A day in the data center fifty years ago
March 11, 2019 10:20 AM   Subscribe

Life at work in Bell Labs in 1969
I spent a couple of years as Operations Manager at a Bell Labs data center in Oakland, CA developing what was the a state of the art database search system. One day I brought a camera to work and this was the result.
(via Kottke.org)
posted by octothorpe (34 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
OVERWHELMINGLY GROOVY
posted by clew at 10:41 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


WHOA THOSE ARE SOME SERIOUS SIDEBURNS DUDE
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 11:10 AM on March 11 [3 favorites]


Storage was measured in Groovybytes.
posted by mazola at 11:11 AM on March 11 [14 favorites]


My father in law was a physicist at Bell Labs in New Jersey, from I think the mid to late 70s, staying until shortly after the AT&T breakup and transition to Lucent. He watched it evolve from one of the greatest research institutions in the world into a place where garbage piled up in hallways because nobody was paid to take it out.
posted by TrialByMedia at 11:16 AM on March 11 [9 favorites]


a) This is kind of a double post (8 years old!) it looks like the pictures are different scans though?

II) pretty sure my dad had that exact model of Oscilloscope in our basement when I was growing up

3) Those sideburns are cool
posted by ArgentCorvid at 11:19 AM on March 11 [3 favorites]


That first motherhugger is just straight up Wolverine in a suit!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 11:27 AM on March 11 [2 favorites]


I *really* want these to be pre-release stills from some new show - think The Office but based on a 60's data center. I'd watch that hard. Oh the antics they'd get up to behind that blue IBM door...
posted by inflatablekiwi at 11:56 AM on March 11 [8 favorites]


He watched it evolve from one of the greatest research institutions in the world into a place where garbage piled up in hallways because nobody was paid to take it out.

Of course, it's quite depressing to realize that Bell Labs was funded by a monopoly that squashed a whole host of other innovations as a matter of policy. Acoustic coupling was invented because it was easier to convert electric signal into audio, pass it into a handset reciever, which converted that back into signal, transmit it over Bell's network, then do the whole thing in reverse on the other end, than it was to fight the inevitable legal battle.
posted by pwnguin at 12:01 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


Is that the slideshow UI they built in 1969?
posted by thelonius at 12:09 PM on March 11 [6 favorites]


I ran into this 1959 Bell Labs instructional video yesterday in /r/amateurradio and almost posted it here but figured it was probably a little too technical for most. It features some cool physical demonstration models with moving waves and explanation of how waves move in transmission lines. It's neat that this presentation from 60 years ago can provide a clearer explanation of this complex topic than any modern materials I have seen.
posted by exogenous at 12:29 PM on March 11 [9 favorites]


Some of my earliest memories involve raised flooring and office furniture like that: my dad ran a computer bureau in the early 1970s, and I sometimes got to lurk in the computer room as a tot. The sounds are what I remember most: the glik glick of those tiny composition swivel-chair castors across the raised floor tiles, all with a background hum a quarter tone flat from D# (hey, it was Europe - our fans are slower. Background hum for these pictures is a quarter tone flat from F#).

Notice the desks with all that room to move paper around without a computer on them? And how desks are still roughly the same size, but now we're expected to have a computer in the middle too.
posted by scruss at 12:50 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


Did anyone else notice the copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Wolfman's desk?
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:57 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


@scruss: I can't help pointing out that 60Hz is between B♭ and B, and 50Hz is between G and G#.

Here's the math. Using A440 as our reference pitch:

60*8 = 480 (same note 3 octaves up, to put it near A440)

log2(480/440) = log(480/440) / log(2) = 0.12553

0.12553 * 1200 = 150.6, which is the number of cents from A440 to 480

150 cents = 1.5 semitones, which gets us from A to halfway between B and B♭.

(Or you could just look it up, but that's less fun...)
posted by crazy_yeti at 1:04 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


We still have some of these same metal desks in the building I'm in, now. They're made of the same material as Mjölnir. Only we chose to go with the avocado because it was so in and matched the fixtures in the restrooms.
posted by steef at 1:30 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


those hairstyles remind me of Deee-lite's Lady Miss Kier

How do you say -- da groovy?
How do you say -- da gorgeous?
How do you say -- datacenter?
....groove is in the tape....
posted by otherchaz at 1:31 PM on March 11 [7 favorites]


This is art.
posted by bongo_x at 1:56 PM on March 11


That wave lecture is beautiful!
posted by inexorably_forward at 2:14 PM on March 11


II) pretty sure my dad had that exact model of Oscilloscope in our basement when I was growing up

I think that's a Tek 585A
posted by Dr. Twist at 2:28 PM on March 11


Looks like a 585, not a 585A, but close enough. There was usually a Tektronix scope in an IBM room, although by my time, we were on to 475's.
I've been in a lot of rooms like this, 360-50, 1052, 2314's, 2401's... a little corner of a 2540. Oh, and the tape cleaner- forgot about those. I wonder where the 1403-N1 is.
And that break room looks too familiar.
posted by MtDewd at 2:54 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


Looks like a 585, not a 585A,

you're right, good eye
posted by Dr. Twist at 2:59 PM on March 11


So the women did all the work and actually ran the place, whether the men (who goofed off most of the time) thought so or not...
posted by tommyD at 3:10 PM on March 11 [4 favorites]


Bell Labs in NJ is some sort of work/public space now. I'm hoping to go visit someday.
posted by armacy at 3:21 PM on March 11


I really like these photos! Is this slide film? The color and grain feels much more, I don't know, natural than most of the other photos I've seen from that era. I'm sure there's been some decent editing and color balancing, too.

