Bell Labs

Bell Labs – The Company that Invented the Future

In Technology by Paul ShillitoLeave a Comment


To some it was the ideas factory, to others it was the most influential institution of its kind in the world and in many ways has created much of the technology that is the bedrock of our modern world.

With 9 Nobel prize winners, whose work has been part of its output since it started, it has been at the forefront of technological innovation since its inception in 1925 and no other institution can rival the number of ground-breaking discoveries and inventions that have gone on to change the world.

Over time they not only refined existing products they also created entirely new technologies that include the development of the Transistor, the laser, solar cells, radio astronomy, CCD’s, information theory, the Unix operating system and the programming languages C and C++ and that’s just to name a tiny number of them.

So in this video, I thought I’d look at the revolutionary Bell Labs and some of the inventions that without which you wouldn’t be watching this video and I wouldn’t have been able to make it and how it was able to produce so much for so long and why it’s no longer the force it used to be.

For those that may have heard the name Bell labs but aren’t familiar with what they did and still do though now they are known as Nokia Bell Labs, Bell labs was part of the Bell telephone conglomerate originally co-founded by Alexander Graham Bell the inventor of the telephone.

In 1880 the French government awarded Bell the Volta prize of 50,000 francs, about $10,000, equivalent now to about $290,000 for the invention of the telephone. He used this to set up the Volta Laboratory to further research the analysis, recording and transmission of sound and by 1889 he had co-founded the American Telephone & Telegraph Company or AT&T.

The lab became the research and development arm for AT&T and by 1925 was consolidated into Bell Telephone Laboratories Inc, equally owned by Western Electric which made the equipment and AT&T which provided the telegraphic and telephone services.

Even by then Bell labs had 3600 engineers, scientists, and support staff and resided in a building with 400,000 sq ft of space at 463 West Street, New York.

Although they were primarily concerned with advancing telephone development, soon the spinoffs from this were moving into parallel areas of interest and the following is a tiny selection of their discoveries and inventions which starts in the mid-1920s.

As a spin off from their work with amplifiers and speakers for telephones, in 1927 they invented an early example of a synchronous-sound motion picture system, bringing the talkies into the movie theatres and so this could be heard by all, they created the amplification technology to play back the sound over loudspeakers at volumes loud enough to fill the large halls.

In 1931 whilst working on the origins of static on long-distance shortwave communications, physicist  Karl Jansky built a directional antenna designed to pick up signals in the 20.5 Mhz range, about 14.6-meter wavelength. This was about 100ft or 30m in diameter and about 20 ft or 6m in height and turned around on a set of four Model T wheels. By rotating it the source of a signal could be pinpointed and plotted automatically with a pen and paper chart.

Over months of plotting and observations, he discovered three types of static, local thunderstorms, distance thunderstorms and one from an unknown source which came and went once every 23 hours 56 minutes. He initially thought that this was coming from the sun but when he was discussing this with an astronomer friend, he said that the time matched that of the sidereal day, the time it takes for astronomical objects like a star for example to pass in front of the antenna and come back around again.

When he checked this against optical astronomical maps, the signal was coming from the constellation of Sagittarius and was in fact coming from the centre of the Milky Way. He thought that the sun might do the same but it was at a solar minimum at the time and was pretty much radio silent. He later surmised that the noise was coming from interstellar gas by thermal agitation of charged particles.

This was the birth of radio astronomy and changed the way we look at the universe completely, from that of just being the objects we could see in a photograph to one were we could see the whole spectrum of electromagnetic signals and “Jansky’s merry-go-round” as his antenna was called, was the first such radio telescope.

In 1932 the labs had experimented with high fidelity, long playing and even stereophonic recordings some 24 years before the first stereo LP records were available to the public in 1958 and in 1933 the first stereo signals were transmitted live from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.

In 1937 the first Vocoder or speech compression device and the first voice synthesiser were demonstrated.

