Friday, November 26, 2010

Did Bell Labs Slow Information Technologies by More than 50 Years?

Author Tim Wu writes of a Bell Labs engineer, Clarence Hickman, who had a secret machine, about six feet tall, standing in his office. It was a device without equal in the world, decades ahead of its time. If you called and there was no answer on the phone line to which Hickman's invention was connected, the machine would beep and a recording device would come on allowing the caller to leave a message. Oh yes, an answering machine - at it's heart, a magnetic tape recorder using magnetic tape. Hardly decades ahead of it's time though huh? Well what if I told you that this machine was built and working in 1930?! At that time we were lead to believe that sound could only be captured by pits pressed into hot Bakelite. Magnetic tape would make cassettes and video take possible and ultimately the medium that made it easy to store and transfer computer information and the tech at the heart of most every computer today - the hard drive. This information avalanche began in the 80s, decades AFTER the tech was shown to be feasible.

Oh it gets weirder! The information concerning the research and advancements made with magnetic tape research was not even discovered until the early 90s! Soon after Hickman had demonstrated his invention, AT&T, who controlled Bell Labs, ordered the Labs to cease all research into magnetic storage, and Hickman's research was concealed for more than sixty years! Historian Mark Clarke, came across Hickman's laboratory notebook in the Bell archives while doing research. Clarke writes AT&T "refused to develop magnetic recording for consumer use and actively discouraged its development and use by others". Why? Well according to Clarke's research, has to be some of the most twisted logic that I have ever heard of. It seems "AT&T firmly believed that the answering machine, and its magnetic tapes, would lead the public to abandon the telephone."

It's definitely a surreal and twisted idea to think that tape recording would keep businessmen from signing contracts?!! You have got the read the Gizmodo article here. The short sighted paranoia will leave you stunned! But AT&T / Bell Labs execs thought it was reason enough to squelch technological advancement for better than half a century! Unbelievable !


Anonymous said...

This doesn't surprise me. While working at Lucent in 1999, as a subcontractor, I was talking to a former Bell Labs engineer who told me about working Cell Phone technology they had developed... in the 60's & 70's!!!

Nelson said...

Great story. So much for the free market.

Beam Me Up said...

Exactly! Capitalism but on their terms. I know that it has always been create a product and then a customer to buy it....but to see it so blatantly ruthless.

Beam Me Up said...

I had heard rumors to that effect! I wold almost bet that they have a damn good reason for suppressing the tech for as long as they did. Starting to see a patter here?!