AT&T Bell Laboratories, Inc. History

Address:
600 Mountain Avenue
Murray Hill, New Jersey 07974
U.S.A.

Telephone: (908) 582-3000

Wholly Owned Subsidiary of AT&T Corporation
Incorporated: 1925
Employees: 29,000
Operating Revenues: $3 billion
SICs: 8731 Commercial Physical Research

Company History:

AT&T Bell Laboratories is the research and development arm of AT&T. Bell Labs designs and develops all the systems and services required by its parent company, conducts experiments for application to AT&T's manufacturing facilities, and provides the technological foundation for the company's future. Much of modern society as we know it, with its emphasis and dependence on technological innovation, has been formed within the research facilities of Bell Labs. The organization's renowned scientists have created such innovations as solar cells, lasers, transistors, cellular mobile radios, long-distance television transmission, stereo recording, communications satellites, and sound motion pictures. The Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to seven scientists at Bell Labs. Since its founding, the facility has received an average of one patent a day. Entering the mid-1990s, Bell Labs had claims to more then 25,000 total patents.

One of the most influential private research laboratories in the entire world, AT&T Bell Laboratories was established in 1925. The process of centralizing research and development operations with AT&T started in 1907 when AT&T merged its engineering department with the engineering department of Western Electric Company.

Bell Labs was formed in an effort to combine the resources and talent of various research laboratories into a single operation. At the beginning of its existence, Bell Labs employed 4,000 individuals, many of whom were reputable engineers, physicists, chemists, metallurgists, and mathematicians from the United States and Europe. This technical staff conducted some of the initial--and famous--experiments in the burgeoning fields of electronics, magnetics, and radio. Freedom to pursue research in various areas, including those outside the telecommunications field, was encouraged and rewarded. Frank B. Jewitt, the first president of Bell Labs, knew that applied and fundamental research would ultimately benefit AT&T's telephone business.

In 1927 Bell Labs scientist Clinton Davisson conducted an experiment during which he bombarded a small crystal of nickel with electrons. The dispersement of the electrons in waves as they bounced off the nickel corresponded to their momentum. Davisson's documentation of this research provided the initial experimental proof that electrons display wave characteristics. Ten years later, Davisson received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in the field of electron wave characteristics.

The year 1927 also marked Harold S. Black's first experiments in the field of negative feedback circuitry. Black eventually proved the principles that gave rise to the negative feedback amplifier, one of the most important discoveries in the communications field. The practical application of these principles resulted in the design and success of long-distance multichannel systems. Taking this research one step further, H.W. Bode investigated the problems of distortion and noise interference, which were the consequences of using amplifiers for long-distance telephone communication. Through intensive mathematical analysis, Bode discovered a way to eliminate the noise and distortions, thereby improving the quality of transcontinental telephone communication.

Bell Labs was contacted by the U.S. Navy in 1937 to develop research already initiated in the emerging field of radar technology. Between 1934 and 1937, the Naval Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Signal Corps had conducted experiments in the field of radio detection and ranging device. Bell Labs' involvement in the project proved worthwhile. In 1939 the facility demonstrated to U.S. federal government and Navy officials a model radar instrument that accurately plotted the course of ships between New York and New Jersey. Impressed with the accuracy and reliability of the new technology, the government awarded numerous contracts to the research facility. According to the arrangement, Bell Laboratories designed the radar and Western Electric Laboratories manufactured the final equipment. By the time America entered World War II in December of 1941, the development of radar technology had become the single largest activity engaged in by Bell Labs. During the war, scientists at Bell Labs designed over 100 different kinds of radar equipment, including submarine radar, fire control radar for large guns on Navy vessels, and bombing radar for the United States Air Force.

In 1942 Bell Labs engaged in one of its most secret projects--the design and manufacture of a successful acoustic homing torpedo. The homing torpedo was dropped in the vicinity of a hostile submarine from an aircraft. When the torpedo entered the water, it was electrically propelled by an acoustical design system that focused on the propulsion mechanisms of the submarine. The torpedo was designed to pursue the propulsion mechanism and then explode upon impact with the vessel. According to U.S. Navy statistics, approximately 55 enemy submarines were rendered inoperable by the homing torpedo model.

