Before Silicon Valley, New Jersey Reigned As Nation's Center Of Innovation | KUOW News and Information

Before Silicon Valley, New Jersey Reigned As Nation's Center Of Innovation

Jun 5, 2017

People from New Jersey are used to defending their state.

But, in fact, New Jersey has a history to brag about. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, the phonograph and the movie camera there. Many decades later, Bell Labs invented the transistor in the state.

Geography favored New Jersey. On one end, it borders New York City, and on the other end is Philadelphia. That means easy access to Wall Street financing, transportation and industry headquarters.

It all started in the 18th century, when Alexander Hamilton took one look at the plunging Passaic River waterfall in Paterson and his eyes lit up with dreams of industry. That came true for silk, textiles and locomotives. Then in 1870, a smart young inventor named Thomas Edison set up shop in Newark.

"The things that make it attractive for Edison are the things that kind of make it attractive for a lot of aspiring people who come to New Jersey today," says Leonard DeGraaf, an archivist at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, N.J.

"Edison has the resources," DeGraaf adds. "He could live and work anywhere, and the fact that he decides to stay in New Jersey I think says something about how he perceived New Jersey as a good place for him to set up laboratories and build companies and manufacture his inventions."

Edison moved a bit south to Menlo Park, and, like a literal precursor to many a cartoon character, a light bulb lit up. The light bulb was one of his more than 1,000 patents. By the time he was working away on his phonograph and his moving camera, Edison had invented a new way of inventing itself.

"He creates the first industrial research and development laboratories and brings it within the corporation," DeGraaf says.

In other words, Edison invented the modern lab — teams of people working together, sharing ideas and perfecting devices. In the century after Edison, New Jersey became the place to set up shop if you wanted to invent. On top of all the other assets, the state had lots of inexpensive land available.

That's what made it attractive to Bell Labs. It spread out over several sites in the middle of the state and created many of the technologies that paved the way for 20th century inventions. One of its former facilities, which once held 6,000 engineers and researchers, is in the suburb of Holmdel.

"We perfected cellular communications in this building," says Edward Eckert, a Bell Labs corporate archivist. "Even before this building was built, we used this property for wireless research — transatlantic radio, telephone, microwave."

And not too far from there a group of Bell Lab scientists discovered the transistor — the root technology of all silicon chips.

So why didn't Silicon Valley rise up in New Jersey? Johns Hopkins professor Stuart Leslie, who studies the history of science and technology, says it should have.

"If you were going to place a bet on whether it was going to be New Jersey or Northern California and you placed that bet, say, in 1950, where would you put your money?" Leslie says. "You'd obviously put it on New Jersey."

But a migration happened west because, as Leslie puts it, the East Coast had become "insular, isolated, self-contained."

Plus, big companies such as Bell Labs, demanded their employees remain loyal to only them.

"In California, the expectation that you would stay with a company for more than five years would be unusual," Leslie says. "And the expectation would be, in fact, that you may very well start your own company."

Some cultural differences were also shaped by the law. New Jersey has strict anti-competitive laws that make it hard to take what you learn at your job and create a new company. William Shockley, one of those brilliant Nobel laureates who invented the transistor, moved to California to open his lab in Mountain View, the current home of Google. His employees also left to found their own companies.

It's not entirely fair to say innovation has vanished from the Garden State. New Jersey ranks 11th among the 50 states for tech industry employment, according to tech association CompTIA. But the excitement and experimentation surrounding Silicon Valley is but a whisper in New Jersey.

That Holmdel facility where Bell Labs perfected cellular communications is being redeveloped as a hub for startups like Vydia. It's a company that helps people make money on videos they post on social media.

"I'm from New Jersey, and I grew up in New Jersey," says Vydia CEO Roy LaManna. "I think it's becoming a tech hub because it was a tech hub. ... There's almost like no doubt in my mind that that's gonna happen. It just feels like something is happening here."

There's a lesson in what happened to New Jersey. Technology centers can shift and change. Bell Labs rested on its laurels; maybe it was a little smug. Nothing lasts forever. Smugness is not a New Jersey exclusive.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Before there was Silicon Valley, there was New Jersey, and we're going to talk about the rise, fall and future of the Garden State's tech industry in this week's All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

New Jersey is where Thomas Edison invented the common light bulb, the phonograph, the movie camera. Many decades later, it was where Bell Labs invented the transistor.

