What would the world be like if fiber optic and mobile phones had been available in the 1930's? Would the decade be known as the start of the Information Revolution rather than the Great Depression?
The Great Bell Labs
In early 1934, Clarence Hickman, a Bell Labs engineer, had a secret machine, about six feet tall, standing in his office. It was a device without equal in the world, decades ahead of its time. If you called and there was no answer on the phone line to which Hickman's invention was connected, the machine would beep and a recording device would come on allowing the caller to leave a message.
The genius at the heart of Hickman's secret proto-answering machine was not so much the concept - perceptive of social change as that was - but rather the technical principle that made it work and that would, eventually, transform the world: magnetic recording tape. Recall that before magnetic storage there was no way to store sound other than by pressing a record or making a piano roll. The new technology would not only usher in audio cassettes and videotapes, but when used with the silicon chip, make computer storage a reality. Indeed, from the 1980s onward, firms from Microsoft to Google, and by implication the whole world, would become utterly dependent on magnetic storage, otherwise known as the hard drive.
If any entity could have come up with advanced recording technology by the early 1930s it was Bell Labs. Founded in 1925 for the express purpose of improving telephony, they made good on their mission (saving AT&T billions with inventions as simple as plastic insulation for telephone wires) and then some: by the 1930s the laboratories had effectively developed a mind of their own, carrying their work beyond better telephones and into basic research to become the world's preeminent corporate-sponsored scientific body. It was a scientific Valhalla, hiring the best men (and later women) they could find and leaving them more or less free to pursue what interested them.
When scientists are given such freedom, they can do amazing things, and soon Bell's were doing cutting-edge work in fields as diverse as quantum physics and information theory. It was a Bell Labs employee named Clinton Davisson who would win a Nobel Prize in 1937 for demonstrating the wave nature of matter, an insight more typically credited to Einstein than to a telephone company employee. In total, Bell would collect seven Nobel Prizes, more than any other corporate laboratory, including one awarded in 1956 for its most famous invention, the transistor, which made the computer possible. Other, more obscure Bell creations are nevertheless dear to geeks, including Unix and the C programming language.or: