The world was simpler back when young electrical engineer Bob Lucky started work at Bell Labs. Telephones were sturdy black appliances with dials. Fibers were something clothes were made of, and webs were for spiders and duck’s feet. Computers were huge, expensive and scarce.
Fast-forward to 1998, and Lucky still exudes awe at all that has come to pass in the intervening years. But his awe is not that of the ingenuous outsider, since Lucky had no small hand in this rapid progress. He is credited with inventing the adaptive equalizer-a technique for correcting distortion in telephone signals that is still used in virtually all high-speed data transmission. He literally wrote the book on data communications, writing a text that was for years the bible of the industry. But outside the community of communications engineers, Lucky is best known as a sharp and witty commentator on the ways technology infiltrates our lives. He radiates enthusiasm for technologies that he likes (such as e-mail) and disdain for those he doesn’t (such as voice mail).
Since leaving Bell Labs in 1992, Lucky has been corporate vice president for applied research at Bell Communications Research, or Bellcore. As the research arm of the telephone companies, Bellcore is on the front lines of the telecommunications revolution. Lucky spoke with Technology Review senior editor Herb Brody in his office in Red Bank, N.J.
TR: What do you think makes an organization innovative, and how has that changed over the time you’ve been involved with R&D?
LUCKY: Innovation is a difficult thing. I have lost some of my faith through the years in all of the systems that we know about. I worked a long time at the old Bell Labs, where you’d hire the best people, you’d give them money and let them do their thing. We sponsored a lot of intellectual quests that way. There used to be a plaque over the entrance to the Murray Hill Lab of Bell Labs with a quote from Alexander Graham Bell. It said something like: leave the path and dive into the woods, and you’ll be surprised at what you find. The idea was to go out there and explore, and to build the best telephone network there is. We had no conception of making money. It was almost a religious thing. There was an honest respect for science and technology and the days would go by with arguments over scientific points. It was the way life should be.