6/27: An Author Looks Back to the Future

Award winning tech and business journalist Jon Gertner visits the Little Silver Public Library on Thursday evening, June 28, to discuss his book THE IDEA FACTORY: BELL LABS AND THE GREAT AGE OF AMERICAN INNOVATION. (photo by Leslie de la Vega/ Penguin Books)

There were those primitive computer-printout images — representations of Snoopy or Abe Lincoln, composed entirely of X’s or punctuation symbols — that our Aunt Shirley brought home from her job at Bell Labs; surely the god-damnedest thing that a circa-1966 kid had ever seen.

There was that oddly shaped tower outside the mirrored box of the corporate complex, a War-of-the-Worlds colossus standing starkly out from the cabbage patches, egg stands and petting-zoo farms of Holmdel. Then, when we got a bit older, there was the sneaking suspicion that this inscrutable center for arcane and eldritch research had more than a little bit to do with nearby Gravity Hill — as well as a lot to do with the eventual reconfiguring/ defusing of the locally famous “mystery spot.”

It’s not at all hyperbole to suggest that in its heyday, Bell Labs was where The Future took shape.

The list of accomplishments claimed by the Murray Hill-based research and development arm of AT&T included some of the genuine building blocks of modern life (transistors, lasers), game-changing milestones of the Computer Age (the UNIX system, C programming language, Information Theory) and a whole lot of landmark work in the fields of radio astronomy, fiber optics, solar cells and satellite communications.

Close to home, its local connection — both via the company’s major presence in Monmouth County, and the caliber of people it attracted to this once relatively sleepy corner of New Jersey — impacts our lives in ways that are as here-and-now as the handheld mobile device that you’re probably reading this on, and as shrouded in wonder as the very origins of the universe.

In the years between 1925 and the breakup of the old Bell System companies in 1984, Bell Labs was there on the frontlines of every significant sea-change in the ways that information is collected, stored, processed, organized, and transmitted. In fact, the work done here in Monmouth was directly responsible for at least two of the seven Nobel Prizes that Bell researchers were awarded in those six decades  — an era that nationally known science/tech and business writer Jon Gertner brands The Great Age of American Innovation.

A longtime contributor to The New York Times Magazine and currently an editor at Fast Company, the Maplewood resident has been touring the northeast and appearing on TV/ radio/ web outlets in support of his first book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. It’s a flurry of activity that brings Gertner to the greater Red Bank Green — a community with its own significant link to the Labs legacy — for an in-person appearance at the Little Silver Public Library on Thursday evening, June 28.

Fair Haven resident and renowned inventor Bob Lucky is among the Bell Labs veterans interviewed by John Gertner in his book THE IDEA FACTORY. At right, the old horn antenna at Crawford Hill traced a path from the Big Bang to the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Compiled from exhaustive research, illuminating interviews (in some cases with veterans who have neared or even passed the century mark) and recently de-classified documentation of Bell’s involvement in national defense projects, The Idea Factory is a fascinating look at the vivid characters, fast-changing society and extraordinary can-do spirit behind an enterprise that would come to employ over 25,000 people by the early 1980s.

Removed from the distractions of a big-city setting; funded by the dependable revenues from phone-bill paying customers of the old Bell/ AT&T monopoly; Bell Labs fostered a culture in which researchers would just as often spend years working on projects with no clearly defined objectives, as they might on such deadline-specific, goal-oriented programs as fiber optics.

Among the Bell Labs veterans interviewed by Gertner is internationally noted engineer and inventor Bob Lucky of Fair Haven, who was quoted as saying, “We had these people who were bigger than life back then…we don’t seem to have them anymore.”

Those bigger than life personalities included communication-theory kingpin Claude Shannon (who would juggle while riding a unicycle up and down the lengthy corridors of corporate HQ); satellite specialist John Pierce (who would grab some me-time by shutting himself inside a locker) — and William Shockley, whose later pronouncements on matters of race failed to win the level of high regard as his pioneering work in transistors.

These physicists, mathematicians, chemists and engineers were among the “brilliant, independent-minded men” who found themselves working side by side at the then-unique Murray Hill campus — a corporate facility that, in Gertner’s words, “operated like a national laboratory…a place that believed in the rich exchange of ideas.”

The “more elite” Murray Hill facility would be bolstered in 1962 by the 400-plus acre Holmdel Complex — a place that Gertner characterizes as “not so Ivy League, and yet its accomplishments are every bit as important.”

“There was a sense there of people working with their hands; an understanding of how things worked,” adds the author in reference to the problem-solving personnel who often hailed from rural backgrounds.

The incongruously modern (and nowadays vacant) Eero Saarinen-designed building in the farmlands of rural Holmdel Township was augmented by other satellite locations in Monmouth County — including nearby Crawford Hill, the “small but autonomous” site of a largely obsolete wood-frame Horn Antenna that would prove to be “an incredibly vital thing” in the fledgling field of experimental cosmology.

It was up on Crawford Hill in the mid-1960s — an outpost “relatively free from interference” (of both signal and human varieties) — that Bell Labs scientists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson conducted the research that led to the largely accidental discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, and by extension the first strong evidence in support of the Big Bang Theory.

Penzias and Wilson would go on to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978, and the old Horn Antenna would be designated a National Historic Site in 1990. Nearly 20 years later, the Nobel committee would award the Physics prize to Steven Chu — now the US Secretary of Energy — for work (on the cooling and trapping of atoms using lasers) done locally.

The Holmdel complex would come to play a crucial role in the development of cellular telephony — and the late Red Bank resident Douglas H. Ring would achieve lasting renown as the man whose 1947 memo to his colleagues would, according to Gertner, “lay out the first real plan for this system;” creating (with Bell Labs co-workers W. Rae Young and Philip Porter) a practical framework for a technology that had really yet to be invented.

While Bell Labs had its share of missed opportunities (losing out to others on integrated circuits, picture phones and the earliest versions of the internet), its successes continue to resonate almost thirty years after the breakup of AT&T and the eventual shuttering of the Holmdel campus, following its rebranding under the Lucent banner.

“Some companies continue to do important research, but a lot of them just can’t justify it to their shareholders,” says Gertner of the present-day attitude in an age of outsourced manufacturing, funding cutbacks and increased competition. “It’s risky, and it’s expensive.”

“Bell Labs endured as long as it did because it served the purpose of creating an infrastructure for what was then a new industry,” Gertner observes. “And, because it produced good work.”

Thursday’s 7 pm program at Little Silver Public Library is presented free of charge. For more information, call (732)747-9649 or email aobrien@monmouthcountylib.org.

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