For the better part of the 20th century, the block bordered by West, Washington, Bank, and Bethune Streets was the site of Bell Telephone Laboratories, the world’s largest and most profitable privately owned company, ever. Much of its success can be attributed to the policy of Bell’s research department to hire brilliant scientists and engineers, pay them well, and once they had proved their mettle, cut them loose. Even if their interests had no apparent commercial potential, Bell’s researchers had the freedom to sit and think, tinker with tubes and wires, or find a new way to look at a complicated problem and make it simple.
How Do You Manage Genius? You Don’t.
“Research is a blossom, development the fruit” was the Bell philosophy, a natural process with which it could not be interfered. Harvey Fletcher, an acoustics scientist, wanted to find a way to improve the quality of recorded sound. “We fussed around with loudspeakers for 10 years without getting anywhere. Ten years before, we learned to listen with two ears, and it was as perfect as it comes.” For his efforts, Fletcher became the father of stereophonic sound, and the company reaped enormous profits plus another patent.
In 1936, when job opportunities for scientists were scarce, Fletcher was part of a team that visited the most prestigious graduate schools in science and engineering and offered their most promising PhD students $3,000 a year to work at West Street; a fantastic salary that according to mathematician Claude Shannon was “enough to live like sultans in Greenwich Village.” He spent much of his time in a tiny office in the H section toying with the idea of a computer that could transmit information in “bits,” a concept so ahead of its time that not even the geniuses at West Street could comprehend it. It would be years before his “Theory of Information” would launch the Digital Age.
Like Shannon, many of these new recruits grew up socially isolated in small-town America, but at West Street they thrived among like-minded peers. Its stimulating environment also existed after hours in the coffee houses and nightclubs of the Village, a haven in the 1930s for avant-garde artists of every persuasion. Shannon, who loved jazz, could walk from his Bank Street apartment to hear Billie Holiday at Café Society on Sheridan Square. The members of the scientific avant-garde at Bell may have been odd balls back home, but in a neighborhood where eccentricity was the norm they fit right in.
“Assume I Am Infinitely Ignorant”
Bell had put together the most prestigious industrial lab in the world, but it was eight years behind the Germans when it came to the new physics, and its employees were encouraged to take a course in quantum mechanics that was being taught by I. I. Rabi at Columbia. After each class, they rushed to the library to find books that might help them decipher what the great nuclear physicist was talking about. “Oh, these men from Bell Labs,” he would chide, “taking courses they can’t master.” Fortunately, there were two men of towering intellect at West Street, William Shockley and Foster Nix, who not only understood quantum mechanics but were superior teachers, and they instituted an in-house colloquium to bring every department up to speed.
Interdisciplinary study groups were a longstanding academic tradition, but they were unheard of in an industrial lab. Nevertheless, management encouraged the idea, providing them with an auditorium on the top floor of the A section and even paid for tea and cookies, another academic tradition. The sessions were informal, no one presided, and the ground rules were clarity and brevity—no jargon, no footnotes. One if its goals was to synthesize the latest discoveries in physics and their relevance to engineering, a crossover approach that had always been unique to Bell Labs. Pretty soon scientists of the highest echelon were coming to these sessions, even Einstein, who was at Princeton, even the great physicists of Europe, heading straight from the steamship pier to West Street. One of them was Edward Teller. A young engineer who was to give a talk on the applications side of the new physics asked him, “On what level do you want to hear this?” to which Teller famously replied, “Assume I am infinitely ignorant and infinitely intelligent.”
Years later, Bell alumni recalled the significance of these study groups: “Absolutely vital. I felt privileged.” “The value of one person’s chance remark suggesting an idea to another.” “It’s hard to put yourself in the atmosphere of those times.” However, they couldn’t last. December 1938 brought shocking news from Berlin, where nuclear physicists had converted mass into energy, a process they called “fission.” The free-flowing exchange of information at the West Street labs abruptly came to an end. Secrecy was the new rule. The party was over.
(Next month: “Bell Labs: The War Years.”)