Developer to raze Bell Labs Holmdel facility, birthplace of the cellphone

It's not very often that we here at Engadget adopt an issue and stand behind it; one of the only notable examples includes the Broadcast Flag, which in 2004 -- very early on in its life -- we made our feelings pretty well known. But when one Joseph Ferrara emailed us to point out a New York Times story that slipped beneath just about everybody's radar, we knew we had to look further into the matter. After all, it shouldn't surprise you that we wouldn't take it lightly when someone threatens to raze the birthplace of the cellphone.

The facility in question, one time Holmdel, New Jersey home to Bell Labs -- one of the most prolific technology innovators of the 20th century -- was owned by Lucent technologies until a recent round of asset liquidations. Barely 40 miles out of New York City, in its heydey the six-story, two million square foot campus employed over 5,600 people; it became home to the work of numerous Nobel laureates, and has long since been cemented in the annals of tech history as the birthplace to some of the most important and groundbreaking communications technologies ever conceived. And it'll soon be torn down.

Designed and erected between 1957 and 1962 by the legendary Eero Saarinen, Holmdel is former home to Bell Labs' optical transmission, microwave, and wireless work, including the High-Speed Networks Research Department, High Speed Mobile Data Research Department, and Data Networking Systems Research Department. It was Holmdel's Wireless Research Laboratory, however, and the work Richard Frenkiel and Joel Engel that ranks among all Bell Labs' most notable contributions.

In the early sixties Frenkeil and Engeld led a team of over 200 engineers to develop the first cellular wireless voice transmission technology, and eventually created AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System), the first and one of the most widely deployed cellphone technologies (still active even today in many parts of rural America). Holmdel is effectively the birthplace of global wireless movement, possibly the most crucial communications development of the 20th century, the internet notwithstanding. But there's more. Lots more.

Before the current facility was erected, Harald Friis' work at Holmdel in 1938 produced one of the first microwave communications and RADAR systems, which was utilized by the US in World War II to defend against enemy munitions; Friss also worked closely with Bell Labs scientist Karl Guthe Jansky at Holmdel, developing the rotating antenna (aka "Jansky's merry-go-round"), and was credited in 1933 with the discovery of the science of radio astronomy. This, in turn, gave birth to the research and work of two later Holmdel scientists: Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, whom in 1964 used the Bell Labs' seminal horn antenna (above) to lay the scientific groundwork for a little something called "Big Bang Theory" (for which they were jointly awarded 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics).

We could go on about Holmdel's technological contributions, from Linn Mollenauer's groundbreaking work in the development of multimode fiber transmission systems, and Andrew Chraplyvy's, Kenneth Walker's, and Robert Tkach's invention of optical fiber for dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) -- some of the technologies which now enable the fiber optic backbone of today's internet infrastructure; to the lab's direct contributions to Telstar, the first communications satellite, which prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send a message of his own into space by way of Holmdel; to Jerry Foschini's BLAST technology (1998), the original precursor to MIMO wireless transmission systems; to Steven Chu's Nobel Prize-winning work in cooling and trapping atoms with lasers; to Arthur Schawlow's and Charles Townes' 1958 invention of the frickin' laser. But somehow we think you get the point.

So what is to become of this irreplaceable landmark? Well, Lucent sold the site to a billion dollar real-estate developer known as Preferred Real Estate Investments, whose founder and CEO Michael O'Neill remarked the "useful life" of this facility is over. Perhaps O'Neill may be right that as a hotbed of technological ferment and advanced research and development Holmdel's life may have come to an end -- but certainly not so as a historic site for technology and communications. Preferred Real Estate Investments has expressed their intentions not to repurpose the facility as such a historic site, or even retrofit the mammoth campus as an office space anew, but instead to raze and replace it with a three facility office park.

So if you're anything like us, you immediately began wondering what we can do about this. Unfortunately they now own the property, so legally the general public's options are limited. First, someone who knows the score needs to get in touch with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's Historic Preservation Office and file with them to enter the Holmdel Bell Labs facility into the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places. Though this might not ultimately make it an illegal act to destroy the labs, it would certainly make it morally and officially reprehensible for PREI to create their new office park; if nothing else, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 might at least call for an MOA for the facility to be properly documented for the ages in such an event that it is to be demolished.

The other option, of course, is to directly petition Preferred Real Estate Investments, whose founder and CEO (Michael O'Neill), board of directors, and senior management can all be reached by phone or email here. (We will not post O'Neill's email and phone number -- currently listed under "Principals" -- but we imagine a torrent of phone calls and emails might soon find that page removed from their site, so we assume you, dear readers, will take care of preserving that information for others.) We do not suggest anything but metered, reasonable, and kind -- but firm -- requests of PREI to suck up the financial burden and reinvigorate the Holmdel facility into a museum of science and technology, perhaps even under the auspices of Lucent, as well as gutting and repartitioning the old space for use by new technology companies in the New York metro area.

Because honestly, it really doesn't take a Bell Labs scientist to see what a remarkable and truly historic monument to man's technological ingenuity the Holmdel facility is. While it's still around, anyway.

IEEE's "Lab for Sale," Bio of Harald T. Friis
CE Hall of Fame - Richard Frenkiel and Joel Engel
MIT's Inventor of the Week Archive
Bell Labs / Lucent - Penzias and Wilson, Chraplyvy, Walker, and Tkach, Foschini, Linn Mollenauer - Karl Jansky
GA - Saarinen's work at Holmdel
Images via Bell Labs and DLT Consulting

Additional research and thanks to Joseph Ferrara.