HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
October 8, 2007, Herald Journal

Bell labs. . . a history of inventions


It was founded in 1925 by AT&T and called “Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc.”

“Bell Labs” became the research department credited with inventing many of the telecommunication marvels we use today.

To date, Bell Labs has been granted over 32,000 US patents.

Let’s take a look back at some of those inventions (to list them all would take more column space than all my previous columns combined).

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Using a fax machine became popular in the mid 1980’s (I still recall the thermal paper). The first demonstration of a working fax (facsimile) machine or “telephotography” machine that sent pictures over ordinary copper pair telephone wires was in 1925. The ability to transmit photos over telephone wires also changed the thinking at the time – which was using telephone lines just for “voice-only” communications.

Photos of President Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration were sent by facsimile machine from Washington to other cities in 1925.

In 1927, Bell Labs demonstrated in public the first long-distance television transmission. Live moving television images of then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover were sent over telephone lines from Washington, D.C., to New York City on April 7, 1927.

“I am glad to welcome television as the latest product of scientific discovery,” said Herbert Hoover during the demonstration. “It promises that where the voice has led the way over the telephone wires, the eye will ultimately follow.”

Minnesota also is mentioned in the Bell Labs historical timeline. In 1941, the first non-experimental installation of coaxial cable in the network is placed in service between Minneapolis and Stevens Point, Wisconsin. The length of this coaxial cable is 200 miles. The type of coaxial cable installed was invented at AT&T in 1929 and is the first “broadband” transmission medium.

It was 60 years ago, 1947, that Bell Labs put out the first concept paper on cellular network technology. It should be noted here that the actual technology needed to realize this concept did not yet exist. The primary uniqueness in this paper was the development of a network of small overlapping cell sites supported by a call-switching infrastructure that tracks users as they moved through a network.

This network would “pass” their call from one site to another without dropping the connection. It was 36 years later, in 1983, that AT&T activated the first commercial cellular telephone system in the United States in Chicago.

1947 is famous for the Bell Labs’ invention that makes possible the way we use our computers and modern electronics of today, the transistor. Created as a replacement for bulky and inefficient vacuum tubes and mechanical relays, the transistor revolutionized the entire electronics world. Scientists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley invented the transistor.

The solar battery cell, which can convert sunlight into electricity, was invented in the Bell Labs in 1954.

In 1956, AT&T finished installation of the first trans-Atlantic telephone cable called TAT-1 (Transatlantic No. 1). The initial capacity was 36 calls at a time with a price per call of $12 for the first three minutes. This cable also carried the famous “hot-line” between Washington D.C. and Moscow.

A year that is one of my favorites – 1958, saw the first commercial use of the computer modem. These modems were used to transmit data for the North American Air Defense over telephone wires. A modem sends and receives data between two computers. Modem stands for modulate/demodulate.

The year 1958 also saw the invention of the “laser” (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). This is used in fiber-optic communications networks, and as a cutting tool in surgery and industry.

Another Bell Labs innovation, using a Dual Tone Multi-frequency (DTMF) keypad in the telephone, created a new service called “Touchtone” dialing. The first touchtone keypad dialers installed in telephones for general public use were in the Greensburg and Carnegie, Pennsylvania telephone exchanges in 1963. Touchtone dialing was first demonstrated to the public at the 1962 Seattle’s World Fair.

For any history buffs out there, the first “non-public” “touch-tone system” was installed in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1941. This touch-tone system was only used by the telephone operators in the central switching office.

In 1969, the UNIX computer disk operating system was released by Bell Labs to various government and educational institutions. It was originally designed to let a large number of programmers access a computer at the same time and share its resources.

Because of this, UNIX became the operating system that helped fuel the growth of the Internet.

The first commercial fiber optic cable was installed in Chicago by AT&T in 1977.

In 1988, AT&T placed the first fiber optic submarine telephone cable called TAT-8, across the Atlantic. It had a capacity equivalent to 40,000 calls, ten times that of the last copper cable installed. (Today’s fiber cables have capacities equivalent to over 1,000,000 calls).

The English/Spanish voice translator was born in 1989 at the AT&T Bell Labs Murray Hill facility. The first public demonstration was held in 1992.

In 2005, the first commercial Internet Protocol transmission was sent at 100 gigabits per second.

Bell Labs, once an American owned company, is today owned by a French company called Alcatel, which is based in Paris, France.

Bell Labs . . . Une histoire des inventions.

For more information about Bell Labs visit http://www.alcatel-lucent.com/wps/portal/BellLabs.