Reflecting on the Bell Labs Era

by Colin Berkshire

Bell Laboratories was the greatest of all research laboratories, in an era of great laboratories.

Any description of Bell Labs of the 1970s would necessarily seem impossible, or a fantasy. It’s something that I think doesn’t exist anywhere today.

Managers were pretty quick to identify the folks that had lots of ideas and who wanted to work on those (sometimes crazy) ideas. They way they did this was to give these people a workload of only about half time and then let them go play and see what they did. If they did interesting things they got more playtime and freedoms…and eventually funding….and after that they would get to pick friends to play with. Seriously, this was how it worked.

In 1979 I was a little snot with a lot of ideas. I was an anomaly since (to the best of my knowledge) I was the only person working on staff without a masters degree; in fact I didn’t yet have a bachelor’s degree. In theory this was impossible, since you couldn’t be hired on without a masters degree. But somehow I had gotten spotted by a VP with a lot of power and was simply inserted into Bell Labs. I was clueless what an exception I was.

Within a year my official job duties were 6-week projects I would do in one all-nighter. I was otherwise free to design things. By then I had two other persons who I was allowed to fund. Officially it was to help me with my 6-week project but that was just a cover story.

We designed packet switching systems for packetized voice. We designed a PBX with no central system (smarts in the phones) and a telephone set that used a 300 baud modem to dial instead of touch-tones. We built test systems and a system to create reports on ACD systems. I wanted a clock on my phone, so we raided the candy store (parts warehouse) and built it. None of this work was officially assigned to me or my little group. We just did it.

Every time we saw a problem we created a solution. Remember 1A2 key systems? We built an adapter that would reduce the 25-pair cable to just three pairs. The adapter could even be mounted inside the phone…and it worked for thousands of feet.

By the time I was 23 my boss moved me to a different department and told me to keep my mouth shut. I was handed a $10 Million budget. Of course I needed counter-signatures and upper-level approvals to buy things, but the money was there. I probably only spent $500K…ten million was incomprehensible to a 23 year old in 1980.

I rode my bike in the hallways after hours. I blasted my stereo into the atrium at midnight as I worked. I phototypeset my resume in an era where dot-matrix was cool.

Then, in 1981 my senior VP mentor called me into his office. He told me to get out of the company. I was heartbroken. Why? He explained that the era was over, the Bell Labs that I loved was about to be dismantled. He didn’t know when, but the handwriting was on the walls. A year later I left the Bell System and went to work for BNR, the Bell Canada equivalent, located in Mountain View.

This was the best time of my life.

In 1983 the Bell System was broken up and over a few years all pure research was discontinued. Carly Fiorina instituted massive layoffs just like she would later do at HP. The building in Holmdel NJ I had worked in dwindled from 7,000 brainiacs to a few hundred.

Police had to escort the last people out when they were terminated from their guaranteed-for-life jobs. There were suicides. Engineers actually jumped from the balconies into the atriums. And, the building closed and then sat for 20 years, overgrown by weeds. Never to be used again. It still sits, empty.

The end of an era. A glorious era.