Hi! This is an AMA for my 84-year-old grandfather, who worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey from the 60s to the late 90s as an scientist/electrical engineer/acoustics engineer. While he was there, he worked on a classified (not anymore!) Soviet submarine-tracking program for the gov't, worked with very early computers, and did work in early speech analysis/synthesis and robotics. I figured Reddit might be interested in asking him some questions... I'll put my comments on his responses in [square brackets] P.S. I'm not sure how to verify this...if a mod can suggest something to me, that would be great! EDIT: All right, it's getting close to 9 PM and he's heading to bed. Thanks so much everybody for your interest! I'll maybe try and get him to answer any questions left on here overnight in the morning. EDIT 2: Holy balls, I just checked this again and it went from 40 upvotes and 30 comments to 1,200 upvotes and 250 comments in the two hours since he went to bed. I'm gonna try and continue some of this tomorrow morning, and I'm also going to see what state his quasi-memoirs of working there are in. Last I saw he had written up quite a bit of cool stuff...and rather than e-mail it out to a million people, maybe I can upload it to a site and post the link. Thanks again to everyone who posted here and said kind words about him! I'll also try and send some proof to the mods for those who asked for it. EDIT 3: It's so frustrating to see all these interesting questions come in and not be able to ask him! If people stick around until tomorrow morning I promise I'll do my best to get some more out of him.

8:44 AM: Verified! Also, rather than e-mail out the descriptions to everybody, I put it up as a blog here: http://mybelllabsdays.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/part-1/ I'll try and upload more of them later on.

9:30 AM: I've gone through the thread and asked him the most interesting questions. The responses are here: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/mz7wt/iama_an_84yearold_scientist_who_worked_on_some_of/c355cnk. Thanks everyone for all the kind words and interest in this...I think it really made him happy.

9:45 AM: Just to clarify for everybody...I (grandson, age 23) wrote this heading piece here. That's why I said "holy balls." The comment replies are all in his words, except for anything in [square brackets].

10 AM: Okay, so the rest of his memoirs about Bell Labs (as well as a very cool description of his trip to the USSR in 1965) are up on the blog I made here: http://mybelllabsdays.wordpress.com/

Comments: 751 • Responses: 17  • Date: 

50sEngineer193 karma

[About the number of questions he's been asked] Where did all these people come from? Wow...

50sEngineer153 karma

If some of the people asking are interested in more in depth information [It's very technical, but interesting if you're a tech guy!] I can e-mail you a detailed description of my years working at Bell Labs.

hanumanCT145 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA!

  • What do you see as the most fascinating technology of today?

  • What is one project you worked on that you thought would take off, but ended up fizzling out?

  • Name another project you worked on that took off unexepectedly?

  • Where do you see the state of computer systems ten years from now?

  • Tell us about some (de)classified projects!

50sEngineer198 karma

  • Not quite ready to answer that, but one of the most amazing is the incredible shrinking of the storage space required...Moore's law!

-I don't remember any that really fizzled...although the signature verification work I did didn't have many practical applications. People just didn't seem to like it as a security device.

-Can't think of any right now

-Unimaginable. Look at the last ten years...could you believe it where we are now? Certainly miniturization will continue. [EDIT: More...] One of the most amazing things is to have gone from the huge rooms of tape decks whirring away to the laptop this is being typed on right now. And it has 100x the capacity of those huge old computing systems! It's an amazing multiplication of capacity...exponential, almost.

-The SOSUS work was the most profoundly positive thing for not only Bell Labs, but the country. A big factor in the winning the cold war. It was passive sonar installations that allowed tracking of Soviet submarines in the atlantic. Passive meaning they just listened, didn't send out signals--they were quiet. We knew where all the Russian submarines patrolling off our coast were, and they couldn't do anything about it. [more on wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SOSUS]

50sEngineer109 karma

Advice for young engineers: What, am I supposed to be some kind of sage now? Hope you find something that you really like to do…something that interests and challenges you.

