Lab for Sale

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Sept 2005

Anyone out there need to buy a research lab? There’s a big one available. Lucent Technologies recently announced that it is considering the sale of its Bell Labs facility at Holmdel, New Jersey. This is a humongous building with 2 million square feet of usable space, surrounded by 472 acres of manicured grounds. It was designed by the famous architect, Eero Saarinen, and is a six-story rectangular building of aluminum and glass with four interior sections adjoining a central foyer that rises to the roof. The exterior is all glass and was designed to reflect the clouds and the surrounding countryside. The entrance road passes by a large water tower in the shape of the transistor, the most famous invention of Bell Labs.

Today, however, the parking lot outside appears empty, and inside it is said to be like a ghost town. A building that once housed about 6,000 employees now is home to only about 1,200. Since the building’s creation, Bell Labs has been split among five companies, and downsizing in the industry has further diminished the need for such a large research and development facility.

For many of us, it is the passing of an era. Even for technology itself, it is an ominous reminder of how the world has changed. When I drive by that lifeless building today I remember the words of Shelley’s Ozymandias.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In early 1962 I had just joined Bell Labs and was one of the first employees to be assigned to the new building, which consisted at that time of only one of the four quarters that were eventually constructed. It was the era of the proud industrial research laboratories – IBM, GE, RCA, Bell Labs, and many others. For a new engineering graduate, those great labs were the places to be.

On a foggy morning I drove up to the Holmdel lab for the first time, and that big black box of a building materialized slowly out of the fog. Mist was rising from what was supposed to be a reflecting pond in the front of the building. The glass exterior, which was supposed to reflect the countryside, showed nothing but a spooky blackness. (All the glass was later changed to provide better reflection.)

I was proud to be there, and I watched from the inside corridors through the glass walls as a small wooden lab that had pre-existed the new structure was burned to the ground. The baton had been passed to this new generation with its modern and palatial facility. Like Ozymandias, we felt like kings amidst our splendor.

Oh what splendor it was! As the building reached maturity, we enjoyed a comprehensive library, medical facility, bank, spacious cafeteria with a service dining area and conference dining rooms, and other features that we thought were the entitlements of our profession. We were spoiled, but we didn’t realize it.

There was also intellectual splendor. Among the accomplishments were two Nobel Prizes in physics. Even the nearby grounds were hallowed. It was there in 1933 that Karl Jansky first discovered radio emissions from space and began the science of radio astronomy. On the hill across the way, the radiation from the big bang that created the universe was first heard, and it was there that a message from President Dwight Eisenhower was beamed to the Echo balloon as the beginning of satellite communications. Coincidentally, it was only a few miles to the east that Guglielmo Marconi had transmitted the first radio message in the United States in 1899.

A few miles to the south of the Holmdel lab is the US Army’s Signal Corps headquarters at Fort Monmouth, where through the decades all the communications research, development, and procurement for the US Army has been centered. But it too is about to be deserted. The Base Relocation and Closing Commission has recommended closing Fort Monmouth and moving communications work elsewhere.

The land at the Holmdel lab may be hallowed to technologists, but to real estate developers it may represent a bonanza of another kind. If only that big black building wasn’t sitting in the middle of it! I suppose that in the near future some developer will paper the property over with McMansions. It may not be like the sand sweeping over the legacy of Ozymandias, but somehow I think it worse.

Those days of glory and accomplishment will be long forgotten. As I said, it is the passing of an era.

Robert Lucky