The Top Bell Labs Innovations - Part I: The Game-Changers

Next Generation Communications Blog

The Top Bell Labs Innovations - Part I: The Game-Changers

By Peter Bernstein, Senior Editor

This is the third in my four-part series of posts about Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs. As noted previously, focus of this series is not just to introduce you to the world’s most famous research organization, but to provide details and insights on its past, present and future. The first two posts provided an overall view of the Labs, and details on how its philosophy of “Innovating Innovation” is enhancing its preeminent position in the scientific world and allowing it to keep Alcatel-Lucent in market leadership positions. As can be seen in the title, this post details the rich history of the contributions made by Bells Labs in empowering businesses and enriching the lives of people around the world through the development and application of the ingenuity and knowledge of its researchers.

For those of us in the content creation business, there is nothing better than a Top 10 list. Readers enjoy such lists, and we are always mindful that search engines love them. Not surprisingly Bell Labs has culled through its 33,000 patents and has a Top Ten list of its own they would like me to share and summarize. Truth be known, given the treasure trove, I have a few of my own favorites that I would like to share that I think are every bit worthy of cracking the list.

Top 10 Innovations
Bell Labs wisely does not give a numerical order to what they view as their crowning achievements in the past 80 years. Hence, here are the ten Bell Labs innovations that they feel changed the world based on the sector impacted and not on the seismic influence.

Data Networking
Since 1925 with the sending of political convention photo graphs via the Bell Labs created telephotography facsimile machine, the Labs has constantly explored ways to use networks to deliver more than just voice traffic.

  • In the late 1940s, researchers demonstrated the first long-distance remote operation of a computer by connecting a teletypewriter in New Hampshire with a computer in New York.
  • Throughout the '80s and '90s, Bell Labs worked to increase modem speeds and pioneered the first trial of the Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technology that is a popular way for copper phone lines to be  used to transmit high-speed data.

The Transistor
No list of modern inventions, let alone those from Bell Labs would be complete without the transistor. In 1947, Bell Labs researchers John Bardeen and Walter Brattain were trying to understand the nature of the electrons at the interface between a metal and a semiconductor. They realized that by making two point contacts very close to one another, they could make a three terminal device – the first "point contact" transistor. They quickly made a few of these and fabricated an audio amplifier which unlike vacuum tubes did not need time to warm up. They immediately realized the power of this new technology which became the foundation for solid state electronics and hence virtually everything we take for granted today. Bardeen and Brattain along with colleague William Shockley received the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1956: "for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect." Shockley had developed a junction transistor which could be more easily manufactured.

Cellular Telephone Technology
It is hard to imagine but today’s cellular networks date back to 1947 when Bell Labs researchers were the first to propose a cellular network. They envisioned a network of small overlapping cell sites supported by a call switching infrastructure that could track users as they moved through a network and pass their call from one site to another without dropping the connection. True mobile networking was born. Bell Labs installed the first commercial cellular network in Chicago in the 1970s. Since then it has continued to generate meaningful intellectual property in the areas of Wi-Fi, Wi-Max, 3G technologies and now 4G LTE.

Solar Cells
With the concentration on alternative energy sources, it tends to be overlooked that In 1954, three American researchers, Gerald Pearson, Calvin Fuller and Daryl Chapin, using a diffused silicon p-n junction designed a silicon solar cell capable of a six percent energy conversion efficiency with direct sunlight. The first public service trial of a Bell Solar Battery was with a telephone company in Americus, Georgia on October 4 1955. In 1962 Bell solar cells powered Telstar, the world’s first communications satellite.

The lights amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, aka Laser, has its origins with In 1957, Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow of Bell Labs, began a serious study of the infrared laser. They abandoned infrared radiation to focus on visible light. The concept originally was called an "optical maser". In 1958, Bell Labs filed a patent application for this optical maser which later generically became the Laser.

Digital Transmission and Switching
In 1962, Bell Labs developed the first digitally multiplexed transmission of voice signals. This innovation:

  • Created a more economical, robust and flexible network design for voice traffic, serving as the foundation for advanced network services like 911, 800-numbers, call-waiting and caller-ID.
  • Digital networking is also the cornerstone for networks that converge computing and communications.

Communications Satellites
As mentioned above, In 1962 as part of President Kennedy’s challenge to the scientific community to make the U.S. first in space, Bell Labs built and successfully launched the first orbiting communications satellite (Telstar I) — enabling telephones calls to be bounced from coast to coast and around the world. The satellite was powered by two other Bell Labs inventions, solar cells and transistors.

