Innovations in Sound: Bell Labs

Max Matthews at Bell Labs

If you want to find the roots of so many inventions and components in modern communications, one must look no further than Bell Laboratories, or Bell Labs.

Currently owned by Nokia, Bell Labs began as a project by the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, and was originally the Volta Laboratory.

The number of inventions that have come out of this organization is too large to list here, so we’ll mainly go over some of the works related to sound and music.

In the 1920s an early prototype of of a synchronous-sound motion picture system, in other words, what we know as a movie was developed in the lab.

In the 1930s, experiments in high fidelity, long-playing records are produced.
Stereo signals are transmitted live from Philadelphia to Washington, and if that’s not enough, the vocoder is invented as a way to scramble what is being said over transmission lines (it now serves it’s main purpose on Daft Punk singles).

In the 1940s Bell Labs is responsible for creating the transistor, which effectively enables electronics to start to shrink down and become faster and more complex. Prior to this development everything primarily ran on vacuum tubes, and computers are slow monoliths that take up entire floors of office buildings.

Also in this decade Claude Shannon lays the groundwork for information theory with his article, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. If you want to follow the trail of this development, it could take you to encoding and other advancements in compression of audio such as MP3.

In 1957, Max Matthews develops MUSIC, one of the first computer programs to play music.

Skipping ahead to the 1970s, which is the golden era of Bell Labs for anyone interested in music and video. It is in this decade where more work on electronic music is done by Max Matthews, and Laurie Spiegel. Michael Noll is busy working on computer graphics applications and three dimensional tactile (touch) input devices.

In the 1980s, the radiodrum is invented at the labs, which is a another three dimensional input device, yet is specific to music applications. It would also be one of the last media inventions before the organization gets spun off into a new company Lucent Technologies in the 1990s, and eventually finds its way into the hands of Nokia.

Looking back at these developments one can see that the history of sound and video is ever so entwined with that of communications and computing. While other sound inventions outside of Bell Labs such as the tape recorder had intended use for the military, the ones discussed today were really for the purpose of connecting every day citizens.

In order for that to happen there was a great deal of collaboration amongst scientists and artists in this legendary organization. It’s the story of friends and family being as a result of putting brilliant minds together, and that all took place at Bell Labs.

So the question is, how can we take some of the best parts about this story and build it into our work?  Do you think we need to consider how to build the best teams possible?

Side note: A few other major developments that took place here are the invention of the communications satellite, the laser, the solar battery, the charge-coupled device (precursor to digital photography), UNIX operating system and the C programming language.

Further reading:
A list of inventions by Bell Labs
True Innovation (The New York Times)