All seems serene at the legendary bell labs headquarters in murray hill, n.j. broad green lawns highlight copper roofs aging into an eye-pleasing aqua-green. A beautiful Japanese-style garden graces an interior courtyard.
But behind this tranquillity lies a poorly understood odyssey of upheaval, transformation-and renaissance. The lab’s glorious history-eight Nobel laureates, some 35,000 patents and a tsunami of world-changing inventions from the transistor to information theory-once led many to consider it a national asset. Almost as well documented is the period of “decline,” spurred by a much-lamented and highly criticized 1990s makeover that has seen the lab scale back fundamental science and emphasize applied projects and meeting business objectives.
What’s missing from the picture, though, is an account of Bell Labs’ remarkable resurgence. Changes rocked the lab to its soul over the decade’s first half. But now, on the verge of the millennium-and its 75th anniversary-the venerable establishment has reclaimed its place at the forefront of industrial research. Today’s Bell Labs is hungrier, faster on its feet, and smarter about business than at any time since the Cold War began, playing a vital role in the success of its upstart parent, Lucent Technologies.
What’s more, basic research has not disappeared, as the critics claim. Scores of scientists continue to pursue dreams that may not pay off for decades, if ever-be it wiring up slug brains to find clues to biological data processing or mapping the universe’s dark matter. The critics are right about one thing-pure science doesn’t hold the place it once did. And that brings its own kind of loss. Still, by creating novel ways to balance business realities with far-off explorations, Bell Labs may be trailblazing a new era in corporate research.