Touch-Tone Telephone
Why is this on the list? Think about all the things that could not be done without dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) signaling, the underlying technology of touch-tone phones. In the 1950s, Bell Labs after extensive studies concluded that push-button dialing was much faster than rotary dialing and could a platform for a host of new capabilities. On November 18, 1963, the first electronic push-button system, with Touch-Tone dialing, was offered by Bell Telephones to AT&T customers. First introduced in Carnegie and Greensburg, Pennsylvania, the initial “push-button” phone, the Western 1500, had only ten buttons. A twelve-button model featuring the asterisk/star (*) and pound/hash (#) keys was released soon afterwards. The rest as they say is history.

Unix Operating System and C Language
Bell Labs in its history has arguably been the most prolific software company in history both in terms of contributions and actual written code. In fact, the Unix operating system and the C programming language, closely intertwined in both origin and impact, were created at Bell Labs between 1969 and 1972. Unix made large-scale networking of diverse computing systems – and the Internet – practical. The C language brought an unprecedented combination of efficiency and expressiveness to programming. Both made computing more "portable." Today, Unix is the operating system of most large Internet servers, as well as business and university systems; C and its descendants are the most widely used programming languages in the world.

Digital Signal Processor (DSP)
What is a digital signal processor (DSP)? For the uninitiated, DSPs are specialized microprocessors that use highly complex algorithms to perform mathematical calculations extremely quickly. They rapidly convert signals from analog to digital then manipulate them and convert them back and thus have been critical components in evolving communications from the analog past to the digital present and future.  Bell Labs built the first single-chip digital signal processor in 1979. Today, DSPs can be found in: multimedia PCs, modems, wireless phones, answering machines, voice-mail, video games, talking toys, DVD players, digital cameras and are at the heart of a growing number of systems that talk to you in synthesized speech and recognize your spoken responses.

And there is more… the next twelve
So much for their list. Here are a few I think are also worthy of mention with the caveat that the selection of these from a plethora of other contenders was totally arbitrary. I have put them in the form of a timeline, and they all do not have to do directly with communications and computing and I have tried to pick one from each decade:

  • First Long-Distance Television Transmission (1927): Bell Labs enables the first long-distance television transmission. Live television images of Herbert Hoover are sent over telephone lines from Washington, D.C., to New York City on April 7, 1927.
  • Radio Astronomy (1932): While looking for the source of static in overseas radio signals, Bell Labs scientist Karl Jansky becomes the first person to detect radio noise coming from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. His discovery marks the beginning of radio astronomy.
  • First Binary Digital Computer (1939): Bell Labs introduces the first binary digital computer. The Complex Number Calculator performed mathematical operations in binary form (using on-off relays) and could find the quotient of two eight-digit numbers in 30 seconds.
  • Long-Distance Computing (1940): Bell Labs demonstrates the first long-distance remote operation of a computer. The demonstration connects a teletypewriter in New Hampshire with a computer at Bell Labs in New York City.
  • Direct Distance Dialing (1951): Bell Labs enables direct distance dialing, which allows customers to dial long-distance calls within the United States without operator assistance.
  • First Transatlantic Telephone Cable (1956): The first transatlantic telephone cable, which relied on innovations from Bell Labs, is deployed. The system can handle up to 36 simultaneous calls.
  • 1ESS® Switch (1965): The Bell Labs-developed 1ESS® switch becomes the first electronically controlled central office switch.
  • Evidence of the Big Bang (1965): Bell Labs’ Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson discover cosmic background radiation that provided evidence for the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe.
  • First Lightwave Communications System (1976): The first test of Bell Labs’ experimental lightwave communication system begins in Atlanta.
  • Karamarkar Linear Programming Algorithm 1984: Bell Labs mathematician Narendra Karmarkar develops the Karmarkar Linear Programming Algorithm, which enables computers to economically solve incredibly complex problems involving thousands of interacting variables.
  • Fractional Quantum Hall Effect (1982): Bell Labs’ Horst Stormer, Robert Laughlin and Daniel Tsui discover the fractional quantum Hall effect, revealing a new state of matter created when electrons come together to form quasi-particles with fractional electrical charges. The team was awarded a Nobel Prize for their work in 1998.
  • First Commercial DWDM System (1995): Bell Labs demonstrates the first commercial DWDM (dense wavelength division multiplexing) lightwave system, sending digitized information over multiple wavelengths, or colors, of light.

Like I said, picking through 33,000 patents is hard. I did not include anything from the long list of inventions since 2000, including things like the First DNA Motors, devices which resemble motorized tweezers, are 100,000 times smaller than the head of a pin and are completely self-sufficient, assembling themselves without the aid of chemicals. Awesome.

In fact, check out the Bell Labs Technical Journal to get a glimpse of what is percolating right now. Hopefully, that will tickle your interest. In the final post of this series, I look at what comes next.

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