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Black innovators reflect on time at Bell Labs: ‘I was born to be a scientist’

Bell Laboratories, from the 1970s through the 1990s, is referred to as the Black Scientific Renaissance by innovator William Massey, a Princeton University professor and mathematician.

A program at the Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton about the 20th Century Black Scientific Renaissance at Bell Labs reflected on the history of scientists, researchers and mathematicians, who excelled in the sciences at Bell Labs and have created successful innovations.

Gathering inside the Stockton Education Center at Morven and via Zoom on May 17, attendees of a panel discussion would not only listen to the history of six inventors, researchers and mathematicians, but also hear personally from the four of them about their accomplishments, current innovations and time with Bell Labs.

“Basically I was a born scientist, because when I was 3 years old I was doing experiments on Christmas lights and electric lighters. I was smoking up the rooms and breaking liquids and my mother would wake up saying, ‘You are trying to kill everybody,’ ” said Clyde Bethea, who spent more than 30 years at Bell Labs.

“When I was growing up we used to watch ‘Mission Impossible’ and there was an actor Greg Morris, he was an electronics expert, and I said you know what that is what I’m going to be. I’m going to be him, but the real deal because he is an actor – and that is basically what inspired me.”

The discussion centered around Walter Lincoln Hawkins, one of the first Black scientists to work at Bell Labs; James E. West, professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, Bethea, who is executive vice president of Quantum Technologies Consultants, LLC; James Wayne Hunt, who published the Hunt-Szymanski algorithm; Massey, Edwin S. Wilsey, professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering; and Marian Croak, vice president of Engineering at Google Research.

“The important part of the story that I would like to leave you with is that collaborations are vital for success these days. Single author papers have gone away, because there is no way one person can maintain all of the information necessary to advance a field, because it is so broad and complicated,” West said.

Bell Labs, now known as Nokia Bell Labs, can trace its roots to the combining of several departments in the 1920s within AT&T (American Telephone & Telegraph) and the Western Electric Company as Bell Labs developed telecommunication systems and equipment.

The global headquarters for Nokia Bell Labs is in Murray Hill, New Jersey.

Hawkins, one of the first Black scientists at Bell Labs, is credited with creating the polymer cable sheath. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010. He started at Bell Labs in 1942 and passed away in 1992.

“In the 1940s, up to that point, copper cables for telephone wires were coated with lead. The problem with lead it is very malleable and birds pick away at it and clearly it is not good for the environment, so they wanted to find an alternate way of the type of sheath for the wires,” Massey said. “Hawkins innovation was to come up with a plastic that was impervious to ultraviolet radiation. This allowed phone companies to save a countless amount of money.”

West, during his time at Bell Labs, created the electret microphone, which is used in telephones and recording equipment.

He is a 1999 inductee in the National Inventors Hall of Fame and currently a professor at John Hopkins University.

West recently invented a smart stethoscope, which uses artificial intelligence, and is now working with his students on an invention called Hearo, an electrostatic transducer for improved body sound sensing that is specifically tailored to monitor patients with respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

“My students made a microphone that matched salt water, which is a main component of our bodies. It is insensitive to airborne sound and it is extremely sensitive to the sound from the body,” West said. “So this is going to allow us to make a very inexpensive instrument for use in the Third World.”

Bethea, who was inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame for an infrared QWIP camera invention, developed detectors that were impervious to radiation for the Strategic Missile Defense Command. NASA used Bethea’s work with the infrared QWIP camera to enhance space-based imaging systems, which allowed NASA to improve its earth observation capability.

He spent 35 years at Bell Labs.

Since 2010, Bethea has been working on portable laser-simulated cancer tumor imaging diagnostics.

“You are basically looking at a system that could probe a person’s breast or neck and you do not need to stick them with needles and don’t need to open them up. This system sees tumors down to millimeters with very high accuracy,” he said. “The idea to build this system and make it work came to me when I was in the hospital in 2003 with lymphoma. I said, I should be working with cancer tumors and started working on these ideas to figure out how to detect breast cancer in real time and that did not take a long time to analyze it.”

Another scientist discussed was Hunt. Hunt, who died in 2021, published the Hunt-Szymanski algorithm that is still used today in molecular phylogenetics research software.

“Having a fast algorithm gives you a very fast diff command (displays differences in files and compares them). This is one of the fundamental building blocks of the UNIX operating system (multi-user operating system for computers),” Massey said.

Hunt was the first graduate of the Bell Labs Fellowship program and following the publishing of Hunt-Szymanski algorithm he would later become vice president of management systems product realization at Lucent Technologies.

Massey, part of the Bell Labs Fellowship program in 1977, is an innovator in queueing theory, a field of mathematics used in the modeling of communications systems.

“Queueing theory was almost invented almost 100 years ago to look at issues with designing communications systems. During my time at Bell Labs I was looking at innovations in the direction of communications,” he said. “In my time working there we found we wanted to go from how you build communication systems to how you use them. Then I left Bell Labs and went to Princeton University, then found that resource sharing was an important generalization of communication services.”

Rounding out the scientists, innovators, researchers and mathematicians would be Croak. Croak, who arrived at Bell Labs (formerly AT&T Bell Laboratories) in 1982 and is a 2022 inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She invented the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). VoIP delivers voice communications over IP networks like the internet.

She said that AT&T thought the concept was ridiculous.

“They told me so, that the internet was a toy and was never developed to carry voice and could never be made reliable enough to carry business-grade traffic,” Croak said. “But, they gave me a lab. I had a few people who were true believers like I was and there was a lot of excitement at the time, because not only was the internet becoming more popular, but also packet networks were being developed to carry a lot of business traffic.”

Croak is now vice president of Engineering at Google Research.

“My first department head at Bell Labs would say to me, ‘Your voice is the most important voice in that room’ and would give me that type of encouragement,” she said. “I was always a quiet person, but when I would talk people would acknowledge what I am saying. I think that level of confidence is absolutely necessary when you look and are different from most people you are around.”

Morven is showcasing an exhibition called “Ma Bell: The Mother of Invention in New Jersey” through March 5, 2023, that displays historical artifacts, discoveries and products that comprised of the Bell system in New Jersey, according to the museum.

For more information on the exhibition and Morven Museum & Garden hours, visit www.morven.org.

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