In 1966, if you were driving and took a wrong turn, your options for finding the correct route home were limited to searching for a gas station, stumbling upon a pay phone, or flagging down another driver.

Today? You have endless options to get on track.

Within 50 years, our communication research and development has been astonishing. How, where, and who made these advances possible? Well, many of them happened in Monmouth County.

Communication technology and much more was born at the Bell Laboratories Holmdel Complex, now known as Bell Works, located in Holmdel. The revolutionary modernist building was designed by architect Eero Saarinen, who also designed St. Louis’ Gateway Arch and New York’s TWA Terminal.

On the outside, the mirror box exterior is an architectural icon dubbed “The Biggest Mirror Ever” by Architectural Forum. The initial construction was completed in 1962, with expansions in 1966 and 1982. For 44 years, the 2 million-square-foot facility was home to 6,000 engineers and researchers who used it as a massive think tank to develop communications for America and the world.

Bell Labs was open and inviting with a pedestrian esplanade that spanned the length of three football fields. The exterior hallways and walkable balconies made it easy for like-minded people to meet, collaborate, and even fall in love.

“I met my wife Marcy Braunstein, a systems engineer, at Bell Labs. We married in 1984,” Dr. George W. Gawrys said. He traveled the world for Bell Labs and developed five U.S. patents.

The caliber of employees also made a difference at the Holmdel facility.

“(There were) highly intelligent colleagues and bosses (who had) the noble purpose of advancing science, resulting in many positive benefits to society,” said Bob Merski, a former Bell Labs technical staffer who added that Bell Labs fostered “encouragement to continuously learn and enhance skills.”

“It was really a wonderful place to work,” said 1978 Nobel Prize winner Robert Wilson, who still lives in Holmdel. “There were people there who had participated in the development of microwave during the 1930s and the Second World War. There were world experts around and people were rewarded for cooperating across organizational boundaries or within the organization. Everyone was very helpful.”

Not only helpful but brilliant. Bell Labs’ identity was built on innovation, as the company developed 32,031 U.S. patents with 15,000 still active.

Bell Labs

THE FREEDOM TO CREATE

One of the keys to Bell Labs’ success was the free time to work on side projects. Some of today’s leading companies, like Google, use this tactic to develop their best ideas.

Mary Rooney Byrne, who worked on the transatlantic cable at Bell Labs from 1953 to 1962, and then on teleconference in 1978 through 1993, recalls, “Once when my supervisor had a new task to assign and he called me into his office and asked, ‘What are you working on?’ It happened I didn't have an assignment and was working on an idea of my own. After I explained it to him, he said, ‘Interesting. Continue,’ and assigned the task to another person.”

Bell Labs employees succeeded in building a national communications network by having the opportunity to develop their own ideas. Bell Labs acquired the nickname “The Idea Factory” because of these creative liberties.  

“The freedom to be creative was the most important thing for me,” Reuben Prichard Jr. said. “I would be assigned to a project, and we would be able to interact with the other team members and find our own direction in the project. There was always the charge given to see what you can do differently that was better than the standard.”

Bell Labs employees bridged the gap between technology and imagination by working collaboratively with different departments.  

“Most of the innovation we developed was done as small side efforts as part of assignments or during our own time,” Reuben said. “We would always bring in these little side projects, show them to our friends and colleagues and say, ‘Hey, I was playing around trying to do this and look what I found or was able to do.’ The free exchange of ideas was wonderful.”

AN IDENTITY OF INNOVATION

Throughout the years, Bell Labs made its mark with revolutionary innovations:

  • 1932: Karl Jansky built an antenna designed to receive radio waves and won the 1948 Nobel Prize
  • 1962: Demonstrated cellular technology, tested the first paging system, produced the first orbiting communications satellite (Telstar I) and invented light-emitting diodes, now widely used in imaging systems
  • 1965: Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson stumbled upon cosmic background radiation while using a highly sensitive "horn antenna" in radio astronomy experiments and won the 1978 Nobel Prize
  • 1969: Developed the UNIX operating system, which became the Internet’s foundation and made open computer systems possible
  • 1979: Created digital signal processor, enabling cellular phones and modems
  • 1988: Created first fiber-optic transatlantic cable, handling up to 40,000 phone calls at once
  • 1992: Invented compression technology needed for digital radio
  • 1995: Developed first prototype system supporting wireless Internet
  • 1998: Created first switch allowing Internet telephone traffic, faster Internet access

Sometimes the awe of what occurred back in the day still comes to mind for Reuben.

“The most memorable day for me really didn’t come when I was working at the Labs, but many years after retirement when I realized that I had worked with and for so many people that have impacted the evolution of technology,” he said. “Working with people that would go on to work on Wall Street to develop economic models that are used for portfolio balancing, develop the foundations of IP security, and become the core team of AT&T’s Labs CTO office, just to name a few.”

The impact these discoveries have had, plus the size of the Holmdel complex, may never be surpassed. So, with time, the legendary discoveries enhance the majestic facade of the Bell Labs facility.

The former Bell Labs location is becoming a new source of inspiration for Monmouth County residents. What’s happening within the biggest mirror ever? To rediscover this innovation hub, subscribe to the TEDxNavesink newsletter.