Tag Archives: telecommunications

Bell Telephone Laboratories: Manhattan, NYC

By Jared Keller

Every day thousands of New Yorkers pass by 463 West Street in Manhattan – head down, texting their friends, bobbing their head to the latest One Direction album (God forbid), or just taking in the scenery of the Meatpacking District – while completely unaware that some of the greatest scientific and technological achievements of the twentieth century (indeed, much of the technology in those smart phones and the communications networks that connect them) were pioneered and/or developed here at this inconspicuous building.

463 West Street
463 West Street, Present Day
Courtesy: edenpictures

From 1898 to the mid 1940s this complex of buildings framed by West, Washington, Bank, and Bethune streets in Lower Manhattan housed the research department of the Western Electric Company (1898-1924), and later the Bell Telephone Laboratories (1925-1945) which was jointly owned by AT&T and Western Electric.

A straightforward list of the accomplishments of the researchers who worked here is impressive. Western Electric and Bell Labs researchers had a hand in developing everything from vacuum tubes, televisions, synchronized sound and motion pictures (‘talkies’), car telephones, and color television, as well as some of the first live video broadcasts, video telephones, encryption technologies during World War II, and, in 1939, one of the world’s first digital computers.

463 West Street, circa 1930
463 West Street, circa 1930
Courtesy: AT&T

Furthermore, handling nearly 73 million phone calls per day during 1939 required one of the largest networks of interconnected technology ever assembled up to that point. So large that two Bell Labs researchers John Pierce and Claude Shannon referred to it adoringly as the largest and most complex machine ever built.

Researchers at Bell Labs had the freedom to focus on more than just designing better telephones, however. Their remit included just about anything across the broad spectrum of scientific fields that might eventually prove useful in the transmission, distribution, or storage of information.

The Transistor:

One area where Bell Labs researchers made important advances was in the exploration of what would come to be known as solid-state physics. Throughout December 1947 John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley put the finishing touches on a device that utilized the properties of different metals to amplify and regulate the flow of electrical current. The ‘transistor’ as Shockley called it, was cheaper and more durable than vacuum tubes, and so thoroughly revolutionized electronics over the next few decades that it has been hailed as “the single most significant electronic invention of the era.”

early transistor

Courtesy: LSI and the Computer History Museum

Though their invention was finalized at the Bell Labs complex in Murray Hill, New Jersey, it was here at 463 West Street that Shockley first began contemplating a solid-state replacement for the vacuum tube, and it was here in the top-floor auditorium that the transistor was introduced to the world in June 1948.

Not only did the three share the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956, but Bill Gates once quipped that in order to witness the momentous occasion, his “first stop on any time-travel expedition would be Bell Labs in December 1947.” High praise, indeed.

John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain
From left to right: John Bardeen, William Shockley & Walter Brattain, circa 1948
Courtesy: Creative Commons

Information Theory:

In addition to physical devices, Bell Labs researchers also developed some of the most important theories on communication of the twentieth century. In particular, in July 1948 while working at Bell Labs Claude Shannon effectively launched the Information Age with his article “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” – later hailed as the “Magna Carta of the Information Age” by Scientific American. In it Shannon argued that communication should be thought of in terms of ‘bits’ of information – the zeros and ones which have since defined the technologies and electronics industries. As Toby Berger has stated, it was one of the rare moments in history, “where somebody founded a field, stated all the major results, and proved most of them all pretty much at once.”

Claude Shannon demonstrates Theseus Mouse, circa 1952
Claude Shannon demonstrates Theseus Mouse, circa 1952
Courtesy: Computer History Museum

Shannon spent nearly six years working at the Bell Labs complex in Lower Manhattan where he developed many of the ideas he would publish in 1948. During these years he also worked on more mainstream ventures as well. In 1950 he created one of the world’s first ‘learning’ computers known affectionately as ‘Theseus Mouse’. In this video from AT&T, Shannon explains the significance of Theseus Mouse himself.

The High Line:

If you fancy a pilgrimage to 463 West Street, be sure to walk around to the east side of the complex where you can see another bit of New York history carved into the building. In 1931, the New York Central Railroad Company was granted an easement along Washington Street for an elevated freight railway. In the years prior the railway had run at street level leading to so many injuries and collisions that local residents nicknamed Washington Street, “Death Ave”. In an effort decrease the number of accidents the railroad hired men on horseback known as West Side Cowboys to escort the trains throughout their journey.

A 'West Side Cowboy' escorts a train down 10th Ave near 17th Street, circa 1930
A ‘West Side Cowboy’ escorts a train down 10th Ave near 17th Street, circa 1930
Courtesy: Friends of the Highline

By the early 1930s railroad engineers had carved out the first floor of the building and run railroad tracks directly through the building. The increase in noise that accompanied the new railroad actually contributed to the relocation of Bell Labs to New Jersey. Apparently a de facto train depot does not a world-class laboratory make.

