Wednesday, November 12, 2014

2 Weeks in Bell Labs: A snippet of an ordeal

Ask any research scientist worth their salt where the premier research facility existed in the past 100 years or so and they’ll probably say Bell Labs. The arcane facility originally located on the West Side of lower Manhattan, it was the percolator for ingenious patents, wildly creative stabs at advancing the science of technology and the brain child of Thomas Edison. And it was a place where anyone who got a job was going to be there for life.

Researchers had unbelievable freedom to follow their curiosity without being hampered by time lines or budgets. It was like falling into nirvana and it must have been the equivalent of an intellectual playpen for adults. Okay, too many comparisons and stretching to make the point here. If you want to read all about it, get a copy of “Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel” by Narain Gehani. 

But while the boys were romping around the huge facility and creating everything from the transistor and every conceivable gadget in technology, there was another force working to support them—the unseen girls in the steno pool. The hope of any of these young women was that a secretary would either retire or die because that was the only path to getting out of the pool. 

There were two distinct worlds and I was in the one that worked in anonymity and under strict rules. Today, you might see it as an “Upstairs, Downstairs” scenario only we had less freedom. So, while the golden-haired men joked and walked around (encouraged in order to stimulate creativity), we remained chained invisibly to our Remingtons. 

No laughter here or interesting banter. There wasn’t a word spoken between even those sitting all day side-by-side. Should a comment be necessary, it was whispered with all the intended collusion of those attempting a prison break. It was a prison without bars where they used all the intimidating tactics found in such an institution. Silence swept over the place except for the striking of metal keys on thick packets of paper. Not a whimper, not a cough, nothing. Only human silence.

Until either of the two occasions of retirement or death occurred, you were not exactly chained to your electric typewritten but you might as well have been. It was worse than boot camp and you hadn’t done anything wrong and you didn’t know how long it would last. Sounds like Purgatory, doesn’t it? But even in Purgatory you knew the length of your sentence. You were supposed to have attained a dream job of importance after an incredible series of psychological and skill tests and the most complete medical exam ever but it sure didn’t seem like anything more than drudgery.

Let me provide a mental picture of what I experienced for the brief time I toiled at their facility on West Street. For one thing, I was assigned a typewriter set up at something like a lunch table in a prison. It was a row of typewriters bolted to desks that ran horizontally across the room. There must have been 6 of us in a row and at least 6 rows. A straight back chair and a kit of absolutely essential tools were at each desk. The kit included a razor blade, a stick of white chalk, an extremely sharp #2 pencil, a pencil sharpener bolted to the desk, one typewriter cover and a typewriter eraser. Next to each station was a small wastepaper basket which served a different purpose than you might imagine. 
The rest of the world may casually look at a wastepaper basket as an object meant only to catch the drek we choose to toss into it. It is the recipient of our thrown away ideas, communications from others, torn envelopes, empty or dry pens and all manner of stuff we no longer find useful. 

At Bell Labs, this basket gained a new level of special prominence and its ultimate goal was not to be emptied into a large bin but to end up first at the desk of the supervisor in charge of the pool. Each key stroke and piece of paper would be carefully calculated in order to maintain a running assessment of each girl’s productivity for every day. Yes, it was a productivity measure. None of us wanted anything to end up in that basket and that increased our stress.

Stacked on the left-hand side of each typewriter was something called a “setup.” Setups came to us from a basement facility where older women, the setup girls, toiled each day. You never saw them except for the times you may have bumped into them as you and everyone else filled the crowded stairs into the facility in the morning and had your security badge examined. 

Once inside the building, the setup girls would proceed to their lockers in the basement where they put on their pocketed aprons and immediately got to work. I have no idea what their daily quota was, but they too must have been under the gun to keep production up. And do you know that most of these “girls” got their jobs via a recommendation of either a family member who worked at the facility or a friend who did? It was incredibly incestuous but a bit better than when they wouldn’t hire the Irish or Catholics, so I’ve been told.

These “girls” (most in their 50s) carefully produced each packet with one sheet of #20 bond paper on top, then six sheets of onion skin paper, each separated with one sheet of carbon paper, all held together with one paper clip. Some of the sheets were of different colors but I can’t remember them now. Thank God for some small favors. Setups were the stuff of life in the pool and everything we typed was on a setup. 

When we began typing from either our steno notes (BTW we spent 2 weeks in daily classes to learn technological steno brief forms) or items given to us, it became a struggle with the clunky electric typewriter, our too-eager hands and stuck keys. When an error was found, that meant we had to go through the dogged process of correcting that all-too-important first page of bond paper and then, one by one, through all those onion skin pages. 

