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Bonus: More details on how Bell Labs operated
This was initially a section of my larger Bell Labs post. It would have come between the “Freedom comes in many forms” and “The mobile phone system” sections. I am publishing the section in a separate post because it would have been needless detail to ~85% of the readers. But since the readers who would like this information and make use of it are very important to me, I’ve published the breakdown anyway.
For those who do not run research operations or are not really interested in diving further into the details of how Bell Labs ran, feel free to skip this bonus post.
To get a better idea of how Bell Labs’ rules of thumb came to life as (possibly) the greatest applied technology lab in human history, there is no better place to start than Mervin Kelly’s speech to the Royal Society: ‘The Bell Telephone Laboratories — an example of an institute of creative technology.’
Mervin Kelly, who in retrospect could be considered Bell’s most impressive manager in terms of big-picture thinking, gave this fantastic lecture in 1950. It is, of all the Bell documentation I’ve seen, the best single document at breaking down Bell’s system of managing its projects and engineers.
He concluded his opening statement, emphasizing that the secret sauce of Bell Labs and places like it was everything connecting the two endpoints of manufacture and basic research:
There has been so much emphasis on industrial research and mass-production methods in my country, that even our well-informed public is not sufficiently aware of the necessary and most important chain of events that lies between the initial step of basic research and the terminal operation of manufacture. In order to stress the continuity of procedures from research to engineering of product into manufacture and to emphasize their real unity, I speak of them as the single entity “organized creative technology.”
Then, Kelly highlighted the three different groups of employees that made up the living, breathing, prolific bundle of humanity that was Bell Labs — the driving force behind his nation’s telephone system.
The headcount of the organization was about 5,700. Of those, 2,200 were scientists and engineers and the rest were support staff of one kind or another. Kelly saw the breakdown of the headcount at his “mature institute of creative technology” as falling into three “interlaced” categories:
Research and Fundamental Development
Specific Systems and Facilities Development.
We’ll first dive into how the research department worked, then the key role of facilities development, and, lastly, how systems engineering tied the whole thing together.
Research and Fundamental Development
Most of the Bell Labs researchers whose names have become lore in Silicon Valley — such as Shannon and Shockley — resided in this department. This portion of the Labs, which made up about 30% of Labs employees at the time of Kelly’s speech, was meant to be an area of Labs that provided “the coupling between the ever-advancing forefront of pure science and the forward march of our communications technology.”
In line with two two-headed purpose of this department 1) keeping abreast of and expanding on research frontiers and 2) pushing the communications network forward in a practical sense, there were separate “research” and “basic technology” ends of the department — each made up around half of the department.
Kelly noted in his speech that those in the research end of the department dove into topics like:
Solid state physics, including magnetism, piezo-electricity, dielectrics, and semiconductors; physical electronics; electron dynamics; acoustics; electro-magnetics; mathematics; organic and physical chemistry of synthetic plastics and rubber; corrosion chemistry; physical metallurgy; and fundamental mechanics are a typical but not comprehensive list of subjects.
And it was important, in Mervin Kelly’s eyes, that those on the research end of the department confine their efforts to the area of research as much as possible. He wanted them to work on useful problems and help out the development engineers, manufacturing staff, and systems engineers, but that help was meant to come from the point of view of a “research man.” That was their comparative advantage within the large organization. If maintaining this comparative advantage came at the expense of some lost engineering know-how from the researchers, so be it.
To work in research, one only needed to have the skillset of a good chemistry, math, physics, or electrical engineering researcher from a university. The Bell rules of thumb would ensure that their brains were folded into the operation in a practical way — as happened with John Pierce in the main article.
Employees who worked in fundamental development, the other end of the department, often had a slightly different educational background — or at least a different mindset.
When selecting individuals for this end of the department, Kelly said Bell selected “those having technologic and engineering aptitudes and interests.” Specifically, this was often done by:
Recruitment from among the most promising of the graduate students of our schools of applied science such as Massachusetts and California Institutes of Technology.
For those who have not read my series on the MIT of the early 1900s, that meant that these were graduate students of a sort of hybrid trade school + engineering research organization — rather than the MIT of today. Bill Jakes — the engineer from the main article who researched pieces of communication equipment, driving around in vans and trailers — is an example of a fundamental development researcher.
These individuals were ideal connectors of academic knowledge and manufacturable products because that was almost exactly what MIT, back then, was set up to do. Of course, you didn’t need to only have gone to MIT, but the MIT mindset was what they were looking for. And, in an era where many individuals found their way into science and engineering through industrial or practical interests, this was not a shallow talent pool.
Employees on this end of the department were managed differently from the more pure research group. The primary difference was there were proper bosses on this end of the department. When it came time to do development research, it began to make sense to have an organized team with a real team leader in charge. On the pure research end of the department, individuals still often folded into teams and research groups to work on various things, but it was generally the Bell rules of thumb and nudges from their informal supervisor that shaped their project selection.
