There Is No Cat

Hollering into the void since 2002

Sunday, July 17, 2005

A big black box

Interesting article in today's Asbury Park Press about the Bell Labs building in Holmdel, where I worked for several years, which Lucent has recently decided to offer for sale. The building was designed by seminal modernist architect Eero Saarinen (who, interestingly, also designed the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, where my father worked as a young man), and according to the article in the Press, was home of some interesting architectural innovations. I always had mixed feeling about the building myself; there's only one window office in the entire building, carved out in the 1970s for Bell Labs president Ian Ross up on the sixth floor (as designed, there weren't any). The offices could feel kind of impersonal; I preferred some of the other buildings AT&T (pre-trivestiture) had in the area as a result. But at least there were individual offices, something that Lucent started to do away with in the late 1990s before the bubble burst. But it's also a very impressive building.

I always felt that the siting of the building was brilliant. It's hidden by trees until you reach the entrance by the giant transistor, at which point it appears off in the distance, a huge black monolith. As designed, the fountain in front of the building added to the mystique, shrouding the building in mist at first glance. It made for a very imposing first impression, much like the boss with a long office with a door at one end and a desk at the other, the sort of thing that makes for a long, awe-inspiring entrance. They don't run the fountain these days, and haven't for several years. The approach to the building is long enough that there was long an informal "game" where people would try to get their cars up to 100 mph on the approach. At least once in my years there, a car failed to negotiate the turn at the end of the approach and wound up in the fountain. And yet, for all the solidity the building projects from far away, once you get close to it, it almost disappears into the landscape and sky because of the mirrored glass. That's a neat trick.

AT&T bought the Holmdel property in the 1920s. Before the iconic building was constructed in the early 1960s, the property had smaller buildings on it. One important scientific breakthrough there in those days was the development by Karl Jansky of the science of radioastronomy. A few years ago, a Bell Labs scientist researched through the archives and found exactly where Jansky's pioneering research was done. Today, there's a small replica of his antenna standing on the exact location of the original. Not far from the Holmdel building stands a much smaller building, home of the radio telescope where the first proof of the Big Bang was heard, some residual static from the expansion that Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson couldn't explain away any other way. You can hear a recording of the remnants of the Big Bang there.

There's a lot of important scientific history involved with Bell Labs' presence in Holmdel. I would be sorry to see it end. I'm pleased to see in the Press article that the town of Holmdel has no intention of letting homes be built on the property; 427 acres in the middle of Holmdel, one of the toniest communities in Monmouth County, would hold an awful lot of McMansions.

Posted at 11:26 PM

Comments

Note: I’m tired of clearing the spam from my comments, so comments are no longer accepted.

Man, I would have liked to have seen those photos. Poop on MediaInsights.com for stealing your photographs. :(

Posted by sis at 7:56 AM, July 18, 2005 [Link]

Whoops! That wasn't supposed to happen.

Try now.

(Damn, now I have to figure out why my mod_rewrite redirect was doing that....

Posted by ralph at 8:32 AM, July 18, 2005 [Link]

How can Holmdel prevent the property from being turned into McMansions? Is it zoned as commercial space, and they don't intend to entertain any requests to have it re-zoned as residential?

Posted by The XYL at 4:29 PM, July 18, 2005 [Link]

Exactly. To quote from the article:

"An attempt to put homes on the massive property is not welcome, said Holmdel Mayor Larry Fink. The property is zoned for office and laboratories."

Posted by ralph at 6:08 PM, July 18, 2005 [Link]

And now the move begins. This article taken from the Newark paper marks another milestone in the passing of time. For those of us who have been to the Holmdel building, it's another part of our heritage that is consumed by the passage of time.

"A Pennsylvania developer said it has agreed to buy the sprawling Holmdel campus of Bell Labs, which spawned computerized and fiber-optic phone systems and a Nobel Prize. Before the telecom industry crashed in 2001, Skalko said, nearly 5,000 Bell Labs employees worked at Holmdel in a 2 million-square- foot glass fortress. The landmark structure, which opened in 1962, was designed by architect Eero Saarinen, renowned for the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Washington's Dulles International Airport and the TWA Terminal in New York. The exterior glass was sup posed to reflect the sky, but a dark coating gave the place a foreboding tint in the early days. "We used to call it the 'black box,'" recalled Nobel laureate Arno Penzias, who helped confirm the Big Bang theory of creation at Bell Labs' nearby Crawford Hill facility. Visitors to the 462-acre Holmdel site drive by a water tower shaped like a transistor, the invention of Bell Labbers in Murray Hill that sparked the digital age. "Every morning when I drove in under that tower, I knew I was going somewhere special," said Robert Lucky, who spent three decades at Holmdel. In its heyday, the campus bustled with multiple cafeterias, a bank and a laundry. "It was a city for us, as well as being a home. We thought it would be forever. It's inconceivable for me now that this will be nothing," said Lucky. "It's the end of an era," said another retired Bell Labs researcher, Jim McEowen, who used to bicycle to work. "It was just a beautiful, gorgeous place. I was proud to take people there for lunch, which you can't say about a lot of corporate places." Over lunch two decades ago at Holmdel, Steven Chu brainstormed a technique for trapping atoms. Chu, now director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, shared a Nobel Prize for his work. Bell Labs, then part of AT&T, bought the property in 1929 for radio research. Radio astronomy was born there when researcher Karl Jansky, using an antenna to study how storms caused telephone static, heard strange radio waves that turned out to be from the Milky Way, said Bell Labs archivist Ed Eckert. In 1979, researchers at Holmdel created the Digital Signal Processor chip, a vital component of wireless phones, video game machines, DVD players and digital cameras, Eckert said. Scott Tattar, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania developer, said it could take up to a year of property inspections to complete the deal."

Posted by Walt at 12:42 PM, March 31, 2006 [Link]

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"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

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