MCEVERS: Technology correspondent Laura Sydell lives in Northern California now, but she grew up in New Jersey. She went back to her home state to figure out why it isn't home to Silicon Valley.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Geography favored my state. On one end, it borders New York City; on the other, Philadelphia. That means easy access to Wall Street, financing, transportation and industry headquarters. Alexander Hamilton wanted to see Paterson, N.J., become what he called a national manufactory, and it did for silk, textiles, locomotive technologies. Then, in 1867, a smart young inventor named Thomas Edison set up shop in Newark.

LEONARD DEGRAAF: The things that make it attractive for Edison are the things that kind of make it attractive for a lot of aspiring people who come to New Jersey today.

SYDELL: Leonard DeGraaf is an archivist at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park in West Orange.

DEGRAAF: Edison has the resources. He could live anywhere. He could live and work anywhere. And the fact that he decides to stay in New Jersey I think says something about how he perceived New Jersey as a good place for him to set up laboratories and build companies and manufacture his inventions.

SYDELL: Edison had several labs in New Jersey. The list of his inventions there is long - the light bulb, the movie camera, the phonograph, a magnetic iron ore separator, an alkaline storage battery - inventions that changed the way we live. In Edison's lifetime, he had more than a thousand patents, and on top of that...

DEGRAAF: He creates the first industrial research and development laboratories and brings it within the corporation.

SYDELL: In other words, in New Jersey, Edison invents the modern lab. It's not that myth of one guy in a room who has an idea and a light bulb goes off over his head. It's teams of people working together, sharing ideas, perfecting devices. In the century after Edison, New Jersey became the place to set up shop if you wanted to invent. On top of all the other assets, the state had lots of inexpensive land.

RALPH ZUCKER: We're providing a there there. We're providing a home for the innovative minds that have always been here.

SYDELL: That's what made it appealing to Bell Labs, another iconic center of innovation. I made a quick stop at one of its former facilities in the suburb of Holmdel. The long-vacant, old building is to be repurposed to serve as a place for small businesses.

ZUCKER: We're now in a 1980s extension of the former Bell Labs.

SYDELL: Ralph Zucker, president of the company developing the building. It's an iconic modernist building with mirrored windows surrounded by parks and ponds that once held 6,000 engineers and researchers. Edward Eckert, Bell Labs' corporate archivist, says many of the technologies that paved the way for the 20th century's inventions came from here.

EDWARD ECKERT: We've perfected cellular communications in this building, and even before this building was built, we used this property for wireless research - transatlantic radio, telephone, microwave.

SYDELL: And not too far from here a group of Bell Labs scientists discovered the transistor, the route technology of all silicon chips.

STUART LESLIE: If you were going to place a bet on whether it was going to be New Jersey or Northern California, and you placed that bet, say, in 1950, where would you put your money? You'd obviously put it on New Jersey.

SYDELL: Johns Hopkins professor Stuart Leslie studies the history of science and technology. As a New Jersey native, I should have been rooting for the state, but there's a reason I now cover technology from Northern California. Leslie says the East Coast has gotten, well, kind of stodgy.

LESLIE: Insular, isolated, self-contained.

SYDELL: Bell Labs was part of a government regulated monopoly - AT&T, Ma Bell. People didn't just leave to go start their own companies. California, well, it let smart people do their own thing.

LESLIE: In California, the expectation that you would stay with a company for more than five years would be unusual. And the expectation would be in fact that you may very well start your own company.

SYDELL: Some cultural differences were shaped by the law. New Jersey has strict anti-competitive laws that make it hard to take what you learn at your job and create a new company. William Shockley, one of those brilliant Nobel laureates who invented the transistor, moved to California to open his lab in Mountain View, the current home of Google. His employees left to found their own companies. That Holmdel facility where Bell Labs perfected cellular communications is being redeveloped as a hub for startups like Vydia. It's a company that helps people make money on what they post on social media. Roy LaManna is its CEO.

ROY LAMANNA: I'm from New Jersey, and I grew up in New Jersey, and up until we found this building, we actually were planning to move.

SYDELL: And LaManna says they love that sense of history in this building.

LAMANNA: I think it's, you know, becoming a tech hub because, I mean, it was a tech hub.

SYDELL: Maybe it's going to have a revival as a tech center.

LAMANNA: There's almost, like, no doubt in my mind that that's going to happen. It just feels like something is happening here.

SYDELL: And centers shift and change. Bell Labs rested on its laurels. It was a little smug. That may be a lesson for today's tech giants in Silicon Valley. At least, that's what this Jersey girl thinks. Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.