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Where Are They Now: Bell Labs

[pullquote align=”right”] Claude Shannon’s managers were willing to leave him alone, even though they did not understand exactly what he was working on. AT&T at mid-century did not demand instant gratification from its research division. It allowed detours into mathematics or astrophysics with no apparent purpose.
The Information[/pullquote]

Information theory was born at Bell Labs; so was the transistor. Bell Labs scientists laid foundations for radio astronomy and the laser. When I first visited, in 1993, Arno Penzias was running the place as Chief Scientist; he was just one of the laboratory’s many winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, for his discovery of the cosmic black-body radiation echoing across the universe from the Big Bang.

Not many corporate research labs have ever operated with such far-sighted freedom from the bottom line. Now hardly any do.

Claude Shannon did his great work in a cubbyhole in this 1900 building, the old New York headquarters,Bell Labs in New York the Hudson River to the west, Greenwich Village to the east. That’s the High Line running through it. The building is still there: an artists’ cooperative.

AT&T spun off most of Bell Labs into the new Lucent Technologies in 1996; now it’s a French-owned company, Alcatel-Lucent. They still boast about what they now call Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs. But basic science, physics, and mathematics are gone. In 2008, the company issued this magnificent specimen of business-speak: “In the new innovation model, research needs to keep addressing the need of the mother company.”

A smaller chunk of the labs remains with the parent company, and AT&T Labs, too, continues to lay claim to a proud tradition. Here is a tribute page to Shannon, headlined, Juggling Genius Claude Shannon Launched the Digital Age. (Juggling genius? Really?)

So I was particularly glad to get a bit of perspective yesterday from the prolific inventor and innovator Greg Blonder. I met Greg at Bell Labs in the nineties, when he was Chief Technical Adviser. Here’s his take on Shannon’s legacy:

[quote]AT&T was always oblivious to Shannon’s role as the father of  modern communications, and (with its usual tin ear), couldn’t figure out how to benefit from its own history.

Back when Lucent split from AT&T and was granted most of Bell Labs (along with bragging rights for the invention of the transistor), I was busy trying to convince AT&T that a services company required an R&D capability. The original divestiture plan did not anticipate a basic research component—only a development lab. Long story, but eventually we managed to slide over around 10% of the scientists into the new AT&T Labs.

However, we couldn’t slide over its long history, mostly rooted in the physical sciences. We had the people, but lacked a well defined “brand.” By odd coincidence, I proposed if Bell Labs was granted computing in the divorce, we should own communications—and claim Shannon as our direct forebear.

AT&T HQ was ambivalent—they were unaware of Shannon’s seminal discoveries, and couldn’t imagine how claiming paternity of the communications revolution could benefit a long distance phone company. But we were given permission to name a lab building after Shannon. Fortunately, one of the lab’s directors (Ron Graham) was a mathematician and juggler and knew Shannon’s widow, and received permission.

But they still barely leverage this connection. Momentum is sometimes more powerful than entropy.[/quote]


  1. Mark Brewer says

    Sad for all of us who used to work for AT&T. They just didn’t realize what they had.

    Loved your book and have recommended it to others.


  2. Rob says

    It’s always fascinating to hear about Claude Shannon. Thanks for your great books, currently working through your collection.

  3. anita june sutherlin says

    I am an old woman. I do not have a math background. I read, understood, and was inspired by all of the new material (for me) offered in your book “Information….” I was saddened and outraged that Turing ended his life because of his sexual preferences and the humiliation he endured from the “Establishment”. And I was saddened that Shannon died with Alzheimer’s.
    Thank you for writing such an important book that an ordinary lady like myself could learn from and understand–except for the math. Think how much richer the reading would have been for me if I had a math background. That saddens me. I have ordered “Chaos” from Amazon and look forward to reading it.
    Your mother must love you the best.

  4. Bobbybear says

    I would love to have a meaty conversation with you. I looked for an email address, so I could send a photo of my beloved mentor in graduate school [SF State], Ben White. You might recognize him. He had a history at Bell Labs.

    The subject matter was Perception, in the context of cognitive psychology. The title I composed for my [original] Master’s Thesis, now some forty plus years ago was:

    “Retention of Information in an Ego Involved Task as a Function of Reference”

    Subject favorites in the theoretical constellation Ben imparted included subjects such as:

    random walk [Ben had an awsome visual display loop]
    convergent operations
    visual substitution system [Ben’s core investigation with Bach y Rita]
    stimulus invariants
    contour and simultaneous contrast
    encoding of memory
    the psychological moment

    and on and on for several sublime years

    A wonderland for which words are inadequate descriptors

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