Pandora’s Box

History never changes in a moment, it is always the result of small seemingly unconnected events accumulating like dry kindling waiting for the appropriate spark. In the case of the digital revolution, the transistor was just that spark. 

With the exception of commited enthusiasts it was initially difficult to see what potential the computer held. The bulky size and expensive cost of the device reserved access to be limited to large corporations, academic institutions, and the military. The inability to scale the computer down in size and price depended on its reliance on complex arrays of vacuum tubes (pictured above). The tubes acted as sets of switches, that when linked together could form the basis of a foundational computer language*. The problem is they would often break on a daily basis, costing time and money servicing repairs. This would change in early December of 1947 when a small team would successfully use a piece of semiconducting material to amplify an electric current and switch it on and off.

The key to the transistor and its following innovations is scale. What once needed to be a room of complex vacuum tube arrays would eventually be printed, by the million, onto tiny microchips. These chips could then be formed into even larger logic gates. With the small size and increasing computing power devices that can fit into our pockets have now far exceeded what previously took an entire wing of a building. With this low cost, exponentially increasing computing power we begin to gain a network effect of all the connected devices exchanging information from every corner of our newly interconnected world.

The three men accredited with the invention of the device (John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Britain) were subsequently rewarded with a Nobel prize for their discovery. In his book outlining the history of the personal computer Walter Isaacson describes a fourth character, more important than any one individual: Bell Labs.

Bell Labs began as the research and development arm of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). With eight nobel prizes associated with completed work to come out of the lab and the development of a range of revolutionary technologies from radio astronomy, the laser, the solar cell, information theory, the operating system unix and the computer languages C and C++, the lab would become known as a factory for innovation.

Bell proved that sustained innovation was made possible by putting groups of the best minds, from various fields, into one location and increasing the chances for serendipitous encounters.  The lab was connected by a system of long corridors bridging different zones of the building. The intention of the design was to create an academic campus without the siloed effects of intellectual disciplines being regulated into designated buildings. The hallways and lunchroom retained a mythological status for being a place where new ideas were born.

What is most significant about Bell is the brilliant men and women who worked there set out to create the future, and they did. The future they created is what we now call the present.  There is almost no aspect of modern life that remains untouched by Bell in some way. From the phone in your pocket, to the digital infrastructure that runs the supply chain that puts food onto shelves. Bell stands as a Pandora’s Box that gave birth to our current age of information. And as is told in the myth, now that the box has been opened there is no going back.