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

Early Light: A prototype of a solar cell, invented in 1954 by Bell Labs researchers Gerald Pearson, Calvin Fuller, and Daryl Chapin, consists of paper-thin strips of silicon embedded in clear plastic, attached by wire to terminals on either side. The battery generated 0.185 watts, not quite enough to illuminate a flashlight bulb.

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.

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