Did Murray Hill-Based Bell Labs Invent the Internet? Weldon Argues “Yes” at UPitchNJ Event

If you want to get Marcus Weldon animated, ask him who invented the internet.

“I just don’t know why we can’t have a campaign that says, ‘We invented the internet,’” said Weldon, president of Bell Labs, whose headquarters is in Murray Hill, and CTO of Nokia.

“New Jersey seems shy in some ways, as if it were diseased by the Newark Airport-Turnpike area, and that’s how we end up thinking about ourselves when the rest is lovely and we should think lovelier thoughts about what we have done,” Weldon said.

Bell Labs is one of the world’s leading industrial research and scientific development giants, inventing the world’s first transistor in 1947, the first laser in 1957 and the first satellite in 1961.

It is now owned by the Finnish company Nokia, but traces its roots back to Alexander Graham Bell, who founded the company that eventually became American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), with the research arm, Bell Telephone Labs, being formed in 1925. The headquarters of Bell Labs have been in Murray Hill since 1967, and many of the discoveries made were made there, or on the sister campus, in Holmdel.

Weldon argued that Gov. Phil Murphy should recognize the role played by Bell Labs in the invention of the internet. He also recalled, “We proposed that Governor Christie come to Bell Labs and do a commercial there, and say we invented the internet,” he said. “Never happened. It was such an easy thing to do. We’ve got a building. Bring a camera. I never understood that,” he said during a speech last month at Seton Hall University. He was addressing an audience of students and faculty from 12 universities at the fourth annual UPitchNJ competition.

That competition showcases the best startup ventures from each university, and Weldon gave the keynote address.

“It doesn’t make much sense to me. Honestly, we should be much better about recognizing our accomplishments, and if anybody wants to join on a campaign of great New Jersey talk about innovation and engineering, I’m all in.”

 Weldon added, “I define the ‘internet’ as the end-to-end infrastructure that allows users to access and interact with the infinite array of systems, servers and services that they now consider essential to their existence.

“With this definition, there are multiple constituent technology domains, and companies that pioneered these technologies in each domain,” Weldon later wrote NJTechWeekly.com in an email, in which he also listed various technologies and the companies responsible for them.

The technologies that Bell Labs invented or had a hand in creating include smartphones, mobile networks, switching and routing networks, optical transport, data centers and web services, he said in the email.

“So, by simple inspection, I argue that Bell Labs has done more to create the internet than any other entity,” Weldon wrote.

Credit for inventing the internet protocols we use today goes to researchers Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf and their colleagues, according to Marc Weber, curatorial director of the Internet History Program at the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, California. These researchers had no affiliation with Bell Labs, he said.

They developed a communications standard that determined how data could be transmitted between multiple networks; this standard beat out all its competitors, and ended up running the modern internet.

“Sure, much of modern telecom and computing — the transistor, modem, communications satellites, cell phone nets, parts of fiber optic cable, information theory itself, and so on — came out of Bell Labs. Those all tie to networking in general. So, if you mean ‘internet’ in that general sense, sure,” Weber said.

“But the internet can also mean a protocol, TCP/IP, which doesn’t have any special ties I’m aware of to Bell Labs. Yes, Cerf and Kahn persuaded the Berkeley Unix people to build in TCP/IP support, but they could have done that with any operating system,” he said.

Olaf Kolkman, chief internet technology officer of the Internet Society, based in Reston, Va., summed it up this way: “Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn are credited with the invention of the internet, but a lot of the technology that contributed to the internet’s success — such as operating systems like Unix — came from Bell Labs,” he said in an email to NJTechWeekly.com.

Kolkman was referring to Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, who are credited with creating a new computer-operating system at Bell Labs nearly five decades ago.

The pair called the system “Unix,” and it grew into the underlying language of personal computers. The simple, but powerful system eventually became a building block of everything from supercomputers to the internet.

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