Living History in Little Silver: Inventing the Future in NJ

Last night Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation spoke to a packed room at the Little Silver Municipal Building.

Gertner’s talk was supposed to be held at the library but an overflow crowd necessitated moving the talk to the council chambers.  The crowd was packed with Bell Labs retirees, many of whom worked on the research, development and inventions detailed in the book.

Think about this, many of those who literally helped invent, develop and perfect the electronics that surround us in our everyday lives were sitting in one place for one hour on Prospect Avenue in Little Silver last night.

As we fight over revenue projections, budget priorities, the future of New Jersey’s state university, New Jersey’s nation leading unemployment figures and nation lagging GDP rate; we rarely hear about the role New Jersey played in inventing the future.

The future we are now living.

Solid state transistors, satellite communications, wireless communications, cellular communications, transatlantic cabling and communications, Unix, information theory, systems theory and so much more were all developed, invented or perfected right here in New Jersey.

As a Fort Monmouth retiree who started working there in 1947 said to me last fall while we were getting our oil changed:

“If it had an electron in it, we had something to do with it. If we didn’t have something to do with it, the boys down the road at Bell Labs sure did”.

We often forget all this in our day to day battles over jobs, funding and in trying to keep ourselves and others from falling off a cliff in today’s recessionary environment.

But we have to ask the big question(s) and not be afraid of laying out big plans.

How do we make New Jersey an inventor of the future again?

Rather than just a bedroom community for the financial services industry.

This question and last night’s event takes on even more meaning this week as Roche announced a decision to shut down the last vestiges of it’s U.S. R&D operations in Nutley and lay off 1,000 people.

So how about it New Jersey, how do we start inventing the future right here in New Jersey again?  

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