How Bell Labs Changed Our World

Transistor Inventors
William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain invented the transistor in 1947. (Photo credit: Alcatel-Lucent/Bell Labs)

I recently finished a wonderful book titled The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, by Jon Gertner; New York: Penguin Press, 2012. For those of you like me who are curious about the modern world in which we live, but not necessarily scientifically oriented, don’t hesitate to get a hold of this book. I loved it. The sheer talent and amount of genius that existed at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. in the 20th century is mind boggling. Nicknamed “Bell Labs,” this organization was the research arm of AT&T before AT&T was broken up. Much of the work was done about 30 miles west of New York City at a place called Murray Hill in New Jersey. The men and women who worked at Bell Labs during its golden era deserve to be more widely recognized for their contributions to mankind. The work that went on there literally changed the world.

It was a twenty-something mathematician and electrical engineer named Claude Shannon who joined Bell Labs during WWII to help find ways to break enemy codes and develop technology that would intercept and destroy incoming fire before it reached its target. There is no doubt that these projects saved many lives. Shannon was pure genius and was a “founding father” of sorts. His master’s thesis, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits, written while he was a 21 year old student at MIT, is considered by some to be one of the most important master’s theses of all time. In 1948 Shannon’s paper A Mathematical Theory of Communication was published in the Bell Labs Technical Journal and took the scientific world by storm. His theories revolutionized human communications and it is why he has come to be known as the founding father of Information Theory.

It was John Bardeen and William Brattain working under the direction of William Shockley at the lab that brought the first electronic transistor to life in 1947. It was an invention which made the electronic age possible and thus revolutionized the world. Their story of collaboration, success and betrayal is excellently told by Gertner in this book.

The reader will also learn about the great Bell Labs scientist John R. Pierce, who Gertner dubs the “instigator.” Pierce had a knack for motivating his colleagues to push the boundaries of science and innovation. It was Pierce who helped create Telstar1, the first active transmission satellite to be launched into Earth’s orbit. Another figure who looms large is Mervyn Kelly, one of the great early leaders in the lab’s history who understood how to foster a community of innovation.

I’ve also found new heroes because of Mr. Gertner’s book. One of them is William O. Baker a chemist who began his career at Bell Labs in 1939 and worked his way up to become President of the company, a position he held from 1973 to 1979. Dr. A. Michael Noll, a colleague who worked with Dr. Baker, summed up Dr. Baker’s life this way:

“William Oliver Baker was quietly at the helm of science and research in the United States for over sixty years, serving Presidents from Eisenhower to many that followed. For nearly two decades, Dr. Baker’s leadership of research at Bell Telephone Laboratories created the model for modern industrial research laboratories. His own early research at Bell Labs during World War II was essential for the basis for synthetic rubber and in the development and application of polymer chemistry, and he was granted eleven patents for this work. Dr. Baker has been the hallmark of integrity and humanity throughout his career and has been honored with the Presidential Medal of Science, the Presidential National Security Award, over 25 honorary doctorates, and numerous professional awards. His advancement of science and technology in the service of national security and intelligence gathering were critical in winning the Cold War. But above all, his graciousness and concern for people were always paramount in a career that was an inspiration to us all.” (Compliments of A. Michael Noll and

William O. Baker was a very rare person indeed.

People who want to know more about Dr. Baker’s life and accomplishments can visit Dr. A. Michael Noll’s excellent website by clicking – I particularly recommend reading Dr. Baker’s speech of May 13, 1993.

For further reading on the history of Bell Labs see “Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation” edited by A. Michael Noll and Michael Geselowitz.

I have just ordered “Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation” It should arrive soon and I will report back once I begin reading it. The description of this book on reads:

“In structure and history, Bell Labs was unique in the world. Its discoveries and inventions (advances on its earlier invention of the transistor, the laser, UNIX, the charge-coupled device) transformed global society and helped to form the information age and the digital era. The collection of narratives in this book focuses on Bell Labs’ peak years during the 1960s and 1970s. Whether by accident or providence, these years correspond almost exactly with the years when William Baker led the Labs (1955 – 1973). The chapters are mini-memoirs, ranging from personal background to research accounts to stories of social life at the Labs, as told by persons from every aspect of the Lab’s research operations, from chauffeurs and technicians to top scientists. Bill Baker’s presence runs through all the narratives, leading the organization and defining its tone. His personal aptitude and leadership left an indelible stamp on Bell Labs and, indeed, on global science and technology.”


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