How did we do it? First you put a piece of paper behind all those carbon sheets. Next you took your razor blade and, using only the sharp corner, you carefully dug or scratched out the errant letter and delicately used your chalk to fill in the space. It all had to be very proficiently performed to avoid making a hole or scarring the paper. Once that met your visual inspection, you proceeded to go through the onion skin sheets with your eraser to remove any of the carbon on it. 

The end of the process was to remove the slips of paper, re-strike the key and inspect the bond to be sure it was as nearly perfect as you could make it. If it wasn’t dark enough because of the chalk, you had your trusty pencil to fill in any spaces that needed it. Yes, that’s what the pencil was for, darkening letters. And let’s not forget that in this process the bond paper might slip a bit. When that happened, you had to carefully realign it to insure an accurate re-strike on the spot just prepared. Miss your mark and you might end up with a worthless effort that had to be repeated with a fresh setup and your error score was sure to act against you in that wastebasket count.

But, wait, when did we ever get a break and how did that play out in this pool of young women? Seated at the back of the room, on a slightly elevated platform, was the supervisor who observed our backs and typewriters with all the care of a raptor watching game. Stopping for any reason was cause for immediate action and a stern look, a brief question and a wildly beating heart all were part of it. Her heart never beat wildly and I suspect she had ice water running through her veins. She was a company woman holding fast to her appointed task to keep these girls working feverishly. Does that sound like Gehani’s vision of the Bell Labs he worked in? Not a chance.

Three times a day a bell run. It was much like the school bells in high school that signaled a change of classes. This meant that all of us would stop our work and proceed to the empty cafeteria where we’d have a 15 minute coffee break. There was little time for anything but a cup of coffee and a pastry (very reasonably priced or free as I recall) and then back to the pool with a brief stop at the ladies room. No make-up fixes or hair brushing. 

The next bell meant lunch and you’d go to stand in line at the serving tables of hot meals, salads and desserts. Then you’d eat and, if you wanted, go into a very large room that had massive leather couches and overstuffed chairs. It was here that you’d see the researchers smoking or chatting with each other. Pool girls didn’t mix with them because they were above our social station in this company. Some researchers snoozed, others read newspapers. The pool girls just sat quietly.

Back to the desk until your next break at 3PM and then, at 5PM exactly, you’d cover your typewriter, straighten your desk and go home. 

There was, of course, a pecking order even in the pool. Those young women who had been there longest were the favored few and were called upon by the most experienced researchers to come for dictation. I recall one who was hoping that she was getting very near to a promotion to secretary because one secretary was about to retire. 

I never knew if she got the long-anticipated promotion because I left after two weeks. It was not what I had signed on for and I didn’t want to endure the drudgery of this type of existence. After all, I had been the only kid in 5th grade in grammar school who refused to sign the petition to the town’s mayor that I would be a good child. Good child? I didn’t need to sign anything to agree to that. I was a good child. Pressure from the nun with the statement that, “You are the only child who hasn’t signed this,” didn’t work and I held out. The petition went to the mayor unsigned by me. Gutsy kid was now up against Ma Bell’s production percolator.

I wasn’t the first to leave. A young woman, known as Miss Brown, had caught the eye of the supervisor who wasn’t keen on her work or her attitude, either. She did have a disturbing habit of asking questions that made the supervisor uncomfortable and her fate was sealed.

When I decided to tender my two-weeks notice of resignation, I was sent for an exit interview. Naive as I was, I thought what I said was confidential between me and the personnel woman. Wrong. By the time I got back to the pool, the supervisor had blood in her eye and began to berate me for my comments. It was truly unpleasant and a betrayal that I had never expected. 

They asked for my security badge, made sure I cleaned out my locker and I was on my way out on that day which was a Friday. Two-weeks notice wasn’t necessary for them. It was out immediately lest I poison the others in the pool with this idea of independence.

Oh, did I forget to mention how we were paid? There was no time to cash a check so a money cart came around to the pool and each woman received a small brown envelope with her pay in cash in it. This was tendered to you after you signed your check and gave it to the woman with the cart. Our starting salary was the princely sum of $52/wk. Ah, what could we do with all those riches!

Containment was the watchword of the day at Bell Labs. Imagine what would happen if they allowed these girls to leave the building to cash their checks? It was unthinkable. I have no idea how the engineer researchers were paid or if they had this liberty of leaving the building. I would suspect they did.

Yes, there was life after Bell Labs and it was a great deal better than it would have been had I stayed and, who knows, gone to secretarial heaven in the building. 

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