Kelly said this of how the two ends of the department were, in practice, interlaced:
To make possible and to encourage this concentration of attention of the men of science to research, we provide, through organization and stimulated association, an intimate tie between research and fundamental development, the next step in the chain of events from research to manufacture and use. In this way the programmes of research are taken over at a well-considered point by fundamental development, where they are extended and enlarged upon to supply the body of basic technology for the specific development and design of systems and facilities. While the fundamental development work is done in the best research tradition, it has a large content of the technologic, and economic considerations begin to be a factor in its programmes.
“Fundamental development” is a carefully chosen phrase to describe what the development group was doing. It was not quite as far-ranging research as the research group, but it was still very much research, and work from these groups would still often end up in engineering-adjacent academic journals.
In the world of industrial technology, an idea itself is only worth so much. A new concept often does not become useful until a team of dedicated applied scientists and engineers have familiarized themself with the implications of the new area, developed methods for making practical use of it, learned how to overcome unfamiliar issues associated with the new idea, etc. Additionally, any impracticality of the crude idea that came out of research had to be worked through by fundamental development — the research team was meant to take into account things like cost and manufacturing capability, but, obviously, MVPs are always imperfect.
John Pierce once said in an interview, asserting the massive importance of development at Bell:
You see, out of fourteen people in the Bell Laboratories…only one is in the Research Department, and that’s because pursuing an idea takes, I presume, fourteen times as much effort as having it.
For this reason, the fundamental development and development budget for a project tended to dwarf the cost of the research for it. How basic this department’s research was made Bell quite unique, but it was development work that made sure ideas frequently bore fruit for actual Bell products, manufacturing facilities, and maintenance work. The impact of Labs’ development work on Bell’s fantastic outcomes is largely underrated.
Specific Systems and Facilities Development
60% of Bell Labs staff were the (mostly) engineers — electrical, mechanical, chemical, and metallurgical — from technical schools and universities that made up the Specific Systems and Facilities Development portion of Labs. This group was charged with testing and proving out a functional performance of the ideas originating in the Research and Fundamental Development portion of the org. This portion of Bell Labs ensured that anything that came out of Research and Fundamental Development was made to work at scale in Bell’s vast system — a different beast entirely.
Kelly noted that the projects of this group were handled in three stages.
In the first stage:
A laboratory model is evolved that meets the functional requirements of the systems engineering study.
In the second stage:
The design for manufacture and use is created. While retaining the functional performance of the laboratory model, it also meets the requirements of manufacture at lowest cost consistent with providing the specified service at lowest complete service cost…In achieving these economic objectives in the design, the development group is the focal point of a closely integrated trifurcated team with manufacturing engineering of Western Electric [Bell Telephone’s manufacturing arm] as interpreters of, and important contributors to, design form for lowest manufacturing cost and with systems engineering as interpreters of operating requirements that are essential to lowest complete service cost.
This step is finalized with a completed pre-production model. A small number of these models are placed under the observation of systems engineers, specific development groups, and the engineering groups of the Bell operating company relevant to the project.
In the third stage:
The findings of the service tests and Western Electric’s experience in producing the models are used as background for our final freezing of design and Western Electric’s planning and tooling for quantity production. Design drawings and specifications are then prepared for manufacture, and engineering practices for the technical operations involved in supplying telephone service.
Special facilities and development was very “interlaced” with not just fundamental development, but research as well. On this point, Kelly said the following in his speech:
While there are men with the necessary mathematical training and facility for the analytical work that normally is encountered in each of the areas of work, the mathematicians of our research area devote at least one-fourth of their time to consultation and to aiding the analysts of different areas of development in the solution of their problems. Such co-operation is informal and initiated by the men of development requiring the help.
Through the years our research and development leaders have developed patterns of informal co-operation and the habit of going to the expert, whether he be a mathematician, a metallurgist, an organic chemist, an electromagnetic propagation physicist, or an electron device specialist. This has made it possible to focus the full-power of our organization on a particular problem. The organization’s capacity for the solution of telecommunication problems is much greater than the sum of the capabilities of the individuals.
As Kelly continues to paint the picture of how vast the application areas of Bell Labs’ work were, it begins to feel quite unrealistic to believe that Bell Labs could collaborate with the rest of Bell Telephone properly via some intangible “culture of sharing and openness.”
It’s not hard to believe that the research and fundamental development teams, the two ends of the first department we explored, could keep up with each other through some culture of openness. After all, when you think about it, what that looked like, in practice, was some former Princeton grad student — in research — talking to some former MIT masters student — in fundamental development — about pieces of a shared problem. These groups, in another life, might share an office in some university even if they were slightly different kinds of researchers.
However, in many cases, serendipity would just not cut it. Take the case of a development engineer. Many development engineers had an absolutely unwieldy number of places and people they needed to be plugged into. Even if one was a university-trained engineer, one still might not fully understand the work of many of the researchers.
Additionally, even if the engineers knew a lot about particular aspects of Bell’s manufacturing and installation that were close to their areas of knowledge, Bell had an absolutely vast operation. Any piece of this vast operation could contain an unsettling amount of operational minutiae that the engineers might need to know for their work.
