Bell Labs is Leaving the Building

If you ever had the occasion to visit Bell Labs at Murray Hill, New Jersey, or any of the nearby satellite sites, but you didn’t work there, you were probably envious. For one thing, some of the most brilliant people in the world worked there. Plus, there is the weight of history — Bell Labs had a hand in ten Nobel prizes, five Turing awards, 22 IEEE Medals of Honor, and over 20,000 patents, including several that have literally changed the world. They developed, among other things, the transistor, Unix, and a host of other high-tech inventions. Of course, Bell Labs hasn’t been Bell for a while — Nokia now owns it. And Nokia has plans to move the headquarters lab from its historic Murray Hill campus to nearby New Brunswick. (That’s New Jersey, not Canada.)

If your friends aren’t impressed by Nobels, it is worth mentioning the lab has also won five Emmy awards, a Grammy, and an Academy award. Not bad for a bunch of engineers and scientists. Nokia bought Alcatel-Lucent, who had wound up with Bell Labs after the phone company was split up and AT&T spun off Lucent.

If you think about it, though, Bell Labs has been gone in a real sense for some time. It is a sign of our times. The days when companies invested in research for its own sake are long gone. Perhaps when the phone company was a monopoly, it was easier to think “We will earn $X a year and we will put Y% into research.” In the 1950s, Arthur C. Clarke called Bell Labs a “factory for ideas.”

But it isn’t like that anymore. In 2008, Alcatel-Lucent announced they would no longer spend money on basic science, material physics, and semiconductors. By 2013, the new president of Bell Labs promised to return Bell Labs to the forefront, but the focus was still on profit, not innovation. By 2021, Nokia had reorganized the lab. Bell Labs Core Research was to focus on technology with a “10-year horizon,” while Bell Labs Solutions would focus on immediate business needs. You have to wonder how many things like Unix, for example, would never happen in today’s climate (a topic discussed by Brian Kernighan in his book).

The list of people who have worked at Bell has names familiar to many Hackaday readers: Alfred Aho, Bjarne Stroustrup, Brian Kernighan, Claude Shannon, Dennis Ritchie, Edward Norton (the Norton equivalence guy), William Shockley, Ingrid Daubechies (JPEG 2000),  Ken Thompson, Maurice Karnaugh (of Karnaugh maps), and Steve Bourne (the shell guy). But there are plenty of names you probably don’t know, like James West (microphones), Ali Javan (gas laser), Arthur Ashkin (optical tweezers), Corinna Cortes (later head of Google Research), Dawon Kahng (MOSFETs), Evelyn Hu (nanoscale fabrication), and many many more.

Of course, the lab is just moving, not closing. But there is something sad about seeing the Murray Hill headquarters from 1967 closing down. Even though we think the real Bell Labs has been gone for some time. If you want an hour of wrap-up of 90 years of innovation at the Lab (by Edward Eckert, the Bell Labs Corporate Archivist), check out the video below. You might find some surprising inventions that came from the lab.

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