Deirdre Laporte has been a docent at N-YHS for eight years. She also worked at Bell Labs and AT&T for a full decade. We recently sat down with her to learn more about her roles at the tech giants and how her professional experience enriches her exhibition tours of Silicon City: Computer History Made in New York.
What were your responsibilities as Bell Labs’ internal management consultant?
When I was working at Bell Labs and later at AT&T Labs, I did a number of different things. I started as a technical editor working at first on specifications and then on customer documentation for various products. At one point I was one of only two people allowed to “touch” the prose of Bill Baker, the president of Bell Labs, who spoke in rambling, circuitous, baffling sentences. I also helped produce a special collection of his papers which was presented to him at his retirement dinner at Windows on the World restaurant. I helped edit and produce the last couple of volumes of the nine-volume History of Science and Engineering in the Bell System. Then I set up the archives at Bell Labs, which at that time consisted of the material that had been gathered to produce the history volumes. In January 1981Henry Pollak of the Mathematics Department and I conducted oral history interviews with Thornton Fry and Richard Hamming out in California. Fry founded the Math Department and was the one who hired and supervised Claude Shannon and George Stibitz. Hamming introduced computers to Bell Labs.
Later, after 75 percent of the labs went to Lucent Technologies, I worked mainly as a Quality Control consultant for various new products and with our Call Centers. Quality Control was created at Bell labs and later, most famously after World War II, introduced into a reindustrializing Japan.
You worked at Bell Labs from 1978 to 1998. During those years, technology changed drastically. How did this digital evolution affect your job and work at Bell Labs in general?
When I started at Bell Labs, AT&T was a monopoly, and its products were mostly hardware. Customers rented phones. Engineers focused internally on quality, reliability, ease of manufacturing, maintenance, etc. Time and money were not real concerns. Later as the field grew more competitive, the focus shifted to software development and to discovering and fulfilling our customers’ needs. This change of focus involved a real paradigm shift. As an historian of science, I was familiar with this idea, having studied Thomas Kuhn’s landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) during graduate school at Harvard.
As I tell visitor on my exhibition tour of Silicon City, when I started at BTL (Bell Telephone Laboratories) in 1978, I had to learn to keypunch cards to use the large main frame computers. Later, my group built an early desktop computer. I can’t remember exactly when I sent my first electronic message to a fellow historian of science at Brooklyn Polytech over the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) network, which eventually evolved into the Internet. I did a lot of document formatting using BTL’s UNIX system. We eventually also used WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) software and interfaces, including programs like Lotus 123 and Microsoft Word. I’m still nostalgic for the control UNIX gave me.
While technology changed radically during my time at BTL, the greatest changes were wrought by the divestiture of the “Baby Bells” and then later the break-up of AT&T and Western Electric.
What is your favorite object in Silicon City?
My favorite object in the exhibition has to be the Telstar satellite, which encompasses so many of the technological innovations that the scientists and engineers at BTL were responsible for.
As a docent, what do you hope visitors learn for your tours of Silicon City?
As a docent and an historian of science and technology, I hope visitors to the exhibition see what a national treasure we had in the great industrial laboratories like those of AT&T, GE, Westinghouse, and IBM. As a New Yorker, I hope they have a renewed appreciation for what this metropolis has given the world in an area that is often overlooked.