Later in that year, Bell Labs researcher Clinton Davisson shared the Labs first Nobel Prize in Physics with George Paget Thomson for the discovery of electron diffraction and the wave nature of matter, which helped lay the foundation for solid-state electronics and the later creation of the transistor.

The 1940s turned out to be one of the most important decades in the company’s history.

In 1940 Russell Shoemaker Ohl, a semiconductor researcher was working on a batch of samples when he noticed one of them had a crack in the middle which had probably formed when the sample was made.

When he measured it, he found that generated an electrical current when exposed to the light. What he surmised was that the crack formed a P-N junction which is the basis of all solar cells with one side having an excess positive charge and the other an excess negative charge. When a photon came along it would kick an electron and start the current flow from one side to the other. With this, he accidentally created the first P-N junction solar cell with an efficiency of 1%, modern solar cells are about 20% efficient.

But it would 13 more years before another group of scientists also working at Bell Labs created the world’s first practical solar cell in 1953 and in 1954 they demonstrated it powering a small toy Ferris wheel and a radio transmitter.

In 1947 the most important invention that Bell created and what could be described as the most important invention of the 20th century, as well as the second noble prize for the labs came along with the invention of the transistor.

During the 40s the search had been on for a solid state replacement for the vacuum tube which was both large, fragile and power hungry. Basically, a device that could control a large current with a small one and with that you could make amplifiers or electronic switches with the same device.

The principle of the field effect transistor or FET had been known since the mid 20s but no one had been able to make a practical working version and is was during this exploration work that the breakthrough was made in 1947 although it wasn’t the field effect that they were looking for.

They found that when two gold contacts were placed on a piece of germanium and a signal applied, the output signal was larger than the input. What they had discovered was the Point contact transistor that would be the forerunner to bipolar junction transistors and because this was a different process it could be patented and because of that, the team of John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain shared Bells second Nobel prize.

In 1948, Bardeen patented the insulated-gate FET, the forerunner to the MOSFET which forms the basis of CMOS technology both of which would go on to transform the world and allow the miniaturisation which we are familiar with today. Bardeen is also the only person to win two Noble prizes for physics.

The 1950s saw developments that had started in the 40s in information theory which studies the transmission, processing, extraction, and utilization of information which had been founded by Claude Shannon, Harry Nyquist and Ralph Hartley.

This would go one to form the basis of fields like probability theory, statistics, computer science, statistical mechanics, information engineering, and electrical engineering.

Another central development was binary code systems and their use in communications including microwave links and repeaters & direct distance dialling.

In 1956 the first transatlantic communications cable TAT1 was laid between Scotland and Newfoundland in a joint operation by AT&T, Bell labs & the British and Canadian post offices.

There were two separate cables, one for each direction, each one laid in three sections, one for each entry and exit point from the sea and a central piece 2,800 km long. This could carry 72 voice channels at 3khz bandwidth.

The cable was also used for the hotline Between the Whitehouse and the Kremlin which was set up in 1963 after the Cuban missile crisis. Messages were sent via teleprinter as this was thought to have less potential for misunderstandings.

In 1959 Mohamed Atalla and Dawon Kahng invented the metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor or MOSFET which now underpins the computer chip industry and without this, the personal computer and smartphone we know today would not have been possible.

The 1960s saw a boom in developments in communications with the building by Bell labs and launching by NASA of Telstar 1 in 1962, the first commercial communications satellite. This enabled TV transmissions to cross the Atlantic ocean for the first time and ushered in the satellite TV age. Transmissions over land had been possible before with the use of repeater stations but the vast distance across the sea ruled this until Telstar came on to the scene.

In 1963, while using one of the Horn receivers that were used to receive satellite signals, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, the remnants of light from the very first stars that formed and provided important evidence for a hot early Universe and the big bang theory and in 1978 they received a Nobel Prize for their work which would be Bell Labs forth Nobel Prize.

