“A Message Typed On One Will Reproduce On Any, Or All, Of The Others”

There was a brief mention on the New Yorker site the other day about one of the first science stories the magazine ever published, Malcolm Ross’ 1931 article “The Invention Factory,” a Depression-era look inside Bell Labs early in the century it dominated world science. As Jon Gertner reminded in last year’s The Idea Factory, Bell Labs was rewriting the rules of communication back when talkies were the newest thing. An excerpt from the gated piece that highlights just three ways that AT&T’s research division was changing life at the time the article was published:

“The most recent achievement of the Laboratories is the improvement of airplane radiotelephony to the point where a pilot can be heard anytime that he wants to talk to groundlings. For the past year two airplanes have been flying around New Jersey, by day and by night, in the worst weather they can find, near the ground and at high altitudes. A neat pattern of efficiency under all conditions was accumulated. The equipment engineers studied it and tinkered again with their devices. Already every mail pilot over the Alleghenies has a human voice from below to direct him.

Fairly soon the teletypewriter girl may make her Wall Street debut. The machines are the same as those one hundred and twenty-two electrical typewriters now used in the New York State Police network. A message typed on one will reproduce on any, or all, of the others. The new trick is a switchboard which will connect all subscribers to the service. You will call Operator by pounding ‘OPR.’ She plugs in your correspondent and what you type on your machine comes out on his. This puts business deals in printed form, which is better confirmation than spoken words and cheaper than telegrams. If your party isn’t in his office, Operator lets you write on his typewriter and he finds your message when he gets back. …

Hollywood, of course, relies on Bell Laboratory for its technology. Eight months ago the Laboratories turned over to Hollywood an improved sound-recording system which nearly eliminates the buzzing noise which is continually present in all talkies made under the former method. To demonstrate the improvement they made a talkie which begins with the usual blurred sound background, then suddenly clears. The difference is impressive enough to make you conscious of a distinct gratitude for the release from noisy irritation.”