What was it like working on early computers: By today’s standards it was unbelievably sluggish and frustrating…and if you ever go tthem out of order it wouldn’t load. You had to draw a diagonal line down the top of the cards in order to see if any of them were out of line. But that’s all way in the past…never to be seen again.

Working with old technology: We didn’t know that there was something better. That’s just what you had to deal with.

On the internet: It’s terrific, but perhaps overused. I can’t imagine a better source of information. EVERYTHING is there! I can’t believe it blossomed like it did.

Aliens: I think I’d just best say that that’s part of my past that I’d rather not talk about. [he’s pretty clearly kidding about this]

On his software development days: In software development…the smaller the group the better. My group was 7 very good programmers.

Working on classified projects: Frustrating! I was used to publishing my work and it was frustrating not being able to communicate it. The CIA [who he spoke with before going to the Soviet Union] was very friendly, businesslike, and undemanding. They just said “don’t do anything that could be obstrusive”. Don’t take pictures, don’t do anything. Just report on what you see when you get back. The FBI came by to check with my neighbors and my family when I was getting security clearance.

On “I wish I could have your life” posts: Really? Well, if any of you would like to be 84 and trade places, be my guest.

Early computer work: Basically it was learning FORTRAN and the really serious people got into learning assembly language because the computers was so slow and the FORTRAN compliers were so slow, people like Joan Miller would take my FORTRAN program and write it in assembly language. The people who worked on C were the real stars in computer science. Dennis Ritchie just died unfortunately, but he wrote these incredible programs and could describe them so well in his writings and his books! Kernighan was the fellow I worked with more. Ritchie gave a lot of talks in Bell labs that I always went to because they were very interesting. They weren’t egotistical, they were just nice pleasant guys to work with. They had a program called AWK.

On the praise in the thread: I’m impressed with how sincere everyone sounds! I thought young kids today weren’t interested in things like this.

Reaction on computers moving to tabletop: It was slow. The big leap was to be able to a unit on your desk. It wasn’t a computer, but it connected you to the computer. Instead of carrying your programs down to the computer room and waiting a few days, you could submit them from your desk. We didn’t get as much exercise, but it was still a huge jump.

The most frustrating thing about old computers is that after waiting a day, you’d get a message that the results were waiting for you….then you’d get there and your results would say “program error”.

1968 and 1972 elections: I voted for the democrat.

AI: Artificial intelligence was a bubble at Bell Labs. It was a big thing and then after a year or two of no results, it kinda faded out.

SIRI: I think I don’t need it. I’ll let my fingers do the talking.

William Shockley: We’d have talks and Shockley would show up. That was bad news for the talkers. He’d say “did you know so-and-so had already published on that matter?”

Favorite programming language: That seems like a strange question. Everything is available now without having to do programming. I haven’t programmed for a long time now. My favorite was the interprative languages like AWK and S.

USSR’s Technology: We knew very little about their technology, except that we were given a rude awakening by Sputnik. I was teaching at Columbia when Sputnik went up. It was a feeling of gloom. We knew we weren’t being attacked, but we didn’t know they could do that.

emc87100 karma

Mac or PC?

50sEngineer149 karma

Definitely Mac. What else? [I'm typing this on his new macbook pro!]

hanumanCT73 karma

I'm curious as to why you use a Mac?

50sEngineer162 karma

Because it's so much better.

It's more versatile and user friendly. The whole thing about Steve Jobs was that he wasn't an inventor, but that he was a "tweaker"...he took things that other people invented and tweaked them into something fantastic.

johnsmcjohn69 karma

What lifestyle advice do you have to make it into your 80's with all your mental faculties?

50sEngineer237 karma

Clean living, excercise, and a good dog.

SourceError57 karma


50sEngineer120 karma

Only thing that impressed me about Star Trek was that they used the Bell Labs song at the end! [I think he confused Star Trek with 2001...and is talking about the "Daisy, Daisy" song HAL sings in the end. That was a reference to the first computer speech synth done at Bell labs]

SourceError56 karma


50sEngineer152 karma

Well thank you very much! Gee, I like the people on this website...

goodmorningfuture57 karma

Did he hear that torpedo hit Red October?