Photo showing the New York Central Railroad running up Washington Street through Bell Labs, circa 1936
Photo showing the New York Central Railroad running up Washington Street through Bell Labs, circa 1936
Courtesy: Creative Commons

In 2002 the city of New York reclaimed a 1.45-mile-long section of this track and turned it into one of the most unique and expertly crafted city parks you’ll ever visit. After visiting the lab feel free to walk north to Gansevoort Street to experience the High Line for yourself.

The High Line looking south across 20th Street, Present Day
The High Line looking south across 20th Street, Present Day
Courtesy: Creative Commons

After Bell Labs:

AT&T ceased use of its complex at 463 West Street in December 1966. In 1967 Roger L. Stevens, first chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts proposed turning the buildings into affordable artist housing. Now known as Westbeth Artists Housing, the buildings offer affordable housing and work spaces for artists, as well as exhibition and performance spaces. Visitors are welcome to enter on 55 Bethune Street and look around to their heart’s content.

Westbeth Artists Housing, central courtyard
Westbeth Artists Housing, central courtyard
Courtesy: Reading Tom

If on your journey to the building you should find yourself checking the score of the North London Derby, chatting with a friend halfway around the world, or frustratedly searching for directions, take a moment to contemplate the technology behind such a feat and the role researchers at 463 West Street played in making it all possible.

Jared Robert Keller

Further Information: The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner

Valentia Island, Ireland

By Ciaran Toal

A monument celebrating the cable at site of the original Telegraph Station at Valencia, Foilhomurrum Bay.
A monument celebrating the cable at site of the original Telegraph Station at Valencia,  Foilhummerum Bay.

Valentia Island lies just off the coast of County Kerry, Ireland. With less than a thousand inhabitants, today the main industries are fishing and tourism, but in the nineteenth century the island played a pivotal role in what The Times called ‘the most wonderful achievement of this victorious century’: the laying of the transatlantic cable, linking the US and Canada to Great Britain.

In an initiative supported by both the US and British governments a private company, the Atlantic Telegraph Company, was formed in 1856 to undertake the venture. Over two thousand miles of cable had to be laid, and the Company faced both the technical challenge of sub-marine cable laying, and the turbulent conditions of the North Atlantic – RMS Titanic would succumb to its icy waters in 1912. The cable had to be specially manufactured to withstand the stresses of deep-sea laying.

In North America, the cable entered the waters of the Atlantic just off Newfoundland Island, while the geography of Valentia Island made it the ideal spot to land in the United Kingdom. As one of the westernmost points in Ireland Valentia shared a similar latitude to Newfoundland Island and was close to the busy, and well-stocked, port of Queenstown (now Cobh), County Cork. Five attempts were made to lay the cable. The first, in 1857, failed. The cable snapped three days after the Niagara left Valentia Bay, in the north of the Island. A second attempt in June 1858 met similar problems, although two months later the cable was successfully laid allowing Queen Victoria and US President James Buchanan to exchange congratulatory telegraphs. However, on the same day the Niagara was welcomed into New York City with a ‘salvo of 100 guns’ at Battery Park, and banners celebrating how the cable ‘divided the Atlantic but united two hemispheres’, it failed. The cable had operated for less than 27 days.

It was seven years until the next attempt – a lack of capital, the onset of the American Civil War and technical redesigns held up the cable’s progress. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, lamented the delay, as instead

of telegraphic work which, when it has to be done through 2400 mules of submarine wire, and when its effects are instantaneous exchange of ideas between the old and new worlds [he had] only the dull and heartless business of investigating the pathology of faults in submerged conductors.
– Thomson to Joule, 1858.

He was a director of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and in response to the technical challenge of the project developed the Thomson galvanometer. He was often stationed on Valentia overseeing operations.

In 1865 the Company tried again using Brunel’s Great Eastern, crossing two-thirds of the Atlantic before the cable failed. Crucially, previous attempts had landed the cable in the more exposed, northern end, of the Island, but in 1865 and 1866 a new site, Foilhummerum Bay, in the south was chosen. Less than a mile long with a flat sandy bottom and high cliffs that sheltered it from waves and wind, the bay had been specially dredged to accommodate the cable. A trench linked the beach to the cliff top and the Telegraph Station. This tall wooden building had comfortable living quarters, and a telegraph room full of ‘Thomson’s mirror-speaking instruments, banks of batteries, magnets’ as well as the ‘latest innovations in telegraphy’. The Atlantic cable entered one side of building, with the telegraph to London, via Knightstown, exiting the other.

Inside the Telegraph Station at Valencia
Inside the Telegraph Station at Valencia, taken from Dodd, G. (1868). Railways, steamers and telegraphs; a glance at their recent progress and present state. London, Chambers, 300. Image available in the public domain.

