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Bell Labs, the historic birthplace of world-changing innovations, is being taken over by Nokia

Alcatel-Lucent/Bell Labs
  • Mike Murphy
By Mike Murphy

Technology editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Nokia today (April 15) announced its intention to buy French telecom company Alcatel-Lucent for $16.6 billion in stock. Included in that purchase is Bell Labs, the famed New Jersey research facility. It’s the birthplace of world-changing innovations—among them the transistor, cellular phones, solar cells, and the laser.

In recent years, though, Bell Labs has been less notable for its string of inventions and Nobel Prize wins than for its string of owners. Emblematic of the last several decades of seismic shifts in the telecom sector, the facility—started by AT&T in 1925—changed hands in 1996 with AT&T’s spinoff of Lucent Technologies. Then came a merger with Alcatel, and now Alcatel-Lucent’s sale to Nokia.

Alcatel-Lucent closed the lab’s physics research department in 2008. (As Wired pointed out at the time, the work done at the physics lab was long-term in nature. In a returns-focused corporate world that lives quarter to quarter, the parent company’s continued investment couldn’t be easily justified.) The new emphasis, under Alcatel-Lucent, would be networking and communications research that would likely pay off faster.

Don’t bet on Nokia restoring the legacy of moonshot projects Bell Labs was once known for. Here’s what the company said about Bell Labs in a press release announcing the Alcatel-Lucent deal:

Our innovation capability will be extraordinary, bringing together the R&D engine of Nokia with that of Alcatel-Lucent and its iconic Bell Labs. We will continue to combine this strength with the highly efficient, lean operations needed to compete on a global scale.

A Nokia spokesperson confirms that the company “intends to retain the Bell Labs brand to host its networks-focused innovation activities.”

Here’s a look back at an era when the lab wasn’t quite as lean:

The transistor was invented at Bell Labs in 1947.

Alcatel-Lucent/Bell Labs
William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, inventors of the transistor, in 1947.

The first computer built with transistors, which paved the way for modern computing, was built at Bell Labs in 1954.

Wikimedia/Public Domain
The first transistor-based computer was built at Bell Labs in 1954.

The first solar battery, courtesy of Bell Labs, was invented in 1956.

The laser was invented at Bell Labs in 1960.

The first communications satellite, which looks a lot like the Death Star, was developed at Bell Labs in 1966.

Alcatel-Lucent/Bell Labs
The first communications satellite was developed at Bell Labs. It’s not the Death Star.

The charge-coupled device image sensor paved the way for digital photography, and was invented at Bell Labs in 1974.

Alcatel-Lucent/Bell Labs
Researchers Willard Boyle and George Smith with the charge-coupled device in 1974

And now fast forward to today…

The facility’s iconic, Eero Saarinen-designed lab in Holmdel, New Jersey, is a ghost town, awaiting redevelopment.

Wikimedia/Lawrence Aberle
Saarinen’s empty Bell Labs building.

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