50sEngineer72 karma

[He's getting ready for bed now, but apparently the Hunt for Red October was the first time SOSUS was mentioned in a declassified manner. They asked Tom Clancy about it and he claimed he had read it in some trade magazine. I'm pretty sure my Grandfather hadn't worked on that project in 15 years when that movie came out.]

vtjohnhurt49 karma

Assuming a "strong signal" do digital phones today have a lower quality sound than the old analog phones? Or is it just that my hearing has gone downhill?

My view is that the phone companies minimize the use of bandwidth to reduce cost and that they deliver very low quality.

50sEngineer75 karma

Another question! I'm going to have to start charging for these...

Probably. I think the quality is poorer. The old Bell system analog phones had very good sound quality. But we can put up with poor quality and it still works. The old ones had larger loudspeakers and bigger bandwidth. It was all wired; it wasn't wireless.

oldrinb36 karma

  • Did you mess around much with LISP?
  • Do you know much information theory?

50sEngineer45 karma

-No, I worked in FORTRAN and then UNIX.

-No. Not much. I worked mostly in Control theory. A friend of mine at Bell Labs was an information theory guy and taught a course in it. It was invented at Bell Labs by Shannon, who went to MIT.

onederpatatime4 karma

Ctrl+f: "Control theory"

I was not disappointed. Did you ever work with the big names in signal processing and control, like Nyquist, Bode, etc?

50sEngineer9 karma

Bode was the director when I was at Whippany. Kalman was a grad student at Columbia when I was a grad student there in engineering. Zadeh was my advisor. Nyquist was before my time, but I certainly used his ideas. The Nyquist diagram was a great help in determining stable systems.

When I was at Columbia, it was kind of the center of control theory.

[deleted]29 karma


50sEngineer45 karma

Very hard to answer...I can think of several least interesting! I think the SOSUS work [more on this later]...because it had such an impact on the whole Cold War standoff.

Next would be the launching of the first successful communications satellite.

AddictivePotential26 karma

Awesome! My Dad's an electrical engineer and used to work in Bell Labs when it was with AT&T. Actually he has an acoustical signal processing business with a few people he worked with when he was at Murray Hill, and their company name gives homage to where they all met! This was in the 80s, I think.

I remember visiting one of the buildings when I was very small. They had a huge soundproof room the size of a small basketball court. It was 2 stories high, and you would walk into the middle onto a very large net that acted as the floor. It was very dark and of course had ZERO echo. The walls were honeycombed with foam. And there were many lost pens, pennies, and paperclips on the floor far below.

PS People love just hearing stories and wisdom in AMAs, so don't hold back on elaborating questions. Plus it makes for good conversation with your grandfather.

50sEngineer25 karma

[Oh my god! I totally remember him taking me to that room as a kid too! The anechoic chamber! So cool! And yeah, he went to bed a few hours ago and was getting pretty tired with answering questions. I'll try some more in the morning, but no guarantees.]

gehsekky23 karma

how do you feel about the current tech "PATENT ALL TEH THINGS" climate that we're facing now?

50sEngineer43 karma

I have no comment. I don't really have a feeling about it.

notmymainaccoun22 karma

Did you have any hand in the development of Unix? Or contribute to it in any way? Did your job require that you use Unix?

My father worked for bell labs in Jersey in the 80s, at "New Jersey Bell".Is that where you worked? I remember he came home one day with a bag full of yellow key key-chains. They said "Bell Atlantic" on them lol

Best thing about working at bell labs?

Worst thing?

Funniest story/anecdote?

What do you think about the internet? Do you use it often? Ever reddit?

Why does the AT&T 3G services suck so much?

How was your day?

Do you love me?

50sEngineer30 karma

-[RE: Unix] No, but I loved it when I was able to work on it! But it was developed at Bell Labs

-[RE: AT&T] Because they suck! AT&T and Bell Labs aren't together anymore. And besides AT&T was really Southwestern Bell.