The brain trust
Nov 30, 2016

Bell Labs

Early in the 20th century, a grand experiment was conceived, the results of which would profoundly impact the course of human civilization. In the fledgling days of communications technology (think switchboard operators and party lines), American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) threw its monopolistic might behind the audacious goal of universal communication and connectivity. This was an ambition so far beyond the capabilities of the time that it would require an unprecedented brain trust first to imagine it – and then to invent ways to make it happen.

The Bell Labs experiment

AT&T’s bold vision and very deep pockets led to the formation in 1925 of Bell Labs, a pioneering research and development unit charged with testing a radical, long-range thesis: If you bring together thousands of the most inventive minds in the world, give them virtually unlimited technical and personnel resources, free them from time and commercial constraints, and set them loose with a broad mandate to link the world together, the result would be an intellectual and technological revolution.

Over the ensuing decades, Bell Labs proved the validity of their daring hypothesis with a breathtaking catalog of innovations and inventions that would lead the transformation to the modern information age. The first fax transmission, the first sound synchronization for “talkie” films, and the first long-distance transmission of live images via television in the 1920’s. The first electronic speech synthesizer and first binary digital computer in the 1930’s. The first car phone in the 1940’s.

In 1947, the “mother” of all modern digital technology – the transistor – was invented by a Bell Labs team (who shared the first of six Nobel Prizes awarded to Bell Labs for their world-changing achievements). This was soon followed by the silicon solar cell, the laser, communications satellites, cell telephone networks, Unix and many other foundational developments in the modern technological canon.

Creating a culture of innovation

It was no accident that Bell Labs became the most prolific scientific incubator of the 20th century. AT&T created the conditions for high-level collaboration with great deliberation. Headquartered on an idyllic “campus” in suburban New Jersey, Bell Labs was designed from top to bottom to foster interdisciplinary interaction and eliminate every possible obstacle to the pursuit of “big ideas.” Long before Silicon Valley was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, Bell Labs was investing heavily in a culture of innovation.

At the height of its influence, Bell Labs employed more than 3,000 PhDs and tens of thousands of technical, administrative and support staff. From sourcing machinery and materials for even the most obscure and eccentric experiments – to pioneering protocols for a new category of “clean rooms” for sensitive technology being born onsite – to pulling petty cash to purchase clean socks and toothbrushes for scientists who were virtually living in their labs, the support teams played an integral role in the success of Bell Labs’ mission.

The impossible made possible

In an elite support category of their own, thousands of TAs (technical assistants) worked hand in hand with some of the most esteemed scientists of their generation. With their extraordinary skills, deep knowledge of Bell Labs history, and long experience working in a uniquely collaborative environment, the TAs formed the backbone of the organization. The keepers of the practical knowledge so essential to making the labs work, the TAs made the impossible possible.

Lessons learned at Bell Labs about the creative force and propulsive power of focused, sustained collaboration have had a profound effect on modern thought and practice. Bell Labs drove a brain-fueled revolution that forever changed the way we communicate. The implications and influence of the innovations that sprang from the grand collaborative experiment in New Jersey are inestimable – and will continue to shape the future in ways we can only imagine today.

At Legistics, collaboration is at the heart of everything we do. To find out more about how our skilled, experienced support teams can help your organization make the impossible possible, visit our home page.