This week’s entry: Bell Labs
What it’s about: When one site is the place of origin for so many scientific breakthroughs, it takes on mythological significance. Edison’s workshop. Area 51. The Ghostbusters’ firehouse. Throughout the 20th century, Bell Labs (which has moved over the years from D.C. to New York to New Jersey), and PARC Labs in California have been the Biggie and Tupac of science’s East Coast/West Coast rivalry (which we can only assume must exist). While PARC has advanced home computing remarkably, inventing the GUI, the mouse, Ethernet, and the laser printer, Bell cast a wider net, with inventions and breakthroughs in numerous disciplines, and more Nobel Prizes than Frasier has Emmys. Since the lab was founded by its namesake, Alexander Graham Bell, it has served as the research arm for the company he founded, AT&T, and one of America’s most potent sources of technological innovation.
Strangest fact: You’re reading this because of Bell Labs. The laboratory’s researchers have done more to make the Internet possible than Al Gore. In 1972, Bell researcher Dennis Ritchie developed the C programming language. C is still in use today to develop software, but Ritchie used it to rewrite the UNIX operating system (which he had developed with Ken Thompson). UNIX is used nearly everywhere, including as the underpinning of MacOS, and Linux. But it was also used to develop ARPANET, the Defense Department’s computer network that would eventually become the series of tubes we call the Internet. (Many of those tubes are fiber optic, a system which Bell Labs was instrumental in developing. And physical Internet connections are being phased out in favor of wireless networking—Alexander Graham Bell made the first wireless phone call in 1880, and his lab created the first wireless network just over 100 years later).
Biggest controversy: Bell Labs’ work has been mostly uncontroversial, and even within the usually controversy-fraught Wikipedia community, the only complaints on the talk page are that the article doesn’t give the lab enough credit. One user complains that the article focuses on science at the expense of engineering and equipment design, which is the lab’s true first priority. Another says Bell’s work in the fields of linguistics and cognitive psychology are overlooked. And a former Bell Labs employee writes at length to correct several errors, including one small invention that was overlooked by the article—the mobile phone, first available from AT&T in 1946.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Even spies have Bell Labs to thank for something. While most of the lab’s early decades were devoted to sound and telecommunications (Bell Labs sent a fax in 1925, although someone else invented that one), Bell researchers Gilbert Vernam and Joseph Mauborgne perfected a secret code system which is still thought to be unbreakable. The one-time pad cipher involves converting text to numbers (as every computer would eventually do), then adding a random number to every character, and converting it back to text. Only someone with the list of random numbers, in the correct order, could decode the message.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: In recent years, Bell Labs has gotten out of the pure research game. For most of its existence, the philosophy behind Bell has been that, if you get enough smart people together developing ideas, enough of those ideas will be marketable (like the transistor) that purely theoretical ones (like cosmic background radiation) will be a pleasant bonus. But times change. In 1996, AT&T spun off Bell Labs into a new company called Lucent Technologies. In 2006, Lucent merged with French telecommunications giant Alcatel, which merged Bell Labs with its own research division, laying off many of Bell’s employees in the process, announcing in 2008 that it was dropping not-immediately-profitable research like material physics and “basic science,” and is now focused solely on industry-specific technologies like networking, software, and nanotechnology. There’s a great irony in a French company shutting down Bell’s pure research, as Alexander Graham Bell only set up the lab in the first place after winning the 1880 Volta Prize from the French government for inventing the telephone. He used the winnings—a quarter million in today’s dollars—to set up what was originally called Volta Laboratory.
Also noteworthy: Besides working with the U.S. government on creating the nation’s telephone infrastructure (and then exporting that technology to the rest of the world to insure a compatible global communications system), Bell Labs had at least two other significant government contracts: Project Nike (named, like the shoe, for the Greek goddess of victory, Bell developed America’s first working anti-aircraft missile system), and the Apollo Program.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: This may only be of interest to New Yorkers, but Bell Labs’ Greenwich Village headquarters used from 1925 until the early 1960s, was converted in 1970 into Westbeth Artists Housing when the Lab moved to suburban New Jersey. Westbeth is a non-profit apartment complex which provides low-cost living and working space for artists. The complex was one of the first industrial buildings in America to be converted for residential use—now common practice in gentrified city neighborhoods. Residents of Westbeth must submit their work to be reviewed by the complex’s governing board, but with the board’s approval, artists can live at Westbeth for rents as little as a quarter of market value. Former Westbeth residents include Diane Arbus, Robert Beauchamp, Moses Gunn, Robert De Niro Sr. (the actor’s father was an expressionist painter), and a young Vin Diesel. The real-life inspiration for Seinfeld’s Kramer was also a Westbeth resident, whose low-rent lifestyle baffled his friend Larry David, and prompted him to create Jerry’s mysteriously income-deficient neighbor.
Further down the wormhole: In the mid-1980s, Bell Labs created a new operating system, intended to replace UNIX. While it’s still in use today as a research tool, and was updated as recently as 2002, the newer system never caught on with the wider world, except as a research tool. Bell Labs named the system Plan 9 From Bell Labs, a reference to Plan 9 From Outer Space, widely considered to be one of the worst movies ever made. That film’s director, Ed Wood, will be the subject of next week’s installment.