The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

AT&T’s Attic

Locked away in a suburban New Jersey warehouse, a quirky archive preserves funky but priceless relics of the electronic age

3 min read
Photo: Erika Larsen
Photo: Erika Larsen

Editor’s Note, 22 January 2019: This photo essay appeared in the March 2007 issue of IEEE Spectrum. Since then, the AT&T Archives and History Center in Warren, N.J., has undergone a number of changes. The staff now includes a corporate historian, Sheldon Hochheiser, as well as a corporate archivist, Melissa Wasson. George Kupczak retired in 2015. In August 2018, AT&T opened a corporate museum, the AT&T Science and Technology Innovation Center, in Middletown, N.J. A few of the artifacts mentioned in this article, including one of Claude Shannon’s mice and a Telstar satellite, are featured in the new museum. 

Photo: Erika Larsen

Calls of Yore: In a cloud of bubble wrap stands a telephone switchboard probably used in the New York City area in the mid-20th century. The operator who ran this switchboard would have been expected not only to route calls by hand but also to run the teletype keyboard on the right.

The AT&T Archives and History Center doesn’t make much of a first impression. Located on a quiet wooded road in Warren, N.J., its fluorescent-lit hallways and nondescript offices could easily be mistaken for some back-office operation. Then you enter the cavernous, 12-meter-high warehouse.

There, antiquated switchboards and steel shelves filled with dust-covered telephones stand alongside weird vacuum tubes and outmoded antennas. Behind a metal cage, a Western Electric washing machine, from an early experiment in diversification, stands in the shadows. Beneath a blue tarp lies a three-quarter-scale model of the first Telstar communications satellite. A big wooden packing crate conceals plaster molds from the famous Golden Boy statue, which once perched atop AT&T headquarters in downtown New York City. You can even smell the history here: slightly cold and musty, with an edge of iron and machine oil.

But it’s only after your eyes adjust to the dim light that you finally start to get it. Believe it or not, that bizarre-looking kludge of camera and turntable was the very first motion-picture sound system. In the archive room, known locally as The Vault, can be found the world's first solar cell. And that beat-up little notebook holds the scribblings of none other than Thomas A. Watson, the technical brains behind Alexander Graham Bell’s ingenious telephonic inventions. Here, he captured for the record the first precious words ever spoken by phone: “Mr. Watson! Come here! I want you!”

In addition to this fascinating assortment of artifacts, there are tens of thousands of audio and video recordings, a million or so photographs, and countless other documents deemed valuable by one AT&T archivist or another over the past century. The collection is a testament to the enormous resources the once-mighty telecommunications giant used to dedicate to recording and publicizing its own accomplishments. As Theodore N. Vail, the visionary AT&T president who engineered the transformation of the Bell telephone system into a national enterprise, wrote back in 1911: “If we don’t tell the truth about ourselves, someone else will.”

And so the company published, and the archives dutifully preserved, technical journals (Bell System Technical Journal, Bell Journal of Economics), in-house magazines (Western Electric Engineer, The 195 Bulletin), and even an annual compendium called The World’s Telephones, enumerating the number of telephones in the world (195.3 million in 1966) and a country-by-country tally of telephone traffic (80 060 434 local calls placed in Papua New Guinea, in 1988).

AT&T also offered to the public a museum of telephone technology at its original New York City headquarters, and a team of historians and archivists preserved those pieces of history that signified the company’s‚–and the world’s–seminal events in telecommunications: the invention of the transistor, the first public demonstration of television, the launching of the first commercial satellite, among other milestones. Over the years, scholars combed the archives to produce an impressive body of work on corporate management, innovation, business policy, and other topics. Last September, after a several-year hiatus, the archives once again began hosting scholarly visits.

Any collection of old things can evoke a certain nostalgia. And any single artifact, stripped of the context in which it was once used and from the people who gave it life, is like a story waiting, patiently, to be told. Here are some objects that caught our eyes and stood up to scrutiny. Their stories are of one of the signature triumphs of the 20th century: the birth and growth of modern telecommunications, from Alexander Graham Bell to the Internet.

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions

Paying Tribute to 1997 IEEE President Charles K. Alexander

The Life Fellow was a professor at Cleveland State University

4 min read
portrait of man smiling against a light background
The Alexander Family

Charles K. Alexander, 1997 IEEE president, died on 17 October at the age of 79.

The active volunteer held many high-level positions throughout the organization, including 1991–1992 IEEE Region 2 director. He was also the 1993 vice president of the IEEE United States Activities Board (now IEEE-USA).

Keep Reading ↓Show less

Robot Learns Human Trick for Not Falling Over

Humanoid limbs are useful for more than just manipulation

3 min read
A black and white humanoid robot with a malfunctioning leg supports itself with one arm against a wall

This article is part of our exclusive IEEE Journal Watch series in partnership with IEEE Xplore.

Humanoid robots are a lot more capable than they used to be, but for most of them, falling over is still borderline catastrophic. Understandably, the focus has been on getting humanoid robots to succeed at things as opposed to getting robots to tolerate (or recover from) failing at things, but sometimes, failure is inevitable because stuff happens that’s outside your control. Earthquakes, accidentally clumsy grad students, tornadoes, deliberately malicious grad students—the list goes on.

When humans lose their balance, the go-to strategy is a highly effective one: use whatever happens to be nearby to keep from falling over. While for humans this approach is instinctive, it’s a hard problem for robots, involving perception, semantic understanding, motion planning, and careful force control, all executed under aggressive time constraints. In a paper published earlier this year in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, researchers at Inria in France show some early work getting a TALOS humanoid robot to use a nearby wall to successfully keep itself from taking a tumble.

Keep Reading ↓Show less