463 West Street: an important address in the allied victory of World War II. Photo courtesy AT&T Archives and History Center.

By Catherine Revland

Part Two of a series, You Must Remember This, about World War II and its relevance to our times

“How do you manage genius? You don’t.”

—Mervin Kelly, director of Bell Research Labs 

In the industrial Monopoly game of the 1940s, Bell Labs and Western Electric were Boardwalk and Park Place, an entire city block where the cream of the scientific elite was busy creating the latest wonder. At that time the Bell Empire was the world’s largest and wealthiest monopoly, and one of the secrets of its success was Mervin Kelly’s only requirement of his employees: perfection. 

Useful Freedom

Of all the researchers who have contributed to the oral history of Bell Labs, Kelly’s name comes up the most frequently because, perhaps, he understood the needs and complexities of the exceptional mind. “It’s exceedingly unlikely to find multiple talents in a single person,” he wrote in a report to management, “but it is in the mind of a single person that creative ideas and concepts are born.” Undoubtedly it was Kelly who persuaded the corporation to provide the cradle.

“We were cut loose to fuss around,” said acoustics engineer Harvey Fletcher, the inventor of stereophonic sound. “I spent ten years and got nowhere, ten years learning to listen with two ears, and finally it was perfect. As perfect as they come.” 

Another secret of Bell’s spectacular success also comes from Kelly: working in close collaboration with people of different disciplines. “I was part of probably the greatest research team ever put together on a problem,” recalled William Brattain, winner of the Nobel Prize for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). “One person’s remarks suggesting an idea to another always went to the heart of things—people in other disciplines who got interested in what you were doing—so hard to get in a university, so beautifully available at Bell Labs.” 

This collegiality extended far beyond 463 West Street. There was an auditorium on the top floor of what is now the A Section where these different disciplines met to educate each other, with tea and cookies provided by management. “It was held after work hours because it was entirely our show,” said nuclear physicist Foster Nix, “informal, lively, and incredibly helpful. Einstein and every other eminent European scientist who went to New York came here to visit or give talks. The only rule was clarity—no footnotes, no jargon. We were there to learn how to communicate with each other.” 

Sultans of Sound

The human ability to locate unseen objects in the sky or underwater is achieved by a system called radio detection and ranging, a.k.a. radar. It was still in the early stages of development in 1940, but early that year two British scientists achieved a major breakthrough called the cavity magnetron. By manipulating streams of electronic waves within a magnetic field they were able to vastly increase the power and frequency of radar, a feat that immediately revolutionized the industry.

When the magnetron arrived at West Street, shipped by the British government to the U.S. for safekeeping during the Blitz, it couldn’t have been in a better place. Bell’s acoustics researchers had been “pulling sound out of the air” for decades, and Fletcher had been tinkering with electron waves for 30 years. He called them “the physics of sound.” Now, instead of perfecting acoustics for the next Leopold Stokowski recording, he was keen on developing this astounding invention that would soon change the course of the war. 

The work on this super-secret project, code named Rad Lab, was done in a nondescript, converted biscuit factory across from the West Street building, but according to team leader Jim Fisk it was no walk in the park. “Reverse engineering is simple in theory,” he said, “but in practice it was turning us inside out—tedious, immensely frustrating modifications—but once resolved it was the gift that kept on giving.” 

Within two months the team had achieved the impossible, adapting and replicating 30 prototypes, ready for manufacture. In another three months, collaborating with Rad Labs at Columbia and MIT, they had designed a compact version that fit into an airplane, which required team members to go on test flights “because absolutely no one else knew how to run the system.” By 1942 they had developed the magnetic airborne detector (MAD) that located and torpedoed German submarines. By 1944 they had perfected an anti-aircraft version that was shooting down 9 out of 10 of Germany’s horrific V-2 rocket bombs. 

Having witnessed the unveiling of the magnetron at Bell Labs, renowned nuclear physicist I. I. Rabi headed straight to the Rad Lab at MIT. “When people asked us why we weren’t working on the bomb,” he said, “we told them we were serious about preserving the future of humanity. The bomb ended the war, but radar won the war.” 

When the future of humanity is under a dire threat, certain people rise up, shift into high gear, and achieve the impossible. Remember this. 

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