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Fall 1996 | Volume 12 |  Issue 2

Bell Labs’ Greatness

I AM NOW A VISITING PROFESSOR OF music emeritus at Stanford University. I looked back many years with keen nostalgia when I read the fine piece “What Made Bell Labs Great,” by T. A. Heppenheimer, in your Summer 1996 issue. I encountered again the Labs’ “broad (but not unlimited) domain … ripe for innovation.” I admired again one of my heroes, M. J. Kelly, and recalled various other characters named or discussed, including myself. My thoughts were with men who cooperated closely and in whom self-promotion was minimal. We did much work openly, and we knew the worth of our colleagues.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and a few things that were not said might be useful to the readers. The number of employees of the Labs who were in the research department was roughly a tenth of the total number of employees; other areas of the Labs designed systems and devices specifically to be manufactured by Western Electric. Also, the nature of AT&T was very important for Bell Labs: In those days, fine engineers dominated the higher echelons of AT&T, and the chief executive officers were themselves first-rate engineers.

Prior to divestiture, in 1984, many employees, including me, believed that the mission of the Labs was to provide the American telecommunications of the future. After divestiture this could no longer be a sensible mission.

Editors’ note: John R. Pierce is the inventor of the communications satellite.


Who Invented Anesthesia?

J. M. FENSTER’S VERY INTERESTING article offers an insightful description of the tortuous path to the introduction of safe anesthesia in surgical practice. It ends with the mental breakdowns of all three of the protagonists, which are attributed to their disappointment and intense jealousy. What is not noted about this odd coincidence is that all three men had in common high exposures to those neurotoxic anesthetic gases. Neurological damage due to delayed toxic effects from chronic exposure to those chemicals might be a better rationale for their apparently shared mental degeneration.

Dr. Evan Harris Walker
Walker Cancer Research Institute
Aberdeen, Md.

Who Invented Anesthesia?

HISTORIANS HAVE LONG AGREED THAT in order for one to be considered a discoverer, he or she must meet three criteria: discover something new, be aware of discovering something new, and communicate his or her findings to the outside world. Of all the claimants to the honor of having discovered anesthesia, only one meets the three criteria, and that is Horace Wells, the dentist from Hartford, Connecticut. The mere substitution of one substance for another—as Morton did in choosing ether over nitrous oxide—does not alter the original discoverer’s standing. And most assuredly, using a discovery and keeping the knowledge to oneself, as Crawford Long did, does not entitle him to the credit.

Malvin E. Ring, D.D.S.
Assoc. Prof, of Dental History (ret.)
State University of New York at Buffalo

Who Invented Anesthesia?

J. M. FENSTER’S ARTICLE “HOW NO body Invented Anesthesia” (Summer 1996) left me a little confused. I thought that if someone developed a new process or product useful to society that clearly accomplished something not already a part of the practice and teaching of the applicable art, something not readily obvious to one practiced in the applicable art, then that would constitute an invention. To my understanding, Dr. Crawford Long was the first to satisfy the requirements for an invention in the case of the use of ether for anesthesiology. Even if others were slow to understand what he had accomplished, even if he did not use the new process in all possible medical procedures, and even if others were lax in adopting his new process, he was the inventor.

As for the claims of Wells, Jackson, or Morton, we do not know with certainty how they got their first inkling that intoxicating gases could be used as an anesthetic. But if, in the two years during which Long, in Georgia, was the only physician in the world using ether as an anesthetic, no one in the whole of the Northeastern medical establishment knew of this activity, then we should conclude that it is they who should be considered to have been in the wilds, not Long.

Joseph A. Cotruvo
Washington, D.C.

Which Way Is Up?

I HAVE HAD MY SUMMER 1996 ISSUE sitting on my coffee table now for several weeks—face-down—and the coal fire in that old boiler on the back cover just never looked right. Then I turned it around, and it looked just fine. I have come to the conclusion that the picture is upside down. Try it for yourself!

Allen Seidner
Fort Worth, Tex.

The editors reply: The picture is right side up. Quite a few people have had the same reaction to it, and the reason is that the eye always expects light to come from above, and the tops of things to be more brightly lit than the bottoms. The coals in the photograph are glowing underneath and dark on top. Bear that in mind, and the picture should look fine.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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