AT&T, a company with a rich history of innovation in New Jersey, has dusted off significant historical materials that have been archived for years, and created a space to display them in its new AT&T Science & Technology Innovation Center, located on its AT&T Labs campus, in Middletown.
Surrounded by a number of dignitaries, Andre Feutsch, president of AT&T Labs and AT&T chief technology officer, cut the ceremonial ribbon on the door to the interactive museum on August 28.
New Jersey Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, who also heads the Office of Communications and Public Outreach at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, congratulated AT&T for its past innovative accomplishments, and urged the company to keep working towards a future that will restore New Jersey’s place in the innovation economy.
Sheldon Hochheiser, AT&T’s corporate historian, took NJTechWeekly.com for a tour of the archives. He pointed out that he manages the AT&T archives in New Jersey, which are housed in seven climate-controlled storerooms that are filled with all kinds of things from the company’s past.
“I am entirely responsible for the intellectual content here,” Hochheiser told us. Irwin Gerszberg, assistant vice president, advanced radio technologies at AT&T Labs, and an innovator in his own right, visited the archives, which is a working research facility that is not open to the public. He asked Hochheiser, “Why is all this stuff here where no one can see it?” The answer was that there hadn’t been enough money to create a museum. Irwin then found the money for the museum which made the Innovation Center a reality.
“What we wanted to do, as AT&T Labs, is tell the story of our amazing history of innovation, going back to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone,” said Hochheiser “And we are still innovating today.”
Hochheiser and Gerszberg figured out how they wanted to tell the story. With help from AT&T archivists, they looked through the archives to pick out photographs, documents and artifacts that would tell “how AT&T had been innovating for 142 years. We wanted to tell the story of how we’ve used that innovation to improve telecommunications in the United States,” Said Hochheiser.
Gerszberg told us that he had been with AT&T for 40 years, and that he was the vision behind the innovation center. “I felt we needed something in the state of New Jersey to motivate people, to motivate the employees,” he said. “Many people have come to me over the years and said they had ideas, but how can they as one person, affect the company, and affect the world. I would tell them that anyone can affect billions of people. You don’t believe me? Let’s start with Alexander Graham Bell.”
Gerszberg explained that Bell’s idea for a “talking telegraph wire” had been ridiculed by many people. But he persisted, and that “talking telegraph wire” turned into the telephone, which later turned into the whole telecommunications industry. And that did change the world.
“Many, many others came after him: the inventor of the transistor, the discoverers of the big bang theory, discoverers of information theory. … People don’t know that AT&T started the motion picture industry as well,” he added. The museum is one place where visitors and employees can come and see the greatness of AT&T’s past, and all the inventions that happened over time. And they may get inspiration, he said.
Gerszberg grew up on a family farm just 20 miles from AT&T’s Bell Laboratories. He went to work for AT&T, but his career has also been one as an inventor. In fact, one of the rooms in the Innovation Center is devoted to a project called “AirGig,” a “broadband-over-powerlines” technology that AT&T says was Gerszberg’s idea.”
According to the AT&T website, this project answered the question, “What if we could deliver internet service along power lines? No cable, no satellite, no fiber. If you can see power lines, you can have broadband.” Fifteen years in the making, “Project AirGig is set to revolutionize how and where high-speed internet is delivered,” the website continues. It also says that AirGig is being developed at AT&T Labs.
Apart from being packed with artifacts from AT&T’s past, the Technology Innovation Center is quite interactive, with quizzes and movies to teach and entertain. One engaging photograph shows how telephone operators worked, and how helpers on roller skates kept track of the billing for calls. The museum is divided into four different sections, including instruments, innovation, switching and transmission. One of the first Telstar communications satellites occupies a corner. Although the museum is physically located behind the company’s security desk, AT&T plans to allow school groups to visit in the near future.