It was from Foilhummerum Bay that the successful expedition of 1866, under the control of the newly-formed Anglo-American Telegraph Company, set out, arriving in Newfoundland Island on July 28th. Celebratory telegraphs crossed the Atlantic, with the Mayor of Vancouver messaging his counterpart in London: ‘The infant colony, Vancouver, eight thousand miles distant, sends telegraphic cordial greetings to Mother England’. As The Newfoundlander reported, with laying of the cable ‘Science has at length accomplished its greatest wonder-work in the union of the two Worlds’. A few days after the successful completion of the line, the failed cable of 1865 was rescued and repaired.

Capitalising on Valentia’s telegraph connection to London Robert Fitzroy, as part of his work with the Board of Trade, established an observatory on the Island to relay meteorological data to the capital in 1860. Under the guidance of the Kew-trained Rev Thomas Kerr the work of the observatory expanded in the mid 1860s, and was used as a testing ground for new meteorological instruments. Established at Revenue House in the south of the island, close to the telegraph, the observatory moved to the mainland in 1892

More Information

Valentia’s museum features an exhibition on the cable, as well as the prehistoric history of the island. For an overview of the cable in Valentia, including videos, see also the Telegraph Field. Finally, a more detailed history of the observatory is available at the Irish Met office website

For the history of the Transatlantic Cable:

The most comprehensive source for Cable material is the excellent The Atlantic Cable.

Dibner, B. (1964). The Atlantic cable. New York, Blaisdell Pub. Co. (With thanks to Bill Burns for this recommendation).

Hearn, C. (2004). Circuits in the sea: the men, the ships, and the Atlantic cable. Westport, Conn, Praeger

Mercer, D. (2006). The telephone: the life story of a technology. Westport, CN, Greenwood Press.

Seel, P. (2012). Digital universe: the global telecommunication revolution. Malden, MA, Wiley-Blackwell.

Smith, C., & Wise, M. (1989). Energy and empire: a biographical study of Lord Kelvin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, Cornwall

By Richard Noakes

Porthcurno telegraph cable station, April 2011

Anyone interested in the history of communication is truly spoilt for places to visit in the Cornwall. It’s got sites covering a wide range of technologies from semaphores (Lloyd’s Signal Station) and cable telegraphy (Porthcurno Telegraph Museum) to wireless (the Marconi Centre and Lizard Wireless Station) and satellite communication (Goonhilly). Most are relatively straightforward to access by public transport but do take into account long journey times: buses are not as frequent as you might expect and they often take very circuitous routes!

If you have to visit just one place, make it Porthcurno, three miles from Land’s End. It’s the only working submarine cable station in the world and also holds an enormous collection of instruments, artefacts and archival materials relating to the history of submarine cable telegraphy from the 1850s to the present day. Visit the museum and you’ll be able to see electromechanical and electronic apparatus whirring and clicking as smoothly as they did in the 1920s and ‘30s. Most are operated and lovingly maintained by former engineers of Cable and Wireless – the firm that for much of the twentieth century used the museum buildings as a cable station and training college. You should also wander round the museum’s ‘Nerve Centre of Empire’ exhibition to explore the lives and places of the men and women who helped keep Britain’s imperial telegraphic system running. And don’t forget the underground tunnels built in the Second World War to safeguard the crucial British imperial telegraphic network against enemy attack. The museum is open seven days a week, 10am-5pm. For directions and further details see http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/index.php.

Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

You can’t understand the development of cable telegraphy in the twentieth century without wireless. Maybe after visiting Porthcurno, take a trip around the coast to the Marconi Centre, on the Lizard. Run by the National Trust and the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club, it’s located on the site where Marconi’s first transatlantic wireless messages were transmitted in December 1901. The museum boasts a splendid collection of early wireless equipment, some excellent audio-visual material, and a hugely knowledgeable staff. Don’t forget to take a look at the nearby remains of the transmitting station and the memorial marking Marconi’s transatlantic achievement. The museum has rather restricted opening hours: during July it’s open on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays 1.30-4.30pm, and Fridays 7-9pm. It’s best to ring 01326-241656 to arrange a visit. For directions and further details see http://marconi-centre-poldhu.org.uk.

Not far from the Marconi Centre is another Marconi site owned by the National Trust: the Lizard Wireless Station. This is the original wooden building in which Marconi and his colleagues conducted experiments. The museum displays replicas of the induction coil, spark-gap, Morse key and other equipment used by Marconi, and also houses an amateur radio station. For opening hours ring 01326-561407, and for further details see http://www.lizardwireless.org/.

Further information:

John Moyle, Cornwall’s Communications (Truro, 2009)
Wendy Gagen and David Dawson, Nerve Centre of Empire: Connecting Cornwall, Expanding Frontiers 1870-1918 (Porthcurno, 2010)