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Bell Labs to Silicon Valley – Part 1

Early Times – Inauguration of Bell Labs to the invention of transistor

History is ‘something’ worth looking at because it provides us the details which would help us develops future strategies, because it gives us an insight on how things are related to one another. Telecommunications is a field which has a very interesting history which is worth looking at. If you want to know much more about what I’m about to say please look at first few chapters of Jon Gertner’s ‘The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation’.

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Jon Gertner and his book ‘The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation’

As per my view there is one place which whole world turns in to when it comes to innovation and R&D. That is Silicon Valley, USA. It is true that Asia is rising. But still Silicon Valley continues to grow and companies will not stop going in search of help to Silicon Valley. But before Silicon Valley came in to the scene, there was another place which could be considered as the Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley. That was Bell Labs, which is situated in New Jersey, United States of America.

Currently, AT&T is the largest provider both of mobile telephony and of fixed telephony in the United States, and also provides broadband subscription services. Western Electric had been the manufacturing subsidiary of AT&T from 1881 to 1995. Until 1925 those two organizations had two different engineering units. Until 1925 two engineering units had tension and competition between them. This tension and competition lead to the creation of standalone lab in New Jersey. In 1925 Bell Labs was inaugurated.

The idea of setting up Bell Labs was to develop ideas inside Bell Labs and transferring those ideas and developments to Western Electric for manufacturing while AT&T does the deployment. Just like in Silicon Valley, Bell Labs also had an eco-system which supported innovation and R&D. They had money and they had time. Time is something which today’s engineers don’t have. To give you an idea on how Bell Lab has contributed to the development of Telecommunications, the list of a few developments which had come through Bell Labs would be a good yardstick. Some revolutionary inventions are as follows.

  • Point contact transistor
  • Junction transistor
  • Shannon’s information theory
  • Communication satellites
  • Unix Operating System
  • C Language
  • Theory of laser

An early stage of Bell Labs was an interesting one. With AT&T having all sorts of trouble with absence of dial tone, etc problems which had to be solved kept on coming to Bell Labs. It had been a problem rich environment.

With the use of vacuum tubes researchers at Bell labs was able to develop a successful solution for a cross country phone link. This solution was successfully deployed by AT&T and this project gave the credibility to Bell Labs. At one stage Bell Labs employed more than 15000 employees out of which 1200 were PhD holders.

The reason why Bell Labs became successful was also a very interesting story. The main reason was, that it was connected to AT&T. AT&T faced loads of practical problems every day.  AT&T received solutions from Bell Labs for these problems and they hold the monopoly in the telecommunication market at that time. With AT&T, Bell Labs also grew rapidly. The things invented, manufactured and deployed by Bell Labs, Western Electric and AT&T stayed in the market for 20-30 years. That was the nature of monopoly they had at that time.

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Bill Gates has once stated that if he had the ability to take part in a time travel his first stop would be Bell Labs on November 1947. Why would Bill Gates stop there? Why is Bell Labs such an inviting place to visit?

AT&T had two issues which were problematic for their operation. One was telephone switches, because they broke all the time. And manual switching process was slow. One fine day, in the aftermath of World War 2, Mervin J. – Head of Research who later became The President of Bell Labs in the period between 1951 – 1959., talked to a newly hired young physicist William Shockley and said that it would be great if the manual switches can be replaced by something electronic. Vacuum tubes were also giving problems because they tend to broke fairly often, consume more power, etc.

Kelly formed the team which developed the transistor which was lead by Shockley. Kelly had been a person who had always tried to go after things which were not known to anyone and which he thought as loop holes. On November 1947 the device which changed the direction of human civilization was invented in Bell Labs. Transistor was invented on November 1947. Gravity of the invention of transistor is unimaginable because despite the transistor there would have been no fancy items such as Samsung Galaxies, iPhones and all other fancy electronic items you could imagine of.