Extraordinary scientists and engineers created an institution from which they, and the waves of remarkable individuals who would follow them, would invent so many of the components of our modern information-centric lives. Referred to as “The Idea Factory” or “The Crown Jewel,” the history of Bell Labs is the story behind what is arguably the leading research organization in Information Technology and Communications.
Bell Labs has its roots in the consolidation of several engineering departments within the American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) company and the Western Electric company, the manufacturing organization for the Bell System. These departments had been tasked with overcoming the day-to-day engineering challenges of building a national communications network. But as large parts of that network were deployed and the emerging telephone business took hold in the 1920’s, attention increasingly turned to exploring fundamental areas of science likely to shape the future of the industry.
As a result, about 4,000 of these scientists and engineers were assigned to a newly created Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. in 1925, and were to be fully dedicated to such research. In 1934, AT&T’s Development and Research Department, which had been devoted to bridging the gap between laboratory research and the operations of communication systems, was integrated into Bell Laboratories. Growth continued as engineers from development departments were also folded into Bell Laboratories.
Adapting to Changing Market Dynamics
Significant changes occurred in 1984 when, as a consequence of a divestiture agreement with the U.S. Government, AT&T Corporation divested itself of its local exchange companies and the Bell System as it was known, ceased to exist. As part of the divestiture agreement, AT&T Technologies assumed the business of Western Electric and Bell Laboratories. Concurrently, several thousand Bell Laboratories employees were split-off to form Bellcore, the organization established to provide research and technical functions for the newly independent local exchange carriers.
In 1996 AT&T spun off most of Bell Laboratories and its equipment-manufacturing business into Lucent Technologies, Inc. (AT&T retained a smaller number of researchers to form AT&T Laboratories.) As part of this transition, most development departments were integrated into the business divisions of Lucent Technologies in order to more effectively manage the business in what was now a competitive market. The research functions remained within Bell Laboratories. In 2007, a year after the merger of Lucent Technologies and Alcatel (forming Alcatel-Lucent) Alcatel’s Research and Innovations organization and Bell Laboratories were combined into a single organization.
The Framework Continues
The continuous and remarkable record of accomplishments by Bell Laboratories across so many different domains is among the reasons why it is often regarded as the canonical industrial research organization. Today, Bell Laboratories, or as it is more commonly known, Bell Labs, exists as an organization within Alcatel-Lucent and is no longer a separate legal entity. However the culture and research model that took shape during its formative years, and which have frequently been adopted by other institutions, continue to remain at the very core of Bell Labs to this day.