Telecom Pioneer Bell Labs Was a Long Term Thinker

Bell Labs was a company that did a lot of work with technology in New Jersey, including what we now know as satellites and cell phones. Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, sat down with NJToday Managing Editor Mike Schneider to discuss the company’s past and why it closed.

“Bell Labs hit its heyday right after World War II,” Gertner said. “The big invention that really got it up to speed was the transistor in 1947. That’s really the building block of all digital products in contemporary life.”

Gertner said the company was run as a monopoly and thought long term for innovations that sometimes took up to 20 years to develop. “They were incrementally developing the telephone system,” he said.

Bell Labs started in New York City and after World War II moved to a site in Murray Hill. It also had an office complex in Holmdel.

“We think of California and Silicon Valley as synonymous with innovation but really for the better part of the century, New Jersey was the center of innovation — first with [Thomas] Edison … and then Bell Labs as really being the center of innovation for 50, 70 years.”

Bell Labs dissolved after the phone companies broke up in the early 1980s. “It didn’t seem that things would go downhill or things would change that drastically,” Gertner said. The company was able to compete in other markets, but it didn’t work. “What they found as a company that had survived as a monopoly just wasn’t up for that kind of competitive metabolism.”

Gertner said the ability of Bell Labs to think far into the future is an asset that some of today’s companies could use. “Maybe that long term thinking needs to come back in some ways,” he said. “It’s a nice balance for the short term, high metabolism, high speed innovation we have right now.”