In 1943 Bell Labs designed the famous echo-ranging sonar device. Developed to detect underwater objects, the device emitted a pulse of sound waves that registered an echo from underwater objects. This echo was then transformed back into a pulse that helped U.S. vessels locate the actual position of the object. Initially intended for use on anti-submarine patrol boats, the technology worked so well that it was soon used by larger ships in the U.S. Navy.

After the end of World War II, Bell Labs resumed its research on semiconduction and other projects that had been interrupted by the war effort. The first experiments on semiconduction were performed in England during the 1930s, and scientists at Bell Labs expanded upon these investigations. Included in the research team, among others, were William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brittain. The combined research of the team led to the discovery of the "transistor effect," and the origin of the point-contact transistor. This transistor would become an essential component to the radio, television, and computer industries. Shockley, Bardeen, and Brittain received the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics in recognition of their research, which ushered in the beginning of the microelectronic age.

In 1951 William G. Pfann discovered a technique for purifying germanium. This ultrapurifying method, known as "zone refining," solved the inherent problem of melting materials such as germanium and silicon at extremely high temperatures. Pfann's method brought the purity of materials under control to the extent that it could then be applied to manufacturing semiconductors. During the latter half of the 1950s, two scientists at Bell Labs, C.H. Townes and A.L. Schawlow, collaborated on experiments that ultimately led to the discovery of the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and its principles. Later, additional research in this field led to the invention of the first helium-neon laser and the first continuous wave solid-state laser.

Bell Labs scientists were involved in three major technological developments during the 1960s: electronic switching, satellite communications, and computer operating systems. Before the war, the research laboratory made significant advances in discovering what implications electronic technology had for telephone switching capabilities. In 1953 a research group was given the task of designing an electronic switching system. By 1963 AT&T had installed the first such switching system in Cocoa Beach, Florida. In 1965 AT&T used this technology to install the first commercial office switching system in Succasunna, New Jersey.

The facility was also a leader in investigating satellite communication technology. John R. Pierce, a researcher at Bell Labs, had conducted investigations for years on how to reflect voice signals from a communication satellite. In 1960 his theories were confirmed when voice signals were reflected off a "passive balloon satellite." Two years later, the world's first speech and television transmissions were successfully achieved through a communications satellite named Telstar I. In 1963 a second satellite, Telstar II, was launched into orbit around the earth. The research conducted on this project, and its application, had enormous consequences for world communications. By 1970, less than a decade later, satellite communications systems provided more than 50 percent of all the voice channels between the United States and foreign countries.

The third major technological development to originate at Bell Labs during this time had to do with computer operating systems. Many researchers were unsatisfied with the performance of the operating system on their computers at the lab. They felt that a new system that could run on any type or brand of computer would be more useful to them. Consequently, scientists designed an operating system that was "open"; a system that could be used by many different computer brands and could also interconnect with other operating systems. This operating system, called UNIX, was first used on a limited basis within AT&T offices and facilities, and among universities and colleges. Before long, however, AT&T realized the vast market potential of the system. By 1989 UNIX was the standard operating system in almost all computers purchased within the United States.

For Bell Labs, the decade of the 1970s was most notable for the awards won by its scientists. In 1973 John W. Tukey was awarded the National Medal of Science for his work in mathematics and theoretical statistics. In 1978 Philip W. Anderson and another scientist received the Nobel Prize in physics for their research into the electronic structure of magnetic and glass materials. Robert W. Wilson and Arno A. Penzias were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering the almost indiscernible radiation that remained from the "big bang" explosion. Their research provided further evidence in support of the "big bang" theory, which postulated that a cosmic explosion billions of years ago gave birth to the universe.

