Bell Labs

Bell Telephone Labs was formed from Western Electric and part ofAT&T in 1925. Since then researchers there have earned six NobelPrizes. For those who question the virtues of basic science, andignoring the benefits of the existential quest for understanding of ourworld, one of those Nobels was for the invention of the transistor, thebasic element that has made modern electronics possible. If the Labshad produced nothing else, that one new idea would justify their 83year history.

Others feel differently. August 28 was the end of their basicresearch efforts. Their focus will now be on technologies promisingshort-term results that can be turned into products.

I can certainly understand the business reasoning underlying thisdecision. Basic science is swell. So is world peace. Neither bringsimmediate profits. Alcatel-Lucent, Bell Labs' parent company, has beenlosing billions, and their stock tanked over the last year, as shownbelow:

I'm sure management is in a panic to cut anything that doesn'timmediately produce revenue. Management is, or at least should be,accountable to shareholders, most of whom demand ever-increasingquarterly profits.

The results of inventions at Bell Labs sometimesdidn't blossom into profitable products for decades. Few businesses inthese frenetic days have the will or stockholder patience to fund long-and even medium-term basic science. Hypercompetitiveness meanssqueezing every non-productive penny out of costs. So the universitiesand Federal agencies are fast becoming the last bastion of research.

Ironically, the titans of capitalism who disdain governmentintervention are placing all their bets for new science in the hands ofthe Feds.

Though I see no fix for this trend it comes with potentially greatlosses. Where did C come from?UNIX? The MOSFET,CO2 laser and CCD? BellLabs.

The Labs were a haven for many well-known scientists. Jansky pretty much inventedradio astronomy while researching noise in communication lines. Johnson andNyquist explained thermal noisein resistors. Claude Shannon, Wilson, Penzias, Bardeen , Brattain, Shockley andmany others did basic research there that has reshaped our lives.

Though I certainly understand the logic of Alcatel-Lucent'sdecision, and indeed might even do the same if faced with the prospectof doing research or making payroll Friday, it's sad to see the Labs'mission changed. This organization has been a fantastic nationalresource that did much to improve our world.

(The Pollquestion for this week is “ What is your opinionabout basic research ” To vote,go to the Embedded.comHome Page.)

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embeddeddevelopment issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helpscompanies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .

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