The first continuous gas laser was operated in 1960 by Ali Javan, Rolf Seebach, William Bennett and Donald Heriot and by 1964 the carbon dioxide laser had been demonstrated.

During the early to mid-60s the first computer animated movies were made and the computer animation language BEFLIX was created to control the process which used an electron beam to draw pixels on to microfilm which was controlled by an IBM 7090 mainframe.

In 1969 the computer operating system UNIX was created by Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson originally for telecommunication switching systems as well as general purpose computing. This would later spawn the likes of Linux and the various open source versions of UNIX-like operating systems to become the dominant Operating system for servers on the internet. Apple’s macOS is also a UNIX 03 compliant Operating system.

Beginning in 1969 the CCD or Charge-Coupled Device was invented by Willard Boyle and George E. Smith, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 which by then was Bell labs 7th Nobel Prize. The CCD would form the basis of modern solid-state cameras and is still used in higher-end applications, though the CMOS sensor is now the dominant optical camera sensor in the vast majority of lower-end applications like smartphones.

In the 70s Dennis Ritchie developed the compiled programming language C as a replacement for the interpreted language B. In the late 70s, this would go on to become C++ and have its commercial release in 1985 and was used for desktop applications, video games, servers and performance-critical applications such as telephone switches or space probes.

In the 80s laser cooling was developed to slow and manipulate atoms and in 1985 Arthur Ashkin invented optical tweezers using laser beams allowing atoms, viruses, and living cells to be grabbed without harming them and is now widely used to study the tiniest living things. In 2018 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work, the 9th last one for Bell Labs.

In 1988 TAT-8 became the first transatlantic fibre-optic cable. Bell labs Freehold, NJ developed the 1.3-micron fibre capable of 280 Mbit/s with a capacity of 40,000 telephone calls.

In the late 80s realizing that the baud rate limit was fast approaching on voice band telephone lines, Richard D. Gitlin, Jean-Jacques Werner and their colleagues, made a major breakthrough by inventing DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and creating the technology that enabled megabit transmission on installed copper telephone lines, thus facilitating the broadband era which we all use now for our highspeed internet.

The last great invention under the Bell labs name was in 1996 when the SCALPEL electron lithography was invented by Lloyd Harriott and his team. This was able to print features onto microchips just atoms wide.

In 1997 AT&T spun off Bell Labs and most of its equipment manufacturing into a new company called Lucent technologies and although it continued its work , further changes, mergers and company owners meant that the days of Bell Labs being at the forefront of technology were at an end.

One of the reasons why Bell was able to produce such a depth of breakthroughs for so long was that until the explosion of Silicon Valley, R&D jobs for scientists, engineers, doctors and Professors tended to be in the research universities, which while being good jobs weren’t that well paid and sometimes lacked a sense of purpose other than being pure research.

Bell Labs offered not on better pay but also better opportunities and because its parent AT&T was a virtual monopoly it enjoyed large profits and equally large research grants and could afford to bring in the top people knowing that the work being done would only add to the bottom line and give them an even wider reach in the market place.

It was run by managers who typically had strong technical track records of their own and the working day was a normal 9-5. It was not unknown for people to work at their own speed and on their own pet projects for weeks or months at a time which could trigger those accidental discoveries and a-ha moments which are so often missing in today’s driven 24-7 work culture.

When silicon valley started to take off in the mid-90s and even larger pay-packets and share options which for some turned out to be worth many millions when the fledgling companies floated on the stock market, it saw a gradual shift away from Bell.

The pursuit of knowledge by the major tech companies now tends to be by mergers and acquisitions rather than having highly dedicated R&D arms like Bell labs but in recent years there has been a call to try and recreate the conditions to build a new Bell Labs to find the fundamental technologies that will be necessary for the next 80 years but only time will tell if they can.

So thanks for watching and don’t forget to click that bell notification, thumbs up and subscribe and I’ll see you in the next video.

Paul Shillito
Creator and presenter of Curious Droid Youtube channel and website

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