Inside the Egghead Circus at Bell Labs

Reading between the lines.
March 31 2012 12:34 AM

Sharks With Frickin' Laser Beams Attached to Their Heads

Inside the egghead circus at Bell Labs.

Illustration by Pat Grant.

Illustration by Pat Grant.

The great technological minds of the 20th century were certainly entitled to their share of clowning. Though seriously starched, Bell Labs—the research octopus of AT&T—had some oddballs walking, and in one case unicycling, its endless corridors. Satellite inventor John Pierce once strolled into a mathematician’s office and shut himself inside a locker, as if grabbing a moment of empathetic darkness for all the nerds who would be involuntarily stuffed into future lockers before growing up to invent things both great and terrible. He freed himself and left the room without a word, hanging a big fat Huh? on his colleague’s face.

There were others. Radar man Jim Fisk—who once said his senses were sharpened by “man-eating flies”—was pretty good at vanishing down nonexistent stairs, an illusion later refined by Austin Powers. (It’s all in the knees.) Transistor pioneer Bill Shockley had a wrist-activated bouquet up his sleeve. Computer visionary Claude Shannon was the unicyclist.

120328_BOOKS_ideaFactory
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
by Jon Gertner
The Penguin Press

You can happily join this egghead circus in The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, Jon Gertner’s fascinating history of the phone company’s R&D brain from its inception in 1925, on West Street between 11th and 12th in Manhattan, to its federal dismemberment in 1984 and present legacy in your iPhone. At Bell Labs, a sense of humor, not to mention patience, was required during a period that Shockley described as “the natural blundering process of finding one’s way.” The path to lasers, radars, satellites, and decent phone service was full of all manner of unplanned genius and gee-whiz. Bell Labs had to keep “inventing ways to invent those things,” writes Gertner, also a science writer for the New York Times

Before the first 80-pound mobile phone, there was a robot finger to simulate dialing and a Dropping Machine to gauge “the violence of impact” when hanging up on bad news. A Flintstonian Woodpecker Machine was created to test the resistance of wood finish on telephone poles. Noise was an invasive species in the Bell System. The company diligently gopher-proofed its underground cables and filtered out the ancillary racket that infested conversation, sound effects that did little in discouraging the notion that long distance calls were routed through outer space. A thing to come later, anyway.

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In 1921, the federal government exempted AT&T from antitrust regulations, allowing Bell Labs to pursue—as Gertner has it—a “mission to connect all of us, and all of our new machines, together.” (At the time, Russia seemed to take this mission a lockstep further, establishing the Central Institute of Labor laboratory, “machine-human complexes,” as descriptions of the era put it, for bioengineering the “perfect electric man.”) With dibs on the latest innovations, both military and civilian, the feds were wise to grant AT&T, and by dint Bell Labs and its manufacturing division, Western Electric, this elastic courtesy. By 1941, when Bell Labs president O.E. Buckley was heading the National Defense Research Committee, the lab itself had relocated from Manhattan to an expanded facility in Murray Hill, N.J.. The windows were painted black, barbed wire curled inward, and nearly 75 percent of research went to the war machine.

The Idea Factory rightly concentrates on Jim Fisk’s radar research as one of Bell Labs’ most important wartime contributions, instead of, say, Jim Fisk’s proposal to install a swimming pool in the basement of a biscuit factory to study the “propulsion system of sharks” for naval warfare. (I’ve often imagined a visit to Bell Labs in the ’40s being similar to dropping by Q’s MI6 lab.) Bell Labs busied itself with bazookas, magnetic mines, a camera that photographed bullets, and my favorite, the Water Heater. This acoustic torpedo was equipped with a 500-watt speaker that popped out of its nose and played “tactical sounds” to decoy enemy ships, and then, like all the rest, self-destructed.

I learned about the Water Heater from Ralph Miller, a Bell Labs crypto-engineer who successfully arrived at his 105th birthday this month. During the Cold War, Miller carried his underwear and toothbrush in a steel briefcase, in the event of being unexpectedly summoned to work on nuclear subs stationed in Guantanamo Bay. As Gertner may attest, it’s hard scaring up clear living minds from the vacuum-tube generation, and the research behind The Idea Factory is astonishing, drawing from interviews as well as collections and declassified material. Free of online leakage, much of Bell Labs’ military work would not be cleared until long after World War II.

