Bell Labs — Our Scientific Heritage

by Kim Steele

In 1880, the French government awarded Alexander Graham Bell the Volta Prize of 50,000 francs (approximately US$10,000 at that time), about $250,000 in current dollars. His telephone was the invention that won the award, which he used to found the Volta Laboratory, along with Sumner Tainter and Bell’s cousin Chichester Bell.


Photographing sound in 1884, Volta Laboratory, photograph by J. Harris Rogers/Smithsonian




The Volta Laboratory and the Volta Bureau were later re-located at Bell’s father’s house at 1527 35th Street in Washington, D.C., where its carriage house became their headquarters in 1889.

In 1893, Bell constructed a new building (close by at 1537 35th St.) specifically to house the laboratory.  The building was later declared a National Historic Landmark in 1972.

In 1925 Western Electric Research Laboratories and part of the engineering department of The American Telephone & Telegraph company (AT&T) were consolidated to form Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc., as a separate entity created just for research purposes.

In the early 1940s, the photovoltaic cell was developed by Russell Ohl.  Karl Jansky during his work investigating the origins of static on long-distance shortwave communications, discovered that radio waves were being emitted from the center of the galaxy.  Innumerable  inventions and discoveries plumed the corporate headdress here.

Bell Laboratories operated its headquarters at Murray Hill, New Jersey, and has research and development facilities throughout the world. Researchers working at Bell Labs are credited with the development of radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the charge-coupled device (CCD–the current chip capturing device used in digital cameras), information theory, the UNIX operating system, the C programming language, S programming language and the C++ programming language. Seven Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Laboratories.

Bell researcher Clinton Davisson shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with George Paget Thomson for the discovery of electron diffraction, which helped lay the foundation for solid-state electronics.  In the early 1930s, before the present building, Karl Guthe Jansky discovered extraterrestrial radio waves using this antenna on the site.

In 1947, the transistor, probably the most important invention developed by Bell Laboratories, was invented by John Bardeen, Walter Houser Brattain, and William Bradford Shockley (and who subsequently shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956).

In 1957 the Bell Telephone Company began to plan a research laboratory in Holmdel Township, New Jersey, not far from New York City. The mirrored-glass building was designed by Eero Saarinen, opened in 1962.  He designed an open interior so that the scientists might encounter one another and ‘interact’ about their work.  The interior plants were complete with internal watering systems, that proved problematic at times but innovative!


Saarinen's Last Experiment

Saarinen’s Last Experiment


The Holmdel site, a 1.9 million square foot structure set on 473 acres, was shut down in 2007. In August 2013, Somerset Development bought the building, intending to redevelop it into a mixed commercial and residential project. Due to the unusual design, this has proven to be a challenge. The 470-acre grounds include lakes, wetlands, and fields. Although Somerset plans to sell 237 acres to the national home builder Toll Brothers, the remaining land will eventually include bike paths, pedestrian walkways, and an outdoor sports center.  The prospects of success are clouded by the difficulty of re-adapting Saarinen’s design and by the current glut of aging and abandoned office parks.


Bell Labs, Holmdell NJ

Bell Labs, Holmdel, NJ


The past endeavors of the US corporate mind set, investing in research and future innovation declined precipitously after yet another recession, Black Monday in 1988.


StevenChuNobel Winner

Dr. Steven Chu, Nobel Prize Winner, 1985, photograph by Kim Steele















The momentum did continue however, until the nineties when Dr. Steven Chu was awarded the Nobel Prize for laser affects on molecules for his invention of laser cooling work. He and his co-workers at Bell Labs developed a method of cooling atoms by employing six laser beams opposed in pairs and arranged in three directions at right angles to each other. Trapping atoms with this method allows scientists to study individual atoms with great accuracy. He later became the US Secretary of Energy for Obama, then returning to Stanford.



Bell Labs Laser, photograph by Kim Steele


My assignments at Bell were an honor and produced some great imagery. I shot there for many clients, including Fortune, Time, KPMG, The New York Times and most importantly for Bell Labs themselves. One of my most prestigious assignments, which became an article in Discover was ‘Super-Conductivity.’  Based on  stopping molecular movement at Absolute Zero (minus 273 degrees Kelvin) to prevent the loss of energy in tansmission over lines where up to forty percent of electricity is lost  thorugh the lines.  I was asked to provide images for their public announcement of this break-through. I was up for the task. I had migrated from industrial photography to technology. It became a cover for Fortune and cemented my relationship with the most prestigious research center in the world.



Bell Labs, FORTUNE Magazine cover, photograph by Kim Steele


The spirit in Saarinen’s building was electric. The researchers, as I liked to say, “were on something.” They were thrilled to do their work and were given the rare opportunity, as evidenced by America’s failing progress in technology and innovation, to conduct ‘pure’ research–not directed at any particular product or manufacturing.

I hope that the re-purposing of this magnificent temple to America’s great innovative history will keep the lights on for our future.


Bell Labs golf ball, photograph by Kim Steele

Bell Labs golf ball, photograph by Kim Steele


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