World's Largest Transistor
Holmdel, New Jersey
There's a unique water tower on the park-like property of the old Bell Labs, resembling an H.G. Wells Martian tripod more than anything. The white, three-legged saucer looms over the entrance drive to the now shuttered research and development facility, once a scary mirrored sarcophagus of deep think and E-novation (built and owned for 35 years by AT&T, then Lucent, and then sold with company remnants to Alcatel).
The saucer water tower is actually modeled after the design of an early transistor, invented by three Labs researchers in 1947. John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley later won the Nobel Prize in physics. Their first experimental transistor, a misshapen clump of ceramic and wire, would make for a poor water tower. Holmdel's appears based on later production versions -- the kind that replaced bulky glass tubes and changed the world.
The transistor breakthrough happened at another Bell Labs facility further north, but the 60-ft tall tower tribute was erected here in 1961, when they broke ground for the Eero Saarinen-designed building (Saarinen was also the architect for St. Louis's Gateway Arch). It was the Bell System's Bell Labs at the time, then AT&T's Bell Laboratories, then became simply Bell Labs in 1996 with the spin-off of Lucent.
There is no overt explanatory sign, postcard, or even a chatty security guard to complete the connection between the big tank on legs and the tiny electron pushers that started the miniaturization of electronics.
In fact, the building is currently vacant, and has been threatened with demolition, though various plans have been considered to preserve part of the structure, along with the water tower.
More Fun Facts About the Big Mirrored Coffin Building!
1) The interlocking wall sections in labs were designed to be "blast resistant." If one researcher's experiment to compress space-time exploded, scientists in adjacent labs could continue working....
2) According to a story told about the early days at HO, after architect Eero Saarinen died, his widow planned a visit to the building he designed. Facility operations staff quickly scrambled to remove gaudy hanging plant gondolas from the central atrium, a post-Saarinen embellishment that would have made him spin in his grave.
3) The building was designed to be an impenetrable mirror by day, and a dazzling hive of light at night. But during the 1970s Energy Crisis, Bell Labs permanently de-bulbed five of every six light panels -- creating a murky after-hours warren for research-aholics.
4) In the 1970-80s heyday of employee clubs and lunchtime activities, an elaborate model railroad layout built by hobbyists filled several hundred square feet of a storage sub-basement.
Bonus Sights on Bell Labs Property
With the current uncertainty about the fate of the Bell Labs property, we advise keeping off the feeder roads or trespassing. But FYI:
1) Also on the property, there was an abstract sculpture mimicking the configuration of the first radio astronomy array, used on this very spot in the 1930s by Karl "Father of Radio Astronomy" Jansky.
2) About 2 miles north of the water tower, on Holmdel-Keyport Road, is ANOTHER Bell Labs building. There used to be two historical markers along the road (missing when we looked in 2007 -- French perfidy or local souvenir hunters? We don't know.): one noting that the background radiation from the Big Bang was first detected by a horn antenna in 1965 here on Crawford Hill; and the other that telemetry from the Telstar satellite were first picked up here.
Dec. 2013: Plans are underway to preserve the main building (and water tower) by transforming as a 100 million dollar retail and mixed use development project. Doubters -- crazier things have happened on this property!
April 2008: The facility is deserted, save for some security. The original development deal fell through when the developer pulled out. A grass roots group has formed to try to preserve the historic building, but no one really knows what Alcatel will do with this place.
July 2006: We anxiously await word of what will happen to the historic Labs facility. Odds are that the main building is doomed, so it seems appropriate to dig out a couple of long cherished slides of life at the Holmdel Labs: a 1982 celebration of the building's 20th anniversary. The cake replicates the six-story mirrored exterior. Employees attempted to get served the slices that were their offices. Here's the whole cake.