Over a century of innovation on display at AT&T museum

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

“How do you do?” and “God save the queen” were some of the first words ever said over the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant Thomas Watson. The year was 1876.

“This is a replica. We have the original, but it’s too fragile to have on display, of Watson wrote down what he heard in a stationary store notebook,” said AT&T corporate historian Sheldon Hochheiser.

The invention of the telephone is also the beginning of AT&T’s story.

“Bell had a couple of financial, what we call venture capitalists so that would be anachronistic, who were supporting him as he was working to try and make an improvement on the telegraph. Telegraph was a big business that went around the world. The improvement he wanted to make was to make it talk. He succeeded. Then he and his backers formed the original bell telephone company to exploit his invention,” said Hochheiser.

Hochheiser says that is the direct corporate predecessor of AT&T. It’s one of the many stories of the company’s 142-year history highlighted in a new innovation center. Inside the center’s museum you can find items like the high vacuum tube amplifier.

“We wanted to be able to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific — New York and California. We needed a way to amplify, boost the strength of the signal. Invented here by a guy named Harold Arnold in 1912, 1913. 1915 we opened transcontinental service,” Hochheiser said.

The next major milestone, the most important invention in the history of the company, after the phone itself, is the transistor, says Hochheiser.

“It is the foundation of all modern electronics. Today’s computer chip, say in your smartphone, have billions of tiny, tiny transistors on a single chip. But it all goes back to the work of [Walter Houser] Brattain, [John] Bardeen and [William] Shockley in 1947,” said Hochheiser

“All of those innovations came out of AT&T Labs. These were innovations that were basically the foundation for a lot of the things that we use everyday,” said Andre Fuetsch, president and chief technology officer at AT&T Labs.

“When you make a big, important invention, it often will have far broader implications,” said Hochheiser.

There’s also a communication satellite from the 1960s that paved the way for all the communication satellites that bring live TV around the globe.

“It was impossible to send a live television signal across the ocean. There wasn’t enough bandwidth,” Hochheiser said. “So we devised the first active communication satellite — 1962 Telstar — and there is a spare Telstar hanging in the museum. We built six, two of them went into space.”

Inventions like these were created by people who had vision to see beyond the present, like Irwin Gerszberg, assistant vice president of research and development at AT&T. He has 268 patents and counting.

“When I was a young engineer, when I started a long time ago, I had this idea of over-the-air cellphone activation,” said Gerszberg. “So I came up with a process to automatically put the phone number in the phone, and that was my very first patent.”

The goal of the museum is to allow people to learn the company’s history and to highlight what’s to come.

“Such as 5G, artificial intelligence, software defined networking, new technologies such as air gig, these will be the technologies that will go into the future that will benefit humankind for many, many decades to come,” Hochheiser said.