which was why the USA let it operate for years unencumbered by competition until it forced it to break up into the smaller companies which exist today.
Jon Gertner has written a history of Bell labs called “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation“. The title somehow suggested that our glory days are behind us and the USA is sinking into some kind of funk but as far as the Bell Labs is concerned its heyday is definitely behind. Gertner’s history covers the inception of the lab and its movement from New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey up until the 1970s. This book is an interesting read if at times it delves too long into less interesting topics not particularly germane to technology–in particular AT&T’s lawsuits with the government over its monopoly status. Beyond that the one glaring omission is Gertner writes only one paragraph about the invention of the UNIX operating system there and nothing about the C computer language. These two software inventions have had a great impact on computer science like the other Bell Labs inventions pushed ahead communications.
Let us explain that omission briefly here. Dennis Ritchie died last year in 2011. He and his Bell Labs coworker Brian Kernigan invented both the UNIX operating system and the C computer programming language. UNIX today is still the powerhouse that runs most of the large computers in corporate America. It was studied and modified by researchers at Xerox who then lent their knowledge to Apple who were then copied in their efforts by Microsoft creating the objects we take for granted today like a graphical interace and the mouse pointer. UNIX too is the basis for Android which of course powers smartphones. Of equal import was the invention of the C programming language. That too is still in wide use today however having been replaced in most cases by more easy to understand alternatives and delegated to more complex engineering applications. Many a programmer of a certain age first learned how to program using the tersely worded, complicated yet subtle book written by these two “The C Programming Language” published in 1978. From there one first derived the notation that to learn a new computer language the first task was, and continue to be, to print the words “Hello World” on the computer screen.
The early days at Bells Labs was focused on how to transmit a phone call from such great distance as New York to Chicago. Teams of engineers working in the New York offices walked to work from their Greenwich village apartments to work with different metals, different insulating materials trying to push the signal further. It was a great break through when their signal reached the west coast. Later Bell Labs later invented the microwave which was used to transmit phone calls without a wire. Bell Labs also helped AT&T lay cable under the ocean to reach Europe–it took time to figure out how to use materials which would survive the great distance and icy depths of the oceans not to mention various creatures gnawing at the cover. Engineers continually worked to improve the system by, for example, figuring that one wire could transmit multiple calls at once by using the gaps in the conversation and the resulting electrical waves and interlacing other conversations there in.
Gertner explains there were many inventions coming out of Bells Labs. For example William Shockley broke one of the rules of management–which is do not compete with your subordinates–by stepping up to announce the invention of the transistor ahead of the his two coworkers John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain. The three of whom won the Nobel prize for their invention. Shockley later took his idea to use germanium to build transistors and moved to California to build a business out of that. Several of his employees thought that Shockley should focus on using the semiconductor silicon instead so they left the company to start what would become Intel.
For the military Bell Labs developed the radar and worked on cryptography. For all of us they developed the cell phone. And to improve long distance communications they invented the communications satellite. Claude Shannon took the ideas of Alan Turing further and invented information theory which is the basis upon which computers operate. Now Bell Labs belongs to the French–Sacre Bleau–Lucent Technologies having been one of the many companies which was spun off as the AT&T monopoly was broken into many pieces.