Bell Labs

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Inspired by a new book by Jon Gertner today’s New York Times has a great story about Bell Labs  the great AT&T and for a short time Lucent Technologies engine for  pretty much all telecom innovations for so many decades. Today it is just a shadow of its former self as part of Alcatel-Lucent.
I had the pleasure of being there during the famous trivestiture years in mid 90s when AT&T spun out Bell Labs as the R&D arm for Lucent. Though I wasn’t there for a long time it was long enough to appreciate the history, the pride and understand what Bell Labs meant for the entire US economy.
The story today has a great chart showing what innovations Bell Labs had but look at the Bell Labs Wikipedia entry to learn even more. Walking through the Bell Labs museum (I assume it is still at the Murray Hill building?) one can see how many Nobel Prizes, Marconi Awards and National Medals of Technologies were awarded to Bell Labs scientists, not to mention the number of patents.   I recall friends who were studying for advanced engineering degrees telling me they would prefer to do post doc work at Bell Labs then at MIT or Carnegie Mellon.
Gertner asks whether the Bell Labs way of innovation (slow and steady) is better then today’s startup bullet speed innovations:


“The conflation of these different kinds of innovations seems to be leading us toward a belief that small groups of profit-seeking entrepreneurs turning out innovative consumer products are as effective as our innovative forebears. History does not support this belief. The teams at Bell Labs that invented the laser, transistor and solar cell were not seeking profits. They were seeking understanding. Yet in the process they created not only new products but entirely new — and lucrative — industries.

There’s no single best way to innovate. Silicon Valley’s methods have benefited our country well over the course of several decades. And it would be absurd to return to an era of big monopolies. Today’s telecom industries are thriving, and customers likewise have access to a dazzling range of affordable devices and services, which most likely would not have been true had the old phone company remained intact. Though it had custody of the world’s most innovative labs, AT&T introduced new products and services slowly, and rarely cheaply. As Time magazine once put it, “Few companies are more conservative; none are more creative.”

But to consider the legacy of Bell Labs is to see that we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps. It also shows us that to always “move fast and break things,” as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.”

I do want to bring up a somewhat different perspective. It is really a question about how free our markets can/should be and the level of capitlizm. Having a Bell Labs (in its glory days) has impact on national security and also provides a lot of stability to thousands and thousands of families for so many decades BUT the fact that it was part of a business monopoly also hurt innovation.
Do we need an NIH for telecom/tech?  Should there be a Bell Labs that is NOT part of a for profit organization?  In my opinion Bell Labs should have been restructured in a way where a certain (significant) portion of it should been changed into some form of an NIH for communications.
The rest of innovation has to be much more competitive than the good old days.
Link to the NYT graphic showing the history of Bell Labs Innovations: click here.