Lab for Sale

3 min read
photo of Bell Labs facility in Holmdel, N.J
Photo: Lucent Technologies/Bell Labs

Anyone out there need to buy a research lab? There's a big one available. Lucent Technologies Inc.recently announced that it is considering the sale of its Bell Labs facility in Holmdel, N.J. This is a humongous building--more than 185 000 square meters of usable space, surrounded by 191 hectares of manicured grounds. Designed by the famous architect Eero Saarinen, the six-story rectangular building has a central foyer that rises to the roof. The exterior is all glass and was meant to reflect the clouds and the surrounding countryside. The entrance road passes by a large water tower in the shape of Bell Labs' most famous invention--the transistor.

Today, however, the parking lot outside looks empty, and inside it is said to be like a ghost town. A building where 6000 people once worked is occupied by only about 1200. Since the building's construction, Bell Labs has been split among five companies, and downsizing in the industry has further diminished the need for such a large research and development facility.

For many of us, it is the passing of an era. Even for technology itself, it is an ominous reminder of how the world has changed. When I drive by that lifeless building today, I remember these lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias:"


And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In early 1962, I had just joined Bell Labs and was one of the first employees to be assigned to the new building, which consisted at that time of only a quarter of the finished structure. It was the era of the proud industrial research laboratories--IBM, GE, RCA, Bell Labs, and many others. For a new engineering graduate, those great labs were the places to be.

I drove up to the Holmdel lab for the first time on a foggy morning, and that big box of a building materialized slowly out of the fog. Mist was rising from what was supposed to be a reflecting pond in the front of the building. The glass exterior reflected nothing but a spooky blackness. (All the glass was later changed to provide better reflectivity.)

I was proud to be there, and later I watched from inside the glass walls as a small wooden lab that had preceded the new structure was burned to the ground. The baton had been passed to this new generation with its modern and palatial facility. Like Ozymandias, we felt like kings amidst our splendor.

Oh what splendor it was! As the building reached completion, we enjoyed a comprehensive library, medical facility, bank, spacious cafeteria with a service dining area and conference dining rooms, and other features that we thought were the entitlements of our profession. We were spoiled, but we didn't realize it.

There was also intellectual splendor. Among Bell Labs' accomplishments had been research recognized with two Nobel Prizes in physics. Even the nearby grounds were hallowed. It was there in 1933 that Karl Jansky first discovered radio emissions from space and began the science of radio astronomy. On the hill across the way, the radiation from the Big Bang that created the universe was first detected, and from that spot a message from President Dwight D. Eisenhower was beamed into space to inaugurate satellite communications. Coincidentally, it was from the Atlantic coastal waters close by that Guglielmo Marconi had transmitted one of the first radio messages in the United States, in 1899.

A few miles to the south of the Holmdel lab is the U.S. Army Communications and Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, where through the decades the Signal Corps Laboratories conducted all the communications research, development, and procurement for the U.S. Army. But it too is about to be deserted. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission has recommended closing Fort Monmouth and moving communications work elsewhere.

The land at the Holmdel lab may be hallowed to technologists, but to real estate developers, it may elicit awe of another kind. If only that big glass building weren't sitting in the middle of it! I suppose that in the near future some developer will blanket the property with McMansions. It may not be like the sand sweeping over the legacy of Ozymandias, but somehow I think it worse.

Those days of glory and accomplishment will be long forgotten. As I said, it is the passing of an era.

About the Authors

ROBERT W. LUCKY (IEEE Fellow), now retired, was vice president for applied research at Telcordia Technology in Red Bank, N.J. ( ).

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