The Idea Factory: How New Jersey’s Bell Labs Engineered the Future

Encore: June 25, 2012

Innovations at New Jersey’s Bell Labs included those that paved the way for satellites and cell phones. Jon Gertner, author of “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” sat down with NJToday Managing Editor Mike Schneider (@MikeSchneiderNJTV) to discuss the company’s past and how it remains an active research facility until today.

Author: Jon Gertner
Publisher: The Penguin Press 
Publication Date: March 2012

From its founding in 1925 until its demise in the 1980s when its owner AT&T was broken up, Bell Labs, now owned by Alcatel-Lucent, was the biggest laboratory for ideas and innovation in the world. The research and development wing of AT&T was so forward-thinking that its innovations sometimes took up to 20 years to develop.

As Jon Gertner, author or “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” explains, “It was attached to a monopoly, AT&T in those days. It had this huge stream of money that was flowing, so it could hire the best people, build the best facilities.”

The labs started in New York City, and moved to its current location in Murray Hill, New Jersey in 1941. It was there that Bell Labs hit its prime with the invention of the transistor in 1947.

“That’s really the building block of all digital products in contemporary life,” said Gertner. The three scientists who invented the transistor received the Nobel Prize in Physics for it in 1956.

Almost every aspect of modern life has been touched by Bell Laboratories, the birthplace of the laser, the solar cell and fax machines.

“We think of California and Silicon Valley as synonymous with innovation but really for the better part of the century, New Jersey was the center of innovation — first with [Thomas] Edison… and then Bell Labs as really being the center of innovation for 50, 70 years,” said Gertner.

Though AT&T kept its interests in Bell Labs after its court-ordered antitrust breakup in 1984, it soon sold Bell Labs to Lucent.

“It didn’t seem that things would go downhill or things would change that drastically,” said Gertner. But it did. Although the company was free to compete in other markets, it just wasn’t up for that kind of competitive metabolism.

The legacy of inventors and Bell Labs’ ability to think into the future was what kept the company striving.

“Maybe that long-term thinking needs to come back in some ways,” he said. “It’s a nice balance for the short-term, high metabolism, high-speed innovation we have right now.”

Videos from the AT&T archives on how the company explained its innovative technology and imagined the future:

WATCH VIDEO: “First Born,” 1991

“First Born,” a short film produced in 1991, imagines what life would be like in 2003 — when, according to the voiceover, “telephone lines will unlock the knowledge that will help us learn, keep us well and set us free.” The film tells the story of a San Diego family welcoming a new baby into the world. They use voice-activated computers, shop online using an electronic Yellow Pages and communicate using video pay-phones.

WATCH VIDEO: “Party Lines,” 1946

A relic of the past, “party lines” allowed several homes to share the cost of owning a telephone by connecting to one local loop. The only drawback? Only one person could use the line at one time and, if you picked up at the wrong time, you could eavesdrop to your neighbors’ conversations, so phone lines weren’t secure or private. Sharing a phone line required etiquette that’s now obsolete. This 1946 film offers advice on the “do’s and don’ts” of sharing a party line.

WATCH VIDEO: “The Thinking Machines,” 1968

This 1968 film takes an abstract concept, computer logic, and compares it to human thought to explain how computers work. “The Thinking Machines” was originally produced as part of an in-school educational program that AT&T piloted during the 1960s.

WATCH VIDEO: “Scrap!” 1974

Handsets, wiring, even decrepit telephone booths — “Scrap!”,  from 1974, explains how waste created by the telecommunications industry was recycled in the Nassau Smelting and Refining Works facility. According to the film, in those days the plant processed 2 million pounds of telecommunications waste and reclaimed copper, aluminum, and other metals for re-use.

For more technology news, watch “MetroFocus: The Tech Economy,” airing on THIRTEEN on June 30 at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and July 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on WLIW at 5:30 a.m. on June 30; on NJTV on July 1 at 5:30 a.m. and July 2 at 4:30 a.m.

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