The news that Bell Labs will no longer do fundamental physics research is especially painful for me. My first job in high tech was with Bell Labs, part of the newly formed Lucent Technologies. As Lucent went through a series of painful reorgs and downsizing, my department ended up shifting to another organization. But my years as a Bell Labs engineer will always stand out as the proudest of my career.
Among the highlights of that career were several trips that I took to visit the Bell Labs facility in Holmdel, NJ. Often described as the World Trade Center turned on its side, the Holmdel facility was a gargantuan monument to American technological genius. In its heyday, 6,000 people worked there. The transistor-shaped water tower that served the building was a testament to the steady stream of inventions that came out of its halls. To this Kansas hick, standing in the vast atrium at the center of the complex and staring up at the glass ceiling, Holmdel represented everything that was cool about technology.
Maybe it’s just misty-eyed nostalgia, but I fear that the fate of Bell Labs and the Holmdel facility are symptomatic of a deeper malaise infecting American industry. I know that times change, but I wonder if government-funded research can rival the breadth and intensity of ingenuity that was once Bell Labs.