From NPR – All Things Considered:
People from New Jersey are used to defending their state.
But, in fact, New Jersey has a history to brag about. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, the phonograph and the movie camera there. Many decades later, Bell Labs invented the transistor in the state.
Geography favored New Jersey. On one end, it borders New York City, and on the other end is Philadelphia. That means easy access to Wall Street financing, transportation and industry headquarters.
It all started in the 18th century, when Alexander Hamilton took one look at the plunging Passaic River waterfall in Paterson and his eyes lit up with dreams of industry. That came true for silk, textiles and locomotives. Then in 1870, a smart young inventor named Thomas Edison set up shop in Newark.
“The things that make it attractive for Edison are the things that kind of make it attractive for a lot of aspiring people who come to New Jersey today,” says Leonard DeGraaf, an archivist at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, N.J.
“Edison has the resources,” DeGraaf adds. “He could live and work anywhere, and the fact that he decides to stay in New Jersey I think says something about how he perceived New Jersey as a good place for him to set up laboratories and build companies and manufacture his inventions.”
That’s what made it attractive to Bell Labs. It spread out over several sites in the middle of the state and created many of the technologies that paved the way for 20th century inventions. One of its former facilities, which once held 6,000 engineers and researchers, is in the suburb of Holmdel.
“We perfected cellular communications in this building,” says Edward Eckert, a Bell Labs corporate archivist. “Even before this building was built, we used this property for wireless research — transatlantic radio, telephone, microwave.”
And not too far from there a group of Bell Lab scientists discovered the transistor — the root technology of all silicon chips.
So why didn’t Silicon Valley rise up in New Jersey? Johns Hopkins professor Stuart Leslie, who studies the history of science and technology, says it should have.
“If you were going to place a bet on whether it was going to be New Jersey or Northern California and you placed that bet, say, in 1950, where would you put your money?” Leslie says. “You’d obviously put it on New Jersey.”
But a migration happened west because, as Leslie puts it, the East Coast had become “insular, isolated, self-contained.”
Some cultural differences were also shaped by the law. New Jersey has strict anti-competitive laws that make it hard to take what you learn at your job and create a new company. William Shockley, one of those brilliant Nobel laureates who invented the transistor, moved to California to open his lab in Mountain View, the current home of Google. His employees also left to found their own companies.
It’s not entirely fair to say innovation has vanished from the Garden State. New Jersey ranks 11th among the 50 states for tech industry employment, according to tech association CompTIA. But the excitement and experimentation surrounding Silicon Valley is but a whisper in New Jersey.
There’s a lesson in what happened to New Jersey. Technology centers can shift and change. Bell Labs rested on its laurels; maybe it was a little smug. Nothing lasts forever. Smugness is not a New Jersey exclusive.