To My Dad, Mel Cohen, on Father’s Day: Thanks for All the Toys

Mel Cohen

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 were for. He told me, “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. 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.

In fact, some of the research that my dad and his team did 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 much of the work my father and his colleagues did a bit later in his career 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 started. 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 clergyperson, 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 one of the unsung heroes whose work helped lay the foundation for the technology we love and all but take for granted today.

So, 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.

For example, when I was a kid, he was president of an international technology association. That year, its conference was held in Washington, DC, 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 provide him with 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, one of the custodial staff gave him a framed poem they had written about him as he was promoted from one position to another. I don’t recall the exact poem, but I do know it was called “The Man On The Second Floor,” and it talked about how 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.

We in Yiddish refer to this 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 protection of intellectual property. Still, his key work, and of interest to those of us involved in technology today, was 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 that 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 and strong enough to carry signals without significant degradation.

In fact, their work allowed them to participate in the first commercial deployment of a lightweight system connecting 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 architects of that technology. On this Father’s Day, I thought I would give 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.

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About the Author

Dan Cohen
Having a father who was heavily involved in early laser and fiber-optical research, Dan grew up surrounded by technology and gadgets. Dan’s father brought home one of the very first video games when he was young and Dan remembers seeing a “pre-release” touchtone phone. (When he asked his father what the “#” and “*” buttons were his dad said, “Some day, far in the future, we’ll have some use for them.”) Technology seemed to be in Dan’s blood but at some point he took a different path and ended up in the clergy. His passion for technology and gadgets never left him. Dan is married to Raina Goldberg who is also an avid user of Apple products. They live in New Jersey with their golden doodle Nava.

5 Comments on "To My Dad, Mel Cohen, on Father’s Day: Thanks for All the Toys"

  1. Travis Ehrlich | June 21, 2009 at 6:34 am |

    Beautiful! Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there!

  2. Another thing that amazed me is the fellow I talked to at the 1967 World’s fair. He explained their work with wireless cells where the future would be that everyone would have a personal phone number and carry a phone with them. I thought he was talking complete science fiction at the time.

  3. Brilliant post Dan! Happy Fathers Day Mel and all the other great dads out there.

    I have to mention that it astounds me that the son of such a man is not a better chess player. 🙂

  4. Dan, your father sounds like such an amazing man! Thank you for sharing him with us. Happy Father’s Day, Mr. Cohen! 😀

  5. Wonderful tribute … and a small world! I’m an RPI person myself, and am working with a couple of people who were pioneers in the earlier technology of fiber optics here at Corning …

    My dad did some of that stuff as well … it is amazing to think how seeds are planted, and it will be interesting to see how my kids look at stuff later on in life based on having such a rich and diverse technological history!

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