It was a birthplace of a wealth of advances that fueled the technology revolution. Now, as reported in this article from Wired, the mother corporation of Bell Labs has announced a pull-back from basic research and an increased focus on more immediately marketable avenues of development.
It’s their prerogative to do so, of course. Had they adopted this new focus in the 1950s they still might have come up with the first transistor, pictured here. On the other hand, it’s also likely that we’d have had to wait for many of the other Nobel Prize-winning Bell Labs discoveries until there was a product on the drawing board that required their invention. Which means for a good number of them, we’d probably still be waiting.
Nothing against R&D tied to a profit incentive. It’s just that there was a time when even a total monopoly like AT&T had the vision to fund and house all those bright minds, and to give them a goal that was a little more long-range: Finding the answers to questions we didn’t even know to ask. Bell Labs became legendary with that approach, and as it happened, its parent company did just fine as well.