Innovation and Invention – The Building Blocks of the Digital World
At Batelco, we are proud of our long history as the Kingdom’s leading provider of telecommunications services and particularly so during the Covid pandemic when homes and businesses across Bahrain depended on our high-quality broadband like never before. But at the same time, we don’t want to rest on our laurels. Instead, we continue to push out into new markets and challenge ourselves. Accordingly, through four new companies – Beyon Money, Beyon Connect, Beyon Cyber, and Beyon Solutions – we are expanding into exciting new digital markets like fintech and cybersecurity.
As we enter these digital markets, which are more information technology than telecommunication, it is worth noting that it was a telecommunications company that created the foundations for the modern digital world.
Bell Labs was the research and development arm of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and for about fifty years, from its establishment in 1925 until the late 1970s, Bell Labs was to innovation and invention what Silicon Valley is today. At its peak it employed about 15,000 people, 1,200 of them with PhDs. For about half a century, if you were young, smart and wanted to change the world then Bell Labs was the place to be. In his book “The Idea Factory” Jon Gertner wrote that Bell Labs “was where the future, which we now happen to call the present, was conceived and designed.”
One seminal period of invention happened in the summer of 1947. By that time, most Bell Labs employees had quit the company’s original building in crowded downtown Manhattan and had moved to a modern glass and brick complex that had been built across the Hudson River, in Murray Hill, New Jersey. But one employee who chose to stay behind was Claude Shannon, a 31-year-old mathematician, who preferred the bustle and noise of Manhattan.
Like many Bell Labs employees, Shannon had no fixed duties. He could do pretty much as he liked, go wherever his curiosity took him. Next time you hear a Silicon Valley firm boast about how creative freedom is built into its culture, remember that a telecommunications company was doing the same thing 75 years ago.
Shannon’s curiosity took him into a field that did not really exist yet, one he largely invented and that would eventually be known as “information theory”. His famous paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”, was published in the Bell System Technical Journal in 1948 when he was just 32 years old.
What did the theory do? Well today we live in a world in which all information is quantifiable and transmissible. We all understand that a human voice, a piece of music, a painting, a photograph, a book, or a movie are all things that can be broken down and represented in the same way, as a series of binary digits or “bits”, a long stream of 1s and 0s. Today we all grasp this idea, and we take it for granted but in 1947 no one saw the underlying connection between all these different forms of information. That is what Shannon did – he developed the theory for representing all information digitally which meant that information could be transmitted without error. Today we call it the Internet.
Shannon had come up with the mathematical theory but any theory without the practical means to put it into effect will remain just that, a theory. But Bell Labs was not done.
The vacuum tube, invented in 1907, had greatly improved long-distance telephony by amplifying signals. Vacuum tubes, however, were bulky, fragile, and power hungry. Something better was needed and it came in that same summer of 1947. While Shannon was in Manhattan working on the essential theory that would eventually lead to the Internet, three of his Bell Labs colleagues in New Jersey invented the essential hardware – the transistor.
A transistor is a semiconductor device used to amplify or switch electrical signals and power. It is a basic building block of all modern electronics. In 1965, Gordon Moore forecast that transistors would half in size approximately every two years. That is exponential size reduction and is the reason why the guidance computer used in the 1969 Apollo Moon landing had tens of thousands of transistors while Apple’s latest A16 Bionic chip, used in the iPhone 14 Pro, has 16 billion of them.
Shannon and his colleagues were the original digital disruptors, and they made their discoveries because they worked for a company that set no boundaries and encouraged curiosity, innovation, and collaboration. Bell Labs hired talented people, even when it wasn’t clear where they would fit or what exactly they would do and waited to see what happened. By breaking its own new ground with Beyon, experimenting and trying new things, Batelco is continuing in the spirit of innovation and establishing itself as a key player in the evolving digital space.
Batelco – Associate General Counsel, Regulatory