The single most important event that affected Bell Labs was the breakup of the Bell System in January 1984. The immediate change involved a reduction of the number of employees from 26,000 down to 19,000. Former Bell Lab employees were transferred to Bell Communications Research (Bellcore) and AT&T Information Systems. But the long-term change was more significant, for the mission of Bell Labs was altered after the breakup. Prior to the divestiture, research and development at the facility focused on the design and improvement of equipment and services in the telecommunications field. Scientists at Bell Labs had been able to choose their own research projects based on their own interests. From the time of the divestiture, however, management at AT&T reorganized Bell Labs in order to reflect the parent company's new focus as a leader in the information age. Instead of concentrating on comprehensive telephone service, Bell Labs' new mission was to develop information systems and services and help AT&T reduce the time between product design and market introduction.

This new orientation for Bell Labs immediately resulted in major achievements. AT&T saved millions of dollars when scientists designed a new dynamic routing system that more efficiently routed phone calls through the company's long-distance telephone network. In 1985 Bell Labs developed an innovative speech processing system, Conversant Systems, that AT&T formed into a new venture. During the same year, Bell Labs became the first company to receive the prestigious National Medal of Technology. In 1986 the research facility assisted Illinois Bell and its parent company in designing and deploying a highly innovative ISDN network that incorporates video, voice, and data signals over the same path of transmission. A year later, Bell Labs discovered a method to increase the current-relaying capacity of ceramic superconductors. In 1988 scientists from the laboratory helped AT&T, along with numerous European and Asian telecommunications firms, install fiber-optic cables under the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This technology significantly improved data, voice, and video intercontinental communications. In 1989 scientists from Bell Labs, in collaboration with researchers from Bellcore, developed the world's smallest laser, which AT&T will use to provide more efficient optical communications systems in the future.

During the 1990s, research and development at Bell Labs has focused on three main areas: microelectronics, photonics, and software. These three areas are regarded as cornerstones of the "Information Age" and provide the basic technology for practical applications in visual communications, messaging, networked computing, and voice and audio processing. Microelectronics is a fundamental aspect of the rapid development of the fields of computing and telecommunications, and Bell Labs has sought to establish a leadership position in this area. The facility introduced the first million-bit memory chip that could actually be manufactured on a regular basis, as well as the very first 32-bit microprocessor.

The technology that is called photonics involves the use of high-frequency, rapid pulses of light from lasers in order to digitally transmit voice, video, or data over tiny glass fibers. Fiber optic systems designed by scientists at Bell Labs have been used in the United States and incorporated into the intercontinental communications systems under the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In 1994 a scientific experiment conducted at Bell Labs resulted in the transmission of 40 billion bits of data per second over one optical fiber. This transmission rate was 10 times the rate of the largest capacity system in commercial use at the time.

The third field of research and development that scientists at Bell Labs focused on in the early 1990s involved software systems. Bell Labs has designed software systems that enable the components within the U.S. telecommunications network to operate smoothly and efficiently. Over 3,000 telephone switching systems across America rely on Bell Labs software. In addition, the UNIX operating system developed at the research facility has grown into one of the most popular systems in the world.

Scientists at Bell Labs continue to work on highly experimental projects that could have an enormous impact on the future of telecommunications. These projects include intelligence machines, machines that operate on voice commands, microelectronic chips with a ten-thousandfold increase in capacity and intelligence, and an affordable global communications system that allows an individual to send or receive information without any technical constraints.

In September 1995, AT&T announced its break up into three separate companies: communications equipment and technology, computer, and communications services. This effected Bell Labs as well. Most of the 26,000 Bell Lab employees became part of the communications equipment and technology business, retaining the Bell Laboratories name. Bell Laboratories also serviced the computer business. About 15 percent of the employees became part of the communications services and assumed the name AT&T Laboratories.

As Bell Laboratories and AT&T raced toward the 21st century, chief scientist, Dr. Arno Penzias, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "The large-scale mission is still research for fun and profit."

Further Reading:

  • Markoff, John, "Most Employees of Bell Labs Will Join Equipment Business," New York Times, September 21, 1995, p. C4.
  • Rapaport, Richard, "What Does A Nobel Prize For RadiAstronomy Have To Do With Your Telephone?" Wired, April 1995, pp. 124--178.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 13. St. James Press, 1996.