Point is -- for me, as someone who was not yet born in 1969, these pictures do a very good job of removing a layer of otherness that I'm used to seeing in pictures from the 60s. It's hard to describe, but these photos feel a lot more like I could have been there, whereas a lot of photos end up feeling more obscured and abstract. People look like people, and they've just got different clothes and hair and surroundings. It's more of a literal sense of the "the past as a foreign country," rather than a past that can only be seen in reflection.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:53 PM on March 11 [9 favorites]


I can't help pointing out that 60Hz is between B♭ and B, and 50Hz is between G and G#.

Multi-blade fan whine frequency tends to be a multiple of the AC frequency. I did the maths too!
posted by scruss at 5:29 PM on March 11


shapes that haunt the dusk: "t's hard to describe, but these photos feel a lot more like I could have been there, whereas a lot of photos end up feeling more obscured and abstract"

I agree. It's striking to compare these photos with the versions posted eight years ago -- someone has gone to some effort to touch them up so that they fit the photo conventions we intuitively expect these days.
posted by crazy with stars at 5:57 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


a physicist at Bell Labs in New Jersey

Although these are great photos documenting a turn-of-the-decade tech-lab office, I think the title's a little misleading here -- Bell Labs means Murray Hill, New Jersey. Although it had a lot of satellite offices around NJ and elsewhere, like Illinois, this remote 'data center' in Oakland doesn't even rate a mention on the extensive Bell Labs wikipedia page, which does say that
Researchers working at Bell Labs are credited with the development of radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory, the Unix operating system, and the programming languages C, C++, and S. Nine Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Laboratories.
posted by Rash at 8:46 PM on March 11


I know that there are a bunch of really cool pictures in this album but... it's been several hours since I saw this and I still can't stop thinking about that first guy and his glorious mutton chops. I keep hearing the Lady Legasus theme from Teen Titans Go, except with "legs" substituted by "chops" -- "Look at them chops / Look at them chops / They're amazing!"
posted by mhum at 11:38 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


I seriously covet that brown and white patterned shirt the tape librarian is wearing.
posted by Cocodrillo at 5:16 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Rash: In 1969 I was 11, living in Berkley Heights, NJ and I could ride my bike to Bell Labs. A lot of my classmates' parents worked there. One of my friend's last name was Ritchie and his dad worked at Bell Labs. I've often wondered since if his dad was THAT Ritchie.
posted by lordrunningclam at 5:59 AM on March 12


I grew up in New Jersey and many of my family members, neighbors and friends parents worked for some part of AT&T including Bell Labs. My mom's family actually lived next door to William Shockley in Madison, NJ before he moved out west (and became a monster).

Sadly a family member was instrumental in the destruction of Bell Labs but I don't want to get too deep into that.
posted by octothorpe at 7:15 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Bell Labs in NJ is some sort of work/public space now. I'm hoping to go visit someday.

I had to click that link to see for myself. This is the Holmdel location, not the iconic, original Murray Hill location (birthplace of the transistor, radio astronomy, information theory, C, and UNIX). The Murray Hill location is now owned by Nokia and is called "Nokia Bell Labs", which is also a bit sad, but maybe not quite as sad as being made into a giant co-working space / shopping mall.
posted by crazy_yeti at 7:40 AM on March 12


So speaking of 60 hz hum...

I've been getting into modular synthesis (in particular VCV rack which is just software instead of physical, but same concepts).

As I did this I was thinking about the frequencies of electricity and reminded of that time as a child I stuck one of those crystal radio earbuds (you know with two free wires for pos/ground, vs a single jack) into a power socket. I thought it was cool to hear those sounds.

I think I was damn lucky.

Anwyays, recently I was thinking about that and I realized that I would have heard the 60hz cycle, so I wouldn't even have to do that again to try to get a general idea of the sound since I can just make a 60 hz. A fun memory and realization that I'm still fascinated by the same concepts/things.
posted by symbioid at 1:38 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


@scruss: Interesting! I suppose that a 3- or 6-bladed fan would result in bringing the pitch up by a perfect fifth, from B to F# (quarter flat).
posted by crazy_yeti at 10:34 AM on March 13


Jumping in on the background frequency.
In a room like this, a lot of the hum comes from fans, but also from the air conditioner compressors. Almost all of these are running on 3-phase 208.
Many gate fans in this era are using 2 legs of the 208- I don't know if that affects the frequency of the sound.

In any case, rather than determine the truth by reasoning, why not measure some actual rooms. However, I'm long past having access to them, so on to YouTube, and measuring sound with my Snark tuner.
Sample #1- for this one, my tuner ran back and forth from E to F#, staying mostly on E.
Sample #2- This one my tuner stayed mostly on A# (or Bb).
So, you're both right.

In any case, I can confirm that this is good sleeping sound, especially when trying to work on machines at 3AM.
posted by MtDewd at 6:58 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


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