Published in 2005, Philip Gerard’s Secret Soldiers details Bell Labs’ involvement in the U.S. Signal Corps’ sonic deception program, mixing battlefield noise on three turntables to essentially raise a phantom army on vinyl. Even more hushed was the Bell Labs collusion with Muzak, Inc., the waiting room god of mindless symphony. Muzak helped produce randomized thermal noise records for a top-secret phone scrambler called SIGSALY, or Project X. Restricted to bigs like Churchill, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, the system’s central component was the vocoder, a Bell Labs device that had the L.A. Times crowing in 1939: “So wondrous, so stupendous, so complicated, so confusing.” Invented by physicist/beekeeper Homer Dudley in the late 1920s, the vocoder disbanded the voice into sub-frequencies and reconstituted this information into a machine’s impression of human speech. In the interest of transparency—in the Bell Labs, the “realm of opaque chatter”—my acoustic bias toward West Street’s military affairs can be traced to a book I wrote on the vocoder. Upon receiving The Idea Factory, I raided the index for vocoders and Project Xs, found none, and realized it’s hard to compete with all those lasers, radars, satellites, transistors, and Claude Shannons.

120328_BOOKS_JonGertner-LesliedelaVega
Jon Gertner

Leslie de la Vega

Mr. Shannon is the star of The Idea Factory, and not just because he invented a flamethrower trumpet. (That one never saw combat, alas.) Shannon’s cryptography breakthroughs made him a legend among codebreakers, while the conversations—but not secrets—shared with Britain’s chief cryptanalyst, Alan Turing, in the cafeteria at 463 West Street are legendary. Apparently, the two smartest guys in the room were busy figuring out how to make machines think, while everyone else at lunch wondered what was going on in their heads.

Shannon’s wry sense of humor was manifested in his life and work. He “wooed” his wife Betty in the Differential Analyzer room and designed a Roman numeral calculator called the THROBAC. His chess-playing computer would talk trash, belittling opponent’s moves. Shannon also puckishly designed an “Ultimate Machine”: simply a box with a button and a hand that emerged to shut it off, as if anticipating Charles Addams’ one-handed record changer, Thing.

Shannon’s most important realization was that information could be quantified into bits (his word), binary switches of ones and zeros—foreshadowing digital compression and the basis of how we communicate today. Shannon liberated information from requiring meaning, an eerie prank on our TMI society, when the NSA, according to Gertner, “intercepts and stores 2-billion phone calls, emails, and data transmissions” daily.

Meanings aside, The Idea Factory is also able to enjoy the sublime poetry of scientific jargon for its own sake. Take the quantum world, where “you could no longer say a particle has a certain location and speed.” Or a measurement like “one-millionth of an atmosphere.” The wonderfully named Time Assignment Speech Interpolation scans phone conversations 2,000 times per second for the pauses and dead air in human speech, switching this information to a different channel to increase bandwidth capacity. Meanwhile, John Pierce rescued the transistor from being called “The Iotatron.” The very idea.

Gertner laments how the terms of technology have become interchangeable, if not replaceable, like the product itself. The importance of distinguishing between invention, discovery, and innovation. Scientist and engineer. (Or in the vocoder’s case, noise and sound.) “The language that describes innovations,” he writes, “often fails to distinguish between an innovative consumer product and an innovation that represents a leap in human knowledge.” As if understanding had gone the way of John Pierce’s Telstar I satellite.

According to the U.S. Space Objects Registry, Telstar has been orbiting the earth since its launch in 1962, when Bell Labs still held hope for the Picturephone. It’s now just a floating ball of space junk. There is no signal. In the satellite anthem race, the Sidney Owens soul 45 “Sputnik” far outreaches the Tornadoes’ tribute to Telstar anyway. The chorus haunts: “People are running. Where are they going?” To use up all their data, where else? Maybe the future is happening so quickly, we just don’t have time for it.

See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.

Dave Tompkins' book How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II To Hip-Hop is out in paperback and comes with 7-inch vinyl. He has contributed to Grantland, Oxford American, and The Wire. Born in North Carolina, he lives in New York.

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