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The Physics Nobel and the Fate of Bell Labs

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A Newark Star-Ledger report on this year's Nobel Prize for Physics shows how the twentieth century's greatest innovation in imaging was the indirect result of two research "failures." Wired has more details of the internal politics.

The breakthrough of Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, the charge-coupled device (CCD), had a curious motivation. What catalyzed it was the peculiar agenda of AT&T in the late 1960s. Managers of Bell Labs thought that a new technology called bubble memory was about to replace semiconductors and let researchers on the latter side know they they needed a great new idea fast to prove semiconductors were worth continued funding. Bubble memory turned out to be a bubble and is now only a memory, but pressure, based on an erroneous projection of the future, helped create another future. It also made it possible to capture the images of Apollo 13. Yet the videotube that used the first CCDs became a dead end itself. AT&T's Picturephone service was based on a very rational early fear of cable and television as rivals of the telephone in building new, high-speed networks, as the historian Kenneth Lipartito has confirmed in his standard account of the program.

Veterans of Bell Labs are rightly proud of the organization's record. To quote the Star-Ledger:

Bell Labs, the research and development arm of Lucent Technologies, has now produced 13 Nobel laureates and more than 31,000 patents since 1925. During the 1960s and 1970s, the lab in Murray Hill was regarded as a crucible of some of the most innovative research in the world.

"Everything we take for granted today -- digital music, digital art, lasers -- came from Bell Labs," said A. Michael Noll, emeritus professor of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California and a former Bell Labs research scientist.

But it also noted the changes and research group closings under Lucent:

Many Bell Labs scientists, past and present, say their research community has never recovered.

"The environment that was there back then, the excitement about being around creative people who were open to talking about their work, was not duplicated during its time," said Dan Stanzione, a former director of Bell Labs.

Ironically some non-profit research laboratories like Battelle and Germany's Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft have been able to support themselves at least in part through income from the innovations they helped sponsor -- like dry photocopying and the MP3 format, respectively. I have found no information on royalties received by AT&T or Lucent for the invention of Willard Boyle and George Smith at Bell Labs -- possibly because original patents had expired before the digital imaging boom. (I'd welcome information from readers in telecommunication and imaging.)

This prize for 40-year-old work raises an intriguing question. Has something been lost from American and world science by the dispersion of so many great researchers? Some of them have profited personally; at conferences I've met former technical staff members who have made fortunes in finance and entrepreneurship. Others, like the late electrical engineer and perceptual psychologist Bela Julesz, a future MacArthur Fellow whom I met while I was a science editor, flourished in academia and became mentors to a generation of students. Still others have had the best of both worlds, with high-salaried tenured teaching jobs plus lucrative industrial ties.

But is society better off with so much talent redeployed? Are great innovations more likely to arise in the newer, decentralized, and more responsive global environment? Does everything important get discovered independently anyway, regardless of what happens to one organization? I'm not so sure. In Jeremy Bernstein's Three Degrees above Zero, Bela Julesz said Bell Labs had no counterpart in Europe or elsewhere and was "an absolutely unique treasure . . . for the whole world," a "baroque organ" for the maestro who needs "to pull out every register." Maybe the old Bell Labs resembled the Hollywood studio system, where massive resources and depth of skills could be deployed to produce qualitative leaps. The Labs set a high standard for the reconfigured world of global science.

(Photo: Wiki Commons)

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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