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Posts Tagged ‘Bell Labs

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us”*…


Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver working on Oracle (1965), a collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg

Since it was first set-up in 1907, Bell Labs has been at the forefront of scientific invention. During its peak, work undertaken at the labs led to the invention of the laser and the transistor, the birth of information theory and the creation of C, S and C++ programming languages, which form the basis of coding today. Bell Labs has been awarded a total of eight Nobel Peace prizes and every Silicon Valley start-up or global conglomerate has mined the mythology around its unique ability to foster new ideas for clues as to how one research laboratory could consistently turn out such an array of successful technologies…

During the 1960s and 1970s… Bell Labs turned the research centre into a playground for the likes of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and most of New York’s Lower East Side art scene…

The extraordinary tale of EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology), engineer Billy Klüver’s attempt to “make technology more human”– at “How AT&T shaped modern art.”

Then, by way of sampling the results, check out “9 Evenings,” a 1965 project exploring avant-garde theatre, dance and new technologies. Artists John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Öyvind Fahlström, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor and Robert Whitman each worked with a Bell Labs engineer to create an original performance.

(AT&T is, of course, long gone; but Bell Labs lives on as part of Nokia– and EAT continues.)

* Marshall McLuhan


As we celebrate collaboration, we might email elegantly and creatively designed birthday greetings to Douglas Carl Engelbart; he was born on this date in 1925.  An engineer and inventor who was a computing and internet pioneer, Doug is best remembered for his seminal work on human-computer interface issues, and for “the Mother of All Demos” in 1968, at which he demonstrated for the first time the computer mouse, hypertext, networked computers, and the earliest versions of graphical user interfaces… that’s to say, computing as we know it, and all that computing enables.



…It tolled for us…

From the folks at Lucent, a nostalgic music video celebrating the contributions of Bell Labs– a facility unique in America history.  The nation’s premier research facility for several decades, it was the hatching ground of radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory, the UNIX operating system, and the C programming language; work completed there earned six Nobel Prizes.

With the breakup of ATT in 1984, stewardship of the Lab passed to Lucent, and the role of Lab began to change.  By August of 2008, Alcatel-Lucent announced that it was puling out of basic research altogether, to focus exclusively on more immediately marketable applications; the Bell Labs celebrated in the video is gone.

But its gifts to knowledge and society survive.  Indeed, it’s surely fair to observe that, without work done there, it wouldn’t be possible to for your correspondent to be pelting readers with daily missives via the internet.

As we listen to the background noise of the universe (for the discovery of which, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Labs won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics), we might take a celebratory trip in honor of Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian  explorer and anthropologist who became famous for his Kon-Tiki  Expedition in 1947 (though he went on many others as well); he was born on this date in 1914…  He once responded to an interviewer, “Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of most people.”

Thor Heyerdahl

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Most Single-Breath Opera Songs Sung In 10 Minutes (etc.)…

The human spirit stretches to soar.  Now, thanks to THE UNIVERSAL RECORD DATABASE (“The definitive site for human achievement”) there’s an easily-accessible source of benchmarks:

URDB is an open, participatory database for world records. We welcome you to get involved, whether discussing records, beating records or setting new ones of your own. This project is in its infancy, with many features coming in the months ahead. Help us build a community as we collectively push the limits of what mankind can do.

… or just marvel that Michael Kennedy sang 18 single-breath opera songs in 10 minutes, or that Scott Campbell read 52 world cities and their forecasted high temperatures in one minute live on his radio show, or that Erikah Westberry fit 46 pieces of candy corn in to her mouth at once and closed it…  or many, many more– new worlds records al!

As we raise our aspirations, we might note that it was on this date the the “Solid State Age” was born: on June 30, 1948, Bell Labs announced the invention of the “transistor,” and proposed that it might replace the vacuum tubes then ubiquitous in radios and other electronic devices…  The first patent for the field-effect transistor principle was filed in Canada by Austrian-Hungarian physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld on 22 October 1925, though Lilienfeld didn’t publish research articles about his devices. Then in 1934, German physicist Dr. Oskar Heil patented another field-effect transistor.  But it wasn’t until 1947, and the work begun then at Bell Labs by a team including John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, Wiliam Shockley, and John Pierce (who named “the transistor”) that it became practical.  (The first working model was completed in December, 1947, but the announcement was held– for further tweaking.)

Replica of the first working transistor

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