Talking and texting with friends on a cell phone is no substitute for spending time in-person. Just ask the pioneers of cell phone technology.
A group of Bell Labs employees responsible for many of the breakthroughs in the 1960s and 70s that paved the way for our iPhones and Kindles met up recently at their former workplace. They laughed, told stories about rolling pennies from one atrium to the next, and enjoyed lunch at the metroburb. Among them was Dick Frankiel, who spearheaded much of the legendary cellular research of the era.
“This building was our home for decades,” Frankiel said. “It’s wonderful to see it thriving again, and even more spectacular than it was in our time. It still feels like home because it’s not just a historical landmark—it’s the home of a new generation of busy people creating their own memories.”
Stu Tartarone has plenty of his own here. He first arrived in 1972, when he was fresh out of college and interviewed to join a team dedicated to a concept called “cellular-mobile telephony.” He landed the job and soon got to work in a space on the fifth floor (then known as the sixth floor) now occupied by WorkWave.
“We look at those days as the golden age of innovation,” said Tartarone, who worked in Bell Labs three times between 1970s and late 1990s. “The work that took place here not only had an impact on the cellular wireless technology we use today, but essentially changed the world.”
The company began exploring the basic concept of cell phone communication and engineering in 1947. When the Holmdel facility opened 15 years later, the technology was nowhere near practical and there were political obstacles to surmount to gain authorization for the use of the airways. But in time, the group made progress with innovations that are so ingrained in our daily lives that people don’t think about them, unless something goes wrong – like a dropped signal.
One of the major challenges of the era was making it possible for a call to continue seamlessly while the signal transferred from one coverage area to another. Bill Chriss, who worked with the team from 1977-79, recalled the exhilaration of demonstrating their progress to scientists at a 1979 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) vehicular technologies conference.
“One of my favorite memories is riding down River Road in Chicago and asking the people in the back seat if they could tell when we did hand-offs between one cell site and the other,” Chriss said. “Of course, I cheated because in the front seat under the dashboard I had a monitor that showed what channels we were working on. So I could tell when we actually switched and I challenged them to do the same.”
Around that time, Chriss and his co-workers began helping the phone companies plan their first cellular systems. Today the vast network of cell antennas mounted to structures like tall buildings, water towers and artificial trees allow us to carry on clear conversations while we speed down the highways.
As much as any of the scientific marvels they witnessed those days, the group remembers the friendships they forged and the inspiring, yet congenial, office atmosphere. Tartarone described himself and his peers as “nerdy types” who enjoyed and took pride in their work. Chriss said Bell Labs had an academic vibe, as everyone was highly educated and the company paid for its workers to continue earning degrees at nearby institutions.
“People in Bell Labs were very detail-oriented, questioning all kinds of things,” Chriss said. “You had to be able to explain your theories and how stuff worked. You had to ‘show me’ – I’m from Missouri. It was a great environment back then.”
Members of the group have been thrilled to see the transformation taking place at Bell Works. They now return about a half-dozen times per year to catch up over lunch and coffee.
“The improvements in the building are significant and have made it more inviting than it was,” Tartarone said. “It was homey then because of the people here, but what has been done to the building has made it more homey to me. … The whole Bell Works team has given life to a place so many people consider a special part of their youth where they enjoyed working.”
If you have a great Bell Labs story, please share in the comments.