Why was Bell Labs so successful

Where the future is made

Most visitors who step into the huge building in idyllic Murray Hill - half an hour's drive west of New York - know what the big red luminous numbers in the lobby mean. It does not show the time or, as usual, the company's share price, but the number of patents since 1925 emblazoned on the display. In the evening, when employees and guests leave the headquarters of the famous Bell Labs, the number is no longer the same: 26497 can then be read. Three more patents in one working day - for the parent company Lucent Technologies, to which Bell Labs belong, is the average.

The number alone is impressive enough, the exhibits that are on display behind the illuminated display will give anyone who is just a bit interested in technology a chill on the spine. There it stands, the first transistor that is now miniaturized and built in billions of times in computers, cell phones and washing machines and that keeps our industrial society alive. Or the first laser, without which there would be no CD player and fast data networks. It is hardly surprising that the sound film technology, the first solar cell, the first communications satellite, mobile radio technology, the light-emitting diode and thousands of other useful things were invented here.

Picobello furnished offices, in which researchers sit dressed in fine cloth and put ingenious ideas on paper - images involuntarily appear in the mind's eye of what it could look like in the sacred halls behind the reception desk. Of course, the ideas are wrong. The same creative chaos in the offices and laboratories that are bursting at the seams for all the measuring instruments, with scientists who look exactly the same here as they do anywhere in the world: without a suit, but in a T-shirt.

But the Bell Labs are a bit bigger - more American in fact -: corridors that are around a quarter of a mile long and at the end of which people shrink to tiny points. Buildings that a giant has thrown haphazardly on the site and in which even long-term employees can only find their way with a map and good shoes. And that's just the smaller part of Bell Labs, which, after glorious decades with the AT&T telephone company, has belonged to Lucent Technologies since 1996: In Holmdale, an hour's drive further south, there is another building that looks like an overturned skyscraper. The glass facade is truly gigantic. Trees grow inside, a café and exhibitions invite you to linger. Several thousand scientists each work at the two locations Murray Hill and Holmdale. In total, Bell Labs employ 25,000 scientists in 20 countries, around 1,500 of whom work in basic research.

While the economy is streamlining its research and the word "lean" is part of a manager's basic vocabulary, Bell Labs seem to be in abundance. Every employee has a credit card with which they can buy everything they need for their work. What can it be: office supplies, a new computer, a new measuring instrument? Everything is on the house without filling out a single form. Of course there are limits, even for the Nobel Prize winners, eleven of which Bell Labs have now produced. “Sometimes I feel like a child who is allowed to play in the sandpit,” says Jim West, who has worked with acoustics at Bell Labs for 44 years and who developed the foil electret principle in 1962, which is now used in 90 percent of all microphones is built in.

If there is a paradise for researchers in this world, it is in New Jersey - that becomes clear in every conversation. The enthusiasm and gratitude to be allowed to work here and the awareness of belonging to the world's elite is omnipresent. No wonder that 150,000 scientists apply every year, of whom only around 1,000 - the best in their field - are hired.

The position of physicist Claire Gmachl was also in great demand. The Austrian spent two years as a postdoc at Bell Labs and was then taken on to a permanent position two years ago - which is a special honor. “The best people are here, it's extremely exciting and motivating,” says the 32-year-old proudly, who is involved in the further development of the revolutionary quantum cascade laser.

But the Bell Labs researchers are by no means sitting in an ivory tower - their own demands also create pressure to perform: being better than the colleagues in the neighboring laboratory, being better than other work groups at universities or other companies. There is great confidence in the ambition of the employees and the influence that the Lucent managers exert on the researchers is comparatively small. "Once a year we have to report on our work," says Xina Quan, who develops inexpensive synthetic fibers that will one day replace the expensive glass fibers in telecommunications networks. "If necessary, the research goal is changed or a company is spun off if the research no longer fits Lucent products." Only the link with a successful company - formerly AT&T, now Lucent - is what makes Bell Labs so appealing, says Xina Quan : “You can see the fruits of your labor.” These fruits are also noticeable in your own wallet: every employee has Lucent shares and benefits from the company's success.

In order not to give this fruit away for free, Lucent employs dozens of people who care about nothing other than patents. The “Department for Efficient Research”, on the other hand, which also appeared in the press as a model in this country, is currently being “restructured” - in fact, it no longer exists. For the “nuclear scientists”, as the 1500 basic researchers are called in Lucent jargon, it never played a role anyway. As long as an area of ​​work has faint hope that it might one day benefit Lucent's business, it will be supported. In booming areas, for example in low-temperature physics, which is still bare basic research, people are involved on principle in order to be prepared for anything. In the Department of Physics and Engineering, half of all research projects are aimed at a time horizon of 5 to 10 years. The others only promise practical benefits in 20 years.

The fabulous image of Bell Labs also benefits the parent company. When Lucent - the name stands for brightness and shine - was founded in 1996 as a spin-off from the ex-telephone monopoly AT&T, nobody knew the company with the red ring in the company logo. Everyone knew Bell Labs. So Lucent decided to proliferate with his pounds: The head office was integrated into the Bell Labs headquarters in Murray Hill, and the entrance portal, on door signs, business cards and T-shirts now read "Lucent Technologies - Bell Labs Innovations". This makes the weighting clear: Bell Labs are not everything, but without Bell Labs everything is nothing at Lucent.

But Bell Labs also benefited. In the early 1990s, AT & T's business was primarily aimed at telephony services. The research goals for Bell Labs were adjusted accordingly: Long-term basic physical research, which previously accounted for around 80 percent of activities, was reduced to less than half in favor of software development and network technology. Today the proportion is 50 to 50 and has thus shifted back somewhat in favor of physical research, because Lucent appears in the market as a pure manufacturer of communication hardware. "Lucent is the best that could have happened to Bell Labs", Horst Störmer is convinced. The 1998 German Nobel Prize in Physics has been working for Bell Labs for 22 years.

Today, Lucent is once again doing astrophysicists who search space for dark matter. The discovery of cosmic background radiation as a relic of the Big Bang even brought two Bell Labs physicists the Nobel Prize in 1978. But the pure desire for a deeper understanding of the universe is no longer enough as a motif: Lucent hopes to develop new LCD chips for digital cameras and improved software for image processing. When asked how the Bell Labs adjust to the ever tougher competition of the future, one only reaps puzzled faces - so great is the trust in one's own creativity and innovative ability. "The best thing is to just leave everything as it is," recommends Horst Störmer.

Bernd Mueller

February 1, 2000

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