True Innovation at Bell Labs

February 26th, 2012

The Sunday Review has a lengthy feature praising Bell Labs as the epitome of “true innovation.”

Why study Bell Labs? It offers a number of lessons about how our country’s technology companies — and our country’s longstanding innovative edge — actually came about. Yet Bell Labs also presents a more encompassing and ambitious approach to innovation than what prevails today. Its staff worked on the incremental improvements necessary for a complex national communications network while simultaneously thinking far ahead, toward the most revolutionary inventions imaginable. . . .

So how can we explain how one relatively small group of scientists and engineers, working at Bell Labs in New Jersey over a relatively short span of time, came out with such an astonishing cluster of new technologies and ideas? They invented the future, which is what we now happen to call the present. And it was not by chance or serendipity. They knew something. But what?

No doubt Bell Labs invented a lot of great technology. But at what cost.

In Tim Wu’s new book, The Master Switch (I highly recommend it), he tells the other story about Bell Labs.

First, from an economic perspective, it was a state-sponsored monopoly on basic research. Part of the reason why so many great inventions came from Bell Labs–and not elsewhere–was that Bell Labs got all the money.

I can make a comment about the State Science Institute from Atlas Shrugged, but I won’t. I doubt the author of this piece sees any problem with the government funding all scientific research.

Second, and this is more insidious, this article ignores all the technologies that Bell Labs suppressed. Suppressed you say? Of course. Bell Labs was not some altruistic renaissance-era research shop. At it’s core, it’s mission was to sustain the monopoly of big bell. Any technology that threatens that monopoly was suppressed.

For example, in the 1930s, a scientist at Bell Labs invented what was effectively an answering machine–the ability to record voice on huge tapes. Bell spiked the technology, and buried it, for fear that if people could record voice calls, there would be less need to make calls.

Bell Labs also sat on the technology for cellular phones for years, fearing that people would no longer need their phone cables.

Likewise, television could have come to market in the 1930s,  but Bell Labs, along with RCA, opposed it, positing the speculative claim that it would interfere with radio communications (not too different from the recent Lightsquared kerfuffle).

Steven Chu, secretary of the Department of Energy, won a Nobel Prize in 1997 for his workat Bell Labs in the early 1980s. He once said that working in an environment of applied science like Bell Labs “doesn’t destroy a kernel of genius, it focuses the mind.” At Bell Labs, even for researchers in pursuit of pure scientific understanding, it was obvious that their work could be used.

That statement is simply wrong.

Third–and the article concedes this–the pace of change was made by bureaucrats, not innovators:

In his recent letter to potential shareholders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg noted that one of his firm’s mottoes was “move fast and break things.” Bell Labs’ might just as well have been “move deliberately and build things.”

Look at what has been done in communications in the years since the breakup of Ma Bell.

Would the Internet ever have come about if AT&T controlled all access to the communication networks? For decades they fought to keep Sprint and MCI from even accessing their phone cables. Can you imagine peer-to-peer networking ever existing?