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Bell Labs: The Idea Factory

4 min read
American industrial research and scientific development company Nokia Bell Labs is the driving force behind many of the inventions shaping the 20th century — from synthesized speech to lasers and programming languages.

Currently owned by Finnish company Nokia, the story of Bells Labs begins with the telephone. It is rooted in the consolidation of engineering departments within the American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) company and the Western Electric company, the manufacturing organization for the Bell System.

In the early 20th century, a national communications network was being deployed. The engineering departments dealt with day-to-day challenges and their earliest innovations focused on providing reliable telephone connections. Research into acoustics flourished in the 1920s, from telephone call clarity to synthesized speech. As ancillary discoveries were made, teams increasingly widened the scope of their research.

During World War II, the focus shifted to military electronics including radar, magnetics, acoustics, and cryptography. After the war, scientists brought to life the promise of “a universal telephone service” by researching broadband microwave transmission for voice, data and television, transoceanic telephone cables, and automated switching systems.

Driving the Technologies of the 20th Century

As computing technologies took center stage in the 1960s, Bell Labs dove into software and solid-state electronics. Then, they moved into digital communication systems and satellite technology. In the 1970s, Bell Labs designed new microchips that could handle digital signal processing and computer memory functions. By the 1980s, digital networks had begun to replace outdated analog systems. Bell Labs looked to increase the capacity of lightwave systems through improved lasers and better techniques for routing and amplifying photonic signals. In the 1990s, the internet arrived and created the need for instant access to voice, data, and video through wired and wireless networks.

“But when researchers at Bell Labs discovered that static tends to come from particular places in the sky, the whole field of radio astronomy opened up”.

Murray Gell-Mann

From 1996, a series of mergers and acquisitions took place, resulting in the creation of Nokia Bell Labs in 2016. Thus, continuing a long history of innovation. Bell Lab scientists are credited with an array of developments including radio astronomy, the transistor, laser, photovoltaic cell, charge-coupled device (CCD), information theory, Unix operating system, and programming languages B, C, C++, S, SNOBOL, AWK, and AMPL.

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