It would be completely unreasonable to expect the best problems to find the best people without a little more planning.
Enter systems engineers. Systems engineers did not technically do anything that you wouldn’t hope would happen with a culture of collaboration, but they were the people that made finding the “one or two in a thousand” problems relevant to Bell and converting them into successful business applications “essentially automatic.”
In Kelly’s description of this Specific Systems and Facilities Development group, comprising 60% of his organization, the guiding hand of the systems engineers is everywhere.1
The role of ensuring Bell ran “better, cheaper, or both” was the full-time responsibility of Systems Engineering.
Systems engineers helped coordinate and plan development work — as we saw with the mobile phone project in the main article. Additionally, they kept up with all work going on in Research and Fundamental Development. With this knowledge, they would both find ways to turn research ideas into profitable projects as well as bring the researchers great problems that could use their skills.
Kelly described the background of his systems engineers as follows:
[Systems Engineering] staff members must supply a proper blending of competence and background in each of the three areas that it contacts: research and fundamental development, specific systems and facilities development, and operations. It is, therefore, largely made up of men drawn from these areas who have exhibited unusual talents in analysis and the objectivity so essential to their appraisal responsibility
Or, as Jon Gertner put it, systems engineering was:
A discipline started by the Labs, where engineers kept one eye on the reservoir of new knowledge and another on the existing phone system and analyzed how to integrate the two. In other words, the systems engineers considered whether new applications were possible, plausible, necessary, and economical.
Systems engineers were (largely) trained as engineers and researchers, but also had a brain for the whole operational board when it came to scientific business and development. These systems engineers were often the ones who shepherded problems to the researchers and fundamental development folks at Bell Labs. Sometimes, today at least, researchers get a little territorial or defensive about others thinking they could come up with better research ideas than them. But, in a setting like Bell Labs, that was not much of an issue given the applied nature of the operation.
The basic researchers were hungry to be as useful as possible.
It’s not embarrassing to not come up with as good of an idea as a systems engineer. I’d imagine the thinking was something like, “Even if you are a great basic researcher who can come up with research ideas that have applications, this systems engineer is another former researcher with a Ph.D. in the same subject as you. But this guy now spends 100% of his time studying the phone system and its problems as well as the costs of various things. Why would he not almost always come up with an equally good or better idea? That’s his job.”
You’re still probably a better researcher than them. That’s just an efficient division of labor. If you’re both doing your job, he’s probably the better “operational idea guy” and you’re the better “scientific idea guy.” And, if you’re both doing a good job, you’re probably going back and forth with each other frequently.
As far as I can tell, these systems engineers were seen as good guys in the research portion of the labs. Not only did they bring in white-hot problems from the development and implementation end of the operation, but they were also tasked with finding ways to put the findings of the researchers to use for Bell. I believe that was the initial reason the position was created. Kelly writes:
One of the principal responsibilities of systems engineering is technical planning and control….The determination of the most effective use of new knowledge in the interest of the telephone user is the guiding principle of the [systems engineering] planning studies. The most effective use may be the creation of new services, the improvement of the quality of existing services, the lowering of their cost, or some combination of these three. As the technology of communication has broadened and become more complex, the choice of the technical paths to be pursued in the instrumentation of the new technology has become increasingly difficult. It is this situation that had led to the evolution of the systems engineering function as a mechanism of guidance and control.
Systems engineering has intimate knowledge of the telephone plant and its operation and maintains close contact with the engineers of the operating organizations. The teamwork of operating engineers and our systems engineers makes available to the laboratories in a most effective way the knowledge of the telephone system’s needs and the opportunities for economy and improvement.
Bell had tens of thousands of workmen involved in all variety of factory work — laying wires, installing phone lines, servicing homes, etc. How were they supposed to know what problems in their particular jobs could be solved by the researchers? How were the researchers supposed to know those problems were happening? When you think about it, in an applied research lab that works on a number of problems, it becomes almost weird not to have some kind of systems engineer around to help things run more smoothly.
It’s easy to see how the ROI of an applied research operation can obviously go up if researchers had available to them — and were excited to work on — problems that the systems engineering team had already brought to them as a veritable gold mine with the constraints known from the beginning — because systems engineering had looked into it.
(And I do mean gold mine. Bell tended to develop projects whose cost savings was something like 20x-30X the cost of development. Constraints like this ROI constraint as well as Bell’s longevity requirements — they hoped for new parts to be able to operate in the system for 20+ years — were all taken into account by systems engineers.)
Systems engineers couldn’t force the basic researchers to work on anything, but all things equal, most people would like their research to be used.
Please reach out to me on Twitter if you’d like to ask any questions or implement the ideas in your own operation!
Thanks for reading the bonus post:)
The laboratory model in the first stage of this group’s work is the direct output of a systems engineer’s study. In the second stage, in which the functional lab model is developed into a pre-production model, it was the systems engineers who translated all of the necessary cost and operational constraints that must be understood and worked through back and forth between manufacturing and the development team. And, in the third stage, systems engineering played a major part in assessing the performance of and recommending improvements to the prototypes.