Izuo Hayashi and
Mort Panish at Bell
Labs in 1970.
Courtesy of Bell Labs
DeLoach, Dixon and Hartman shared the IEEE Medal for
Engineering Excellence for their work.
The end of an era
By 1976, the glory days of many other big industrial labs
The wind-down of spending on the space race and military technology, combined with the economic slump of the
early 1970s, took a heavy toll. America’s romance with science
and technology soured as the public tired of worsening industrial and automotive pollution. The students who flocked to
science and engineering schools in the post-Sputnik boom
saturated the job market. In the hard times, the pendulum of
management fashion swung away from heavy investment in
research and development.
The conventional wisdom of the early 1960s was that
research would bring long-term rewards. But scientists given
a free hand “shanghaied” industrial labs, says Graham, focusing on their own interests instead of company needs. Many
brilliant successes in laser development brought little tangible
reward to their corporate parents. Hughes leveraged its early
laser work into more defense contracts, but Sorokin’s uranium
and samarium lasers never found practical uses. General
Electric abandoned diode lasers because they didn’t fit with
corporate goals. American Optical tried to commercialize the
neodymium-glass laser invented by Elias Snitzer of its research
lab, but after management changes shut down its whole
research laboratory and spun off its laser business.
Overall, American industry “became more concerned about
output and far less concerned about basic fundamental science,”
says Graham. Most labs that survived did so by tailoring their
operations to corporate needs. James McGroddy saved IBM’s
research labs by getting development groups to fund projects,
so they became vital to company business operations. When
Louis Gerstner overhauled the troubled company in 1993, he
saw the labs were useful and preserved them.
Barney DeLoach with Bell Labs’ million-hour laser.
Courtesy of Bell Labs
Bell Labs was another story. It survived largely intact into the
1980s on the strength of AT&T’s virtual telephone monopoly.
It used carbon dioxide lasers in manufacturing, but only diode
lasers became commercial products, and those were mainly
for internal use. A series of corporate divestitures split the labs,
and they shrank as key researchers left and budgets dropped.
Today, Bell Labs is part of Alcatel-Lucent, a maker of telecommunications systems with a limited research portfolio.
It’s no longer possible for companies to try everything in
their research labs, Graham says. Big public companies find
themselves handcuffed by Wall Street’s obsession with short-term returns, so research has shifted elsewhere, particularly to
universities and entrepreneurs. Today we live in a different and
more complex world.
Jeff Hecht ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a science and technology writer
based in Auburndale, Mass., U.S.A. Member
[ References and Resources ]
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>> H. Kressel and H. Nelson. “Close confinement gallium arsenide
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>> J. Hecht. Beam: The Race to Make the Laser, Oxford University