May 25, 2022

Panel Discussion at Morven Examines Achievements of Black Scientists at Bell Labs

PLAYING A ROLE IN A RENAISSANCE: Clyde Bethea, shown here with his tunable organic dye laser system in 1978, was among the panelists in a special presentation at Morven Museum, where an exhibit on Bell Labs in New Jersey is on view. (Courtesy of the Bethea Family)

By Anne Levin

The invention of cell phones, solar panels, radar, and the discovery of the Big Bang owe a debt to Bell Telephone Laboratories, better known as Bell Labs, which began operating throughout New Jersey some nine decades ago. Playing a significant role in these and other inventions were Black scientists, researchers, and mathematicians, who were encouraged to flourish at Bell’s Murray Hill headquarters in ways they might not have been as warmly welcomed elsewhere.

Their accomplishments were the focus of “20th Century Black Scientific Renaissance at Bell Labs,” a panel discussion presented live and online May 17 at Morven Museum, where the exhibit “Ma Bell: The Mother of Invention in New Jersey” is on view through next March. Moderated by Princeton University Professor William A. Massey, the panel included three Bell veterans. Two who were discussed have died in recent years.

Princeton resident and historian Shirley Satterfield introduced the panel. “Their time at Bell Labs was a glowing and noted renaissance,” she said. “Each brings his or her own accomplishment that opened up a better world to their dedicated work.”

Between them, the panelists hold a total of nearly 800 patents. Three are members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and one was a member of the inaugural class of the American Mathematical Society Fellows. The lists of accomplishments credited to them is long and impressive.

Clyde G. Bethea, recruited by Bell in the early 1970s, is an expert in the field of lasers, imaging, and quantum electronics. Having been at Bell Labs for more than 35 years, he is currently working on laser imaging for non-invasive, early-detection breast cancer tumors, for which a patent is pending.

“The idea came to me when I was in the hospital with lymphoma in 2003,” he said. “I started working in these ideas to figure out how to detect breast cancer in real time.” Bethea’s portable laser-stimulated cancer tumor imaging system, which he first developed at home, would allow cysts and tumors to be seen with very high accuracy.

Marian Croak retired from AT&T (which became the parent company of Bell) in 2014 after a long career, and currently leads the center of expertise on responsible artificial intelligence within Google Research, where she has worked on everything from site reliability engineering to bringing public Wi-Fi to India’s railroads. In 2022, Croak was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her patent regarding VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). She admits to have encountered some resistance to those ideas at first.

“I have to give credit to these gentlemen,” she said of her fellow panelists and others who came before her at Bell Labs. “Because I walked into Bell Labs and thought, ‘This is heaven.’ But I think about all the work that had been done before. I wish you had come to Google, because now I know what it’s like to be a trailblazer. It’s changing, getting better. But there is certainly not the support of programs put in place at Bell Labs. But we’ll get there.”

James West, who joined Bell in 1957, is credited with reinventing the notion of microphone technology and making it a much smaller device. He got an honorary degree from Princeton University in 2014 and is currently working on a project with his daughter. West said he and his students came up with a type of inexpensive, electronic stethoscope for use in developing countries.

In his remarks as moderator Massey also mentioned the accomplishments of the late Walter Lincoln Hawkins and James Wayne Hunt. Hawkins was one of the first scientists to work at Bell Labs, and came up with a polymer sheath for phone wires that saved Bell billions of dollars, Massey said.

“For our story, another important thing is that the year that he started at Bell Labs, 1942, was a focal point for Black science in New Jersey,” he said. “David H. Blackwell, one of the most outstanding Black mathematicians, was at the Institute for Advanced Study; J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. was also at the Institute and went from there to work on the Manhattan Project. I just think it’s very interesting that here are these three pioneering Black scientists, all in New Jersey in the year 1942.”

For Morven Executive Director Jill Barry, the evening was illuminating. “The fact that these Black scientists were coming in when this wasn’t a normal field for them, and Bell opened the doors and let them come together and really bring others in, was really a unique moment,” she said. “And these people are amazing. Jim West, who is 90-something, is still discovering and designing things. And Marion Croak — Black, a woman, and a mother of three kids — she had all the cards stacked against her. And Bell heard her voice.”