Skip to main content

Bell Labs: Extraordinary Subsidiary

May 2024
1min read

The Bell Telephone Laboratories was organized in 1925 as the direct successor of the Western Electric Research Laboratories, formed by Theodore Vail in 1907 when he consolidated the company’s previously fragmented research and development activities. It operates on a grand scale. Shortly before divestiture, it employed twenty-five thousand people who worked at twenty different locations.

From the start, scientists employed by the Labs have come up with patentable ideas at a rate of approximately one per working day. Seven of them have won Nobel Prizes. Much of their work has involved technologies that support telecommunications. Without developments such as coaxial-cable transmission, microwave radio relay, and electronic switching, the telephone system as we know it today would not exist.

In addition to their work in telecommunications, Bell scientists have played a key role in the development of technologies with significant applications in other fields. Their contributions to radio, sound motion pictures, and television have been touched on in the accompanying article. Here are some other highlights:

In 1927 Harold S. Black of Bell Labs invented the negative feedback amplifier, which not only made possible high-fidelity recording but also played an essential role in radar systems used during the Second World War and in industrial-control systems used afterward. In the early 1930s Walter A. Shewhart of Bell Labs coined the term quality control and developed statistical techniques to monitor quality in manufacturing operations. In 1933, while investigating radio static that interfered with transatlantic radiotelephone circuits, Karl G. Jansky of Bell Labs founded the science of radio astronomy. In 1937 George R. Stibitz of Bell Labs designed the first electrically operated digital computer.

A new area of mathematical inquiry, information theory, originated with the publication of an article by Claude E. Shannon, an electrical engineer at Bell Labs, in the Bell System Technical Journal in 1948. Pioneering work in laser technology was done by Bell scientists in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1964, in work that won them the 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics, two scientists from Bell Labs, Arno A. Penzias and Robert W. Wilson, detected cosmic background radiation that provided important evidence in support of the theory that a “Big Bang” had given birth to the universe twenty billion years earlier.

In recent years scientists at Bell Labs have been working on the frontiers of fiberoptic technology in order to develop a light-wave transmission system that makes use of pulses of laser light flashing through incredibly fine glass fibers.

Of all the advances associated with Bell scientists, probably the most celebrated was the invention of the transistor in 1947, which gained three Bell Labs scientists —John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain, and William B. Shockley—the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics. The transistor soon found its way into hearing aids, radios, television, high-fidelity audio equipment—everything in modern life that requires electronic circuits. As if those applications were not enough, the transistor and its descendant, the integrated circuit, made possible the modern computer industry. In this case, as in so many others, a single episode in the history of AT&T sent out vibrations that have touched our world at every point.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.