I love technology and gadgetry. Even though I’m in a field that isn’t normally associated with such things I can’t get enough of it. For the longest time I thought that my interest had to do with my maturity level which, as my wife will tell you, can be rather low. A while back, however, I realized that the real source of my interest was far closer to home. You see I grew up in a household with a father who was on the leading edge of new technology.
We had a touchtone phone before it was even released. (I remember asking my father what the * and # buttons work for. He told me that, “At some point far in the future there will be use for them with additional features that we can’t even conceive of right now”.) We had early versions of videophones back when there wasn’t nearly the data speed to support them. And I remember going to visit my dad in his lab and seeing the assortment of lasers that he and his colleagues were using long before they were commonplace. It was, in fact, some of the research that my dad and his team did that ultimately found its way into the, now ubiquitous, optical drives that fill our DVD players and computers. And it isn’t an overstatement to say that it was much of the work my father and his colleagues did a bit later in his career that laid the foundation for the fiber optical revolution in communications and connectivity.
My father spent almost his entire career working for one company (although in various permutations of it). It was a career that began 34 years earlier at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey and ultimately ended with his retiring from an office in the very same building where he began, only now the company was called Lucent. My father retired a bit earlier than planned, at 63, and sadly, he and my mother only had two weeks to enjoy both freedom and good health before he suffered a stroke, whose significant impact continues more than a decade later. As a clergy person I hear so many people honored after they’re gone that I decided I wanted to write this Father’s Day post to my dad, while he can actually read it. Why? Because he was and is a great father, and because he is one of the unsung heroes whose work helped lay the foundation for the technology we love and all but take for granted today.
So, with thanks to Judie for letting me post such a personal piece, here is a quick tribute to my dad — Mel Cohen– on Father’s Day.
My dad joined Bell Laboratories as a member of their technical staff in 1964, just a year before I was born. He had done his doctoral work at RPI on the flow of blood in the human circulatory system, but didn’t do anything related to that as he began his career. Instead, he worked with lasers and fiber optics on a host of other new technologies. Over the years he had 13 different assignments within the company, ultimately becoming Research Effectiveness Vice President. My dad was never the ambitious type. What he was, however, was smart as can be, hard-working, dedicated, remarkably disciplined and a hell of a nice guy. As one colleague put it when he retired, my dad had, “an extremely rare ability to combine technical excellence with political savvy, honesty, integrity and charisma.” Those qualities resulted in him having great success in his field.
At one point when I was a kid, for example, he was president of an international technology association. Its conference was held in Washington DC that year and dad let me go with him. Sure I was impressed with how my father seemed to know everyone and how they all seemed to love him, but what impressed me most was the fact that because he was in charge of the entire conference he had been given the Presidential Suite. The place was AWESOME and I remember thinking how “important” a man my dad must be, for them to give him this suite. He would NEVER have used the “i” word to refer to himself. THAT was part of his greatness.
I also remember that, a few years later, as he was promoted from one position to another, one of the custodial staff gave him a framed poem they had written about him. I don’t recall the exact poem, but I do know it was called “The Man On The Second Floor” and it talked about the way in which he was never too busy to stop and ask anyone how they were and how he, unlike far too many others, did not look “through” her and the other support staff. That is what we in Yiddish refer to as a mensch, and that word does capture much of my dad.
At the end of his career my dad worked on technology licensing and the protecting of intellectual property, but his key work, and of interest for those of us involved in technology today, had to do with developing the fiber optics we enjoy today. As he put it at one point, “We were creating what would become the basis for the now prevalent technology of fiber optics. It was thanks to the vision and guts of a small bunch of people that fiber optics became the medium of choice. I was lucky to have had the chance to play a part in developing that.”
It’s hard to conceive of it, but the fiber optical cables to bring high-speed communications into our homes and let us video chat with people anywhere in the world weren’t invented all that long ago. His team’s research led to the ability to draw fiber optical material that was pure enough and strong enough to carry signals without significant degradation. In fact it was their work that allowed them to be part of the first commercial deployment of a lightweight system that connected the United States with Europe. As he put it, “Those were exciting times — inventing something in the lab one day and trying it out in the new pilot plant in Atlanta just about the next day.”
I’m proud to be the son of a man who was one of the very architects of that technology. And so on this Father’s Day I thought I would do a shout out to my dad, Mel Cohen, to thank him for being such a great father and, on behalf of all of us, for giving us such great gear.