IEEE Milestone Honors Nearly a Century of Breakthroughs at Bell Labs

Four plaques were unveiled at its Murray Hill, N.J., headquarters

14 January 2015

Photo: Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs

Attendees at the Milestone ceremony included [from left] 2014 IEEE North Jersey Section chair Russell Pepe, 2013 IEEE president Peter Staecker, president of Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs Marcus Weldon, 2007 IEEE president Lewis Terman, and 2015 IEEE North Jersey Section chair Adriann Wijngaarden.

The origin of information theory, the first error-correcting codes, and the original U.S. cellular wireless system were among the more than 50 Bell Labs’ technical achievements recognized last month with an IEEE Milestone. Administered by the IEEE History Center, the Milestone program recognizes outstanding technical developments from around the world.

To commemorate Bell Labs’ 90 years of technological breakthroughs at what was the first research arm of AT&T, and is now part of Alcatel-Lucent, four plaques were unveiled on 18 December. More than 150 people attended, including current and former Bell Labs researchers as well as IEEE staff members and local reporters. The plaques represented four categories: communications theory and networks, wireless and satellite communications, digital signal processing and computing, and solid-state and optical devices. You can read the citations that are engraved on the plaques at the IEEE History Center website.

Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs president Marcus Weldon kicked off the ceremony along with 2013 IEEE president Peter Staecker and Russell Pepe, 2014 chair of the IEEE North Jersey Section. The section, which was founded in 1954, sponsored the Milestone. The event was part of its 60th anniversary celebration.

In his opening remarks, Staecker said, “The reason why IEEE feels it’s important to recognize these achievements and the people behind them is that they serve as landmarks in the progress of technology and the progress of civilization.”

LOOKING BACK AND MOVING FORWARD

After the plaques were unveiled, several Bell Labs researchers gave presentations about the organization’s past and present work in four categories.

IEEE Member Carl Nuzman discussed how Claude Shannon, a Bell Labs engineer and IEEE Fellow founded the field of information theory with his seminal paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” It was published in 1948 in the Bell Labs Technical Journal, which is part of the IEEE Xplore Digital Library’s collection. That same year, IEEE Fellow Richard Hamming, another researcher at the laboratory, designed the first error-correcting codes that could automatically detect and fix one- or two-bit errors. This was especially helpful for early computer operators because they had to input data on punched cards, which would often cause feed errors. Hamming codes are still used today to detect small errors in computer memory.

Member Rafael Laufer gave a brief history of networks and covered recent efforts in the area of software-defined networks, which are networks of equipment that decouple hardware from software and execute the software either in the cloud or in clusters of distributed IT servers.

An IEEE Life Fellow and a Bell Labs engineer for 50 years, Gerald J. Foschini talked about his fundamental work in the early 1990s in wireless antennas. He invented what become known as Bell Laboratories Layered Space-Time or more commonly known as BLAST, a technique that uses multiple antennas in both a transmitter and receiver so that multiple data streams can be transmitted simultaneously within a single frequency band. Foschini received the 2008 IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal for “seminal contributions to the science and technology of multiple-antenna wireless communications.”

Senior Member Theodore Sizer, vice president of access domain, described the last two decades as “a whirlwind for wireless.” In 2003, 97 percent of Americans considered their landline to be their primary phone, he said, but by 2013 that number dropped to just 23 percent.

“So we worked 150 years to give people a phone in their own home, and in 10 short years we have begun relying not on our home phones but the phones we carry around in our pockets,” Sizer said. To keep up with the demand, Bell is now working toward 5G—a fifth-generation wireless system that will allow seamless communications between just about any wireless device.

To watch videos of the ceremony and all eight technical talks, visit IEEE.tv.

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