There is a place on this planet where – year after year – the future is invented and transformed into the present.
This place is at Murray Hill, in New Jersey, USA. It’s the Bell Labs headquarter, today property of Nokia.
Bell Labs and the Theory of Gravity
From the outside, in one of the gardens, there is an apple tree, which descends directly from the most famous of all apple trees (right after the Eden one): the one from which an apple fell on Isaac Newton’s head, inspiring him to come up with the Theory of Gravity.
Within the massive building, at the entrance, there is a bell jar that protects the first history transistor.
Without transistors, there would be no processors – which would mean no televisions, computers, internet, smartphone. Without transistors, there wouldn’t be computer technology as we intend it nowadays. And our present would be very, very different. The transistor has been invented right here, at Bell Laboratories, in 1947.
For this game-changing invention, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley won the Physics Nobel prize in the same year. Only one of the eight Nobel prizes that came out of Bell Labs’ walls.
The Bell Labs’ inception
Who invented the telephone? The Italian Antonio Meucci, or the American Alexander Graham Bell? Hard to say with certainty. It’s a complex story of patents and endless controversies.
What is sure is that in 2002 the USA Congress has recognized the invention to Meucci. But, a century before, it was Graham Bell to win the Volta Prize, and exactly for the same invention. He also won 50 thousand francs, which he used to open a laboratory in Washington. However, for the foundation of what is today associated with Bell Labs, we’ll have to wait till 1925, and we’ll have to travel a few hundreds of miles north, in New York. And we’ll also have to wait for the appearance of another character: the engineer Elisha Grey, who also filed the same telephone patent in 1876, but two hours later than Bell.
Grey founded the Western Electric that, after his death, together with AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph Company), founded the Bell Labs, whose head office was set in Manhattan, at 463 West Street.
Bell Labs an unstoppable rise
Among the first Bell Labs researchers, there was the physicist Mervin Kelly, who then became President of the Research Center in 1951. He was persuaded that the Labs needed a group of extraordinary people in constant interaction. A broad number of high-level physicists, chemists, computer scientists, and engineers populated the labs creating an unprecedented crossing of backgrounds, skills, and ideas. The very structure of the Labs, made of narrow hallways, was conceived to facilitate the interaction among the scientists.
And the concrete, phenomenal outcomes of this utopian project weren’t long in coming. After only two years from the foundation, the image of President Hoover traveling from Washington to New York on a screen thanks to the Labs technicians was none other than the first breath of television.
Ten years later, the first Nobel prize arrived. It went to Clinton Davisson for proving the electrons’ diffraction. At the same time, a few steps away, Homer Dudley invented the vocoder (take a look here to discover more about the history of synthetic voices).
At the beginning of the 40’s the first photovoltaic cell came to life. It was a milestone for the exploitation of solar energy. In 1957 it was the time of the first software to produce electronic music. The following here, the laser made its appearance. On July 10th 1962 the Telstar was the first satellite ever launched into orbit, thus changing forever our world, making it smaller and more connected.
During the 70’s and the 80’s, the Bell Labs were at the forefront of the personal computer revolution. At the Labs, the C and Unix programming languages were born, as well as the fiber-optic cables and the first 56k modem. The list goes on, and it’s full of surprises.
In 1997, 1998, 2009, and 2014 four more Nobel prizes arrived. They are the most recent to date.
“Our duty is to imagine the future” once said Jeong Hum Kim, President of the Labs from 2005 to 2013. A duty well performed, no doubts about that.
Today, the world’s best minds still walk around the hallways of the Bells Labs, which have moved from New York to Murray Hill. Every day, experiments that can dramatically change our lives are carried out tirelessly, including fields such as quantum computing, optical networks, artificial intelligence. But also cloud computing, a story that is particularly close to Doxee’s heart.