Bell Labs: A history of pioneering innovations

Oct. 13, 2017
by Mark Ollig

Founded in 1925, Bell Telephone Laboratories, better known as Bell Labs, was AT&T’s research and development department.

It was originally the Alexander Graham Bell Laboratory.

AT&T and Bell Labs are credited with inventing many telecommunication technologies and devices.

Let’s look back at some of them.

The telephotography machine was designed by AT&T scientists, and built by its subdivision, Western Electric, for transmitting pictures over telephone wires.

It took this predecessor of the fax (facsimile) machine 4.5 minutes to transmit one photograph 500 miles over telephone wires from a Cleveland sending station to a New York City receiving station May 19, 1924.

In 1925, Bell Labs used the telephotography machine for transmitting photographs to a few newspaper outlets over AT&T’s long-distance telephone network, using its copper telephone wires.

Photos of President Calvin Coolidge’s second inauguration in March 1925, were sent by facsimile using what was then called Picture Telegraphy, from Washington, DC to San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.

Transmitting photos over telephone wires totally changed the thinking of using telephone lines strictly for voice communications.

April 7, 1927, Bell Labs demonstrated publicly the first long-distance television transmission.

Live, moving television images of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover were transmitted over telephone lines from Washington, DC to New York City.

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

Minnesota is also a part of the Bell Labs historical timeline.

In 1941, the first installation of a coaxial cable within the telephone network was placed in service between Minneapolis and Stevens Point, WI. The length of the coaxial cable was 200 miles.

This coaxial cable was invented at Bell Labs in 1929, and I consider it the first broadband transmission medium.

In 1947, a Bell Labs’ invention – the transistor – greatly improved the way we use our computers and modern electronics.

Built as a replacement for vacuum tubes and mechanical relays, the transistor revolutionized the entire electronics world. Scientists John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley invented the transistor.

Bell Labs also put out the first concept paper on cellular network technology in 1947; however, the actual technology needed to build it did not yet exist.

The unique thing about this concept was the idea of a wireless telephone network consisting of overlapping radio cell sites supported by a call-switching infrastructure.

The geographical cellular network would “follow” telephone users while they moved throughout the network topology.

This networking arrangement would hand off voice calls from one radio cell site to another without dropping the call in progress.

The wireless cellular network design resembled interconnected honeycombs.

AT&T activated the first working commercial cellular telephone system in the US when it began service in Chicago, IL in 1983.

The solar battery cell, which converts sunlight into electricity, was invented at Bell Labs in 1954.

In 1956, AT&T completed installation of the first trans-Atlantic telephone cable called TAT-1 (trans-Atlantic No. 1). The initial cable capacity was 36 simultaneous calls.

The cost per call over the TAT-1 was $12 for the first three minutes.

In 1963, the TAT-1 cable was used for the famous White House direct telephone hotline connection between Washington, DC and Moscow.

Modems were first used by Bell Labs in 1958, for the North American Air Defense (now called NORAD), in order to transmit digital computer data over analog signaling telephone wires.

The year 1958 also saw Bell Lab’s invention of the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).

Today, a laser is used as the transmission carrier in fiber-optic communications networks, as a cutting tool in hospital surgeries, and for commercial industrial applications.

A 1960 Bell System technical journal described their dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) keypad for pushbutton “touch-tone” dialing, which would replace the rotary dial used in a standard telephone.

AT&T demonstrated touch-tone dialing to the public at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

The first DTMF touch-tone keypad dialers installed in telephones for public use were in the Greensburg and Carnegie, PA telephone exchanges, in 1963.

My hometown of Winsted first provided DTMF touch-tone dialing service for the local hospital with the installation of its new digital telephone system in 1979.

In 1980, Winsted Telephone Company subscribers were able to use touch-tone telephones when the local telephone exchange made major modifications to their central dial office system by installing dual-tone multi-frequency converter equipment.

A Spanish-English voice translator was designed by Bell Labs in 1989, and publicly demonstrated in 1992.

Bell Labs was acquired in 2006, by the French company, Alcatel, which operated it until 2016.

Today, the Finnish communications and technology company, NOKIA owns Bell Labs and retains its Murray Hill, NJ headquarters.

Visit Bell Labs at www.bell-labs.com.

Follow me on Twitter at @bitsandbytes, and check out my online blog: https://bitscolumn.blogspot.com.

This column, originally written Oct. 8, 2007, was recently modified by the writer.

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