At Morven Museum in Princeton, an exhibition on how New Jersey changed everything

‘Ma Bell: The Mother of Invention in New Jersey’ chronicles the advancements in research and communication that came out of Bell Labs in NJ in the 20th century.

Let’s start at the beginning. As in, the very beginning.

Two Bell Labs scientists in New Jersey, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, were working with an ultra-sensitive radio antenna near Holmdel in the early ’60s. But they kept picking up a hiss coming from all directions, the origins of which defied explanation. That is, until they realized that that annoying buzz was the remaining cosmic radiation from the Big Bang.

Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978 for their discovery, and for good reason—their discovery changed the way we understand the universe and life as we know it.

But it’s only one of Bell Labs’ contributions to technology, research and human advancement. So many are those contributions that discovering what the Big Bang sounds like is just one small installation in the Morven Museum & Garden (Princeton) Exhibition, Ma Bell: The Mother of Invention in New Jersey, which chronicles the company’s inventions and discoveries in the 20th century, and provides artifacts and personal histories of that life in that time and place.

The story of Bell Labs is truly a New Jersey story; tens of thousands of residents here worked for the company in myriad departments, from the Murray Hill headquarters to offshoots throughout the state. At the beginning of the exhibition, guests are invited to write their memories of Bell Labs—many entries include those from folks who worked there or had relatives who did or who simply witnessed the way the company changed society.

It’s hard to understate, after walking through the exhibit, just how deeply Bell Labs changed the way we share and access information. From the 1920s to the ’80s, Bell Labs helped create the modern means of discovery and communication—from the first phones (and related cables and switchboards), to aviators’ radio headsets, satellites powered by solar panels, and the first picture phone. 

It’s easy to take technology for granted today, but when you see the many artifacts collected in Ma Bell—from vacuum tubes and exchange cables to notebooks and early lasers—you realize just how ingenious this generation of thinkers was, and how much work (manual and intellectual) went into connecting the country (and the world, and beyond).

Now, Bell had the resources and latitude to develop technologies in part because it was a monopoly. By the time the ’80s rolled around, AT&T—which, by extension, was founded to preserve Alexander Graham Bell’s patent on the telephone system and which eventually became the parent to the Bell System—was deemed a monopoly, operating America’s telephone system. In essence, it was preventing others from fairly competing in the modern world it created. So the company was split into seven regional Bell companies. Bell Labs wasn’t quite the same; although, today Nokia Bell Labs (headquartered, still, in Murray Hill) is working on everything from space exploration to AI to 6G technology.

And so one leaves Ma Bell at Morven with an appreciation for New Jersey’s role in technological advancement, but maybe more so, an appreciation for the people that made it happen. The personal touches—the hand-drawn illustration of the workspace, the calculator with roman numeral buttons, the visible, hand-crafted artifacts that made invisible communication possible, the recollections of that time in our history written by hand and hung on a wall—leave you with a sense of wonder and awe for all that humans can accomplish and a curiosity for what’s next.

Ma Bell: The Mother of Invention in New Jersey. Morven Museum & Garden, Princeton. Through March 5, 2023. More info here.