The September 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

Caretaker: The AT&T Archives, once a bustling enterprise, are now the domain of one man: George Kupczak. Though not trained as a historian or an archivist—his past professions include dancer, paralegal, and real estate agent—he tends to the collection and fields the steady stream of inquiries from the public with good-natured patience.

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

MOXIE Shows How to Make Oxygen on Mars

Results from a test unit aboard the Perseverance rover have scientists optimistic for future crewed missions

3 min read
Image of Mars Perseverance rover with scientific instruments on extended robotic arm

Artist illustration of the Mars Perseverance on Mars.

NASA

Planning for the return journey is an integral part of the preparations for a crewed Mars mission. Astronauts will require a total mass of about 50 tonnes of rocket propellent for the ascent vehicle that will lift them off the planet’s surface, including 31 tonnes of oxygen approximately. The less popular option is for crewed missions to carry the required oxygen themselves. But scientists are optimistic that it could instead be produced from the carbon dioxide–rich Martian atmosphere itself, using a system called MOXIE.

The Mars Oxygen ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) Experiment is an 18-kilogram unit housed within the Perseverance rover on Mars. The unit is “the size of a toaster,” adds Jeffrey Hoffman, professor of aerospace engineering at MIT. Its job is to electrochemically break down carbon dioxide collected from the Martian atmosphere into oxygen and carbon monoxide. It also tests the purity of the oxygen.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

Apple Kicks Off the Cell-Calls-From-Space Race

T-Mobile and SpaceX also plan satellite-to-cellphone service

3 min read
man talking on apple smartphone
Piyas Biswas/Getty Images

The race to deliver cellular calls from space passes two milestones this month and saw one major announcement last month. First, Apple will offer emergency satellite messaging on two of its latest iPhone models, the company announced on Wednesday. Second, AST SpaceMobile plans a launch on Saturday, 10 September, of an experimental satellite to test full-fledged satellite 5G service. In addition, T-Mobile USA and SpaceX intend to offer their own messaging and limited data service via the second generation of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation, as the two companies announced on 25 August.

Each contender is taking a different approach to space-based cellular service. The Apple offering uses the existing satellite bandwidth Globalstar once used for messaging offerings, but without the need for a satellite-specific handset. The AST project and another company, Lynk Global, would use a dedicated network of satellites with larger-than-normal antennas to produce a 4G, 5G, and someday 6G cellular signal compatible with any existing 4G-compatible phone (as detailed in other recent IEEESpectrum coverage of space-based 5G offerings). Assuming regulatory approval is forthcoming, the technology would work first in equatorial regions and then across more of the planet as these providers expand their satellite constellations. T-Mobile and Starlink’s offering would work in the former PCS band in the United States. SpaceX, like AST and Lynk, would need to negotiate access to spectrum on a country-by-country basis.

Keep Reading ↓Show less