World's Largest Transistor
Holmdel, New Jersey
There's a unique water tower on the park-like property of Bell Labs, resembling an H.G. Wells Martian tripod more than anything. The white, three-legged saucer looms over the entrance drive to Lucent's Research and Development facility, itself a scary mirrored sarcophagus of deep think and E-novation.
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.
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 '70s 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 subbasement.
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.
Strangely, 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. This low-key approach may have passed muster in older days (say, the 1990s) when a corporation could afford to stand aloof from the public. But nowadays companies, particularly this company, needs every friend it can get.
C'mon, Lucent, you big-deal multinational. Learn from the likes of the World's Largest Catsup Bottle and go casual Friday -- maybe even hot-to-trot Saturday night -- with your transistor tower.
Bonus Bell Labs sights
1) Also on the property, 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 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.
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. This is from 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.
June 2006: Yup, the whole main building is coming down... the property has been purchased by commercial developers, who will offer space for businesses and preserve the town's lucrative tax ratable. But the Bell Labs building will be demolished -- its gray, windowless cells of science just don't appeal to today's scenery-loving, one-home-office-day-a-week, PC-virus-spreading career pansies. But good news, maybe...the transistor water tower may be saved!
April 2006: Lucent has depopulated their Holmdel campus in recent years, and is in the process of selling off the property to a developer. No word on plans for building or the water tower. Remaining employees will be exiled by late 2007 to northern NJ facilities -- Murray Hill (home of the former World's Quietest Room) or Whippany (originally a radio research lab).
World's Largest Transistor
- 101 Crawfords Corner Road, Holmdel, NJ [Show Map]
- Garden State Parkway Exit 114, at light turn R onto Red Hill Rd., at light turn R onto Crawfords Corner Rd, about 1/3 mile on L.
- Private Property.