Bell Labs: Reviving an icon
APPLYING THE SCIENCE
Despite its reputation for pushing the bounds of theoretical and experimental science, Bell Labs has always been an applied science institution. That foundation was laid in the mechanical department of The American Telephone and Telegraph Co. and Western Electric at the turn of the 19th century, when their engineers were asked to solve a very real problem: the construction of an intercontinental telephone cable.
By the time the first call was placed between New York and San Francisco in 1915, the mechanical department had picked up 550 scientists and engineers to tackle the problem. This group of former professors, postgraduate students and professional engineers became the founding staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1924.
In 1937, physicist Clint Davisson was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of the wave nature of matter, cementing Bell Labs' reputation as a premier research facility. Bell Labs' biggest moment came in 1948. The same year Shannon published his theory of communication, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley unveiled the world's first transistor — its implications were enormous. It was the first incorporation of the semiconductor into commercial technology, becoming the foundation for all modern electronics. The three physicists were awarded the Labs' second Nobel Prize in 1956.
While the trio knew the transistor would be important, they had something far less ambitious in mind when they started their project. They were looking for a replacement for vacuum tubes, the bulky and highly breakable glass triodes that ran AT&T's switches. The transistor demonstrated Bell Labs' basic philosophy: By putting the best minds to task on real problems, they could explore the fundamental science surrounding technology. In the process of innovating, Bell Labs could push back the frontiers of science.
“There are some problems where you have to understand the science at the most fundamental level,” said Art Ramirez, director of device physics research. “The transistor was one of those problems. In order to make a solid-state switch, you have to really understand quantum mechanics. In the 1930s, there were only a few people that understood quantum mechanics at that level. Shockley was one of them.”
Consequently, Bell Labs set the bar high, seeking out top researchers. Recruiting wasn't hard. Bell Labs not only had a strong reputation, it offered incentives to lure promising minds from academia: high salaries, no teaching duties and a collaborating staff of leading researchers. The biggest benefit by far, though, was freedom.
“When I first came to Bell Labs, they gave me a desk and a pad of paper and said, ‘There you go. The sky's the limit,’” said Al Cho, adjunct vice president of semiconductor research, who joined Bell Labs in 1968. “The problems weren't given to me; I had to find the problems myself.”
AT&T not only supported but encouraged these free pursuits. Bell Labs could help stave off growing pressure to deregulate the industry and force AT&T into a competitive market. If a monopoly could produce these advances, then AT&T's monopoly was driving innovation in the market, not suppressing it — or so the argument went.
Fundamental scientific research at Bell Labs flourished. New fields of inquiry were opened, many with only a tenuous relationship to communications. Almost anything of scientific merit could be explored if it showed results. Such a result could come as an innovation with commercial potential or as a purely scientific discovery. Sometimes it was both.
The desire to do both is often what distinguishes a Bell Labs researcher from a pure academic, Cho said. He himself eschewed the laser work popular among researchers in the late '60s to focus on epitaxy, the science of growing the crystalline structures of semi-conducting materials. Cho developed a process called molecular beam epitaxy (MBE), a more precise method of “doping,” or layering impurities onto a semiconductor to bring out its unique electrical properties.
“If I were working at a university, as soon as I achieved my first luminescent layer, my job would be done,” said Cho. “But I work at Bell Labs. I have people asking questions like ‘What is the threshold? What is duration? What is the yield? What is the cost?’” Cho moved from Murray Hill to a Western Electric facility in Reading, Penn., where he saw his new MBE machine through to commercial production. MBE is now used to construct microelectronics devices such as the semiconductor lasers in CD players (read related sidebar).
While most Bell Labs projects don't strike that balance between cutting-edge science and industrial innovation, the ultimate application of their discoveries is a goal many researchers seem to share. Like academics, Bell Labs scientists fret about their standing in the scientific community. They publish and present papers and attend scientific conferences. They jockey for credit and compete to file patents. The difference is that the needs of applied science give structure to basic research, said Ramirez, who left Bell Labs for the University of California-run Los Alamos National Laboratory before returning in 2003.
Ramirez is searching for a carbon-based molecular crystal that could be used to build cheap, low-power microelectronics. Its ultimate application would be a photo-voltaic cell that could be painted onto the side of house, turning every exterior inch into a solar cell (read related sidebar). The value of this to Alactel-Lucent would be immense, but the value to a planet draining its fossil fuels would be even greater, Ramirez said.
“The problems facing our species are enormous,” he said. “We have to have a broader vision. If we can make organic photo cells, we'll have done more than just create a wireless power source. We will have gone a long way to solving the energy problem in a way that everyone on earth can afford.”
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