"[Kelly] was a marvelous character, and he was a fellow who was very deceptive, too. You might be in a room where there was a conference going on. Mervin Kelly'd be there, and he'd close his eyes and lean back, and you'd swear he was asleep. Until somebody made some remark, and he'd suddenly come to and nail them with a question." -- Walter Brown, interview for "Transistorized!"
As Bell's research director, and later its president, Mervin Kelly was the driving force that steered Bell Labs into solid state physics. He knew that for AT&T to keep providing the best phone service, it would need to build better ways to boost phone signals as they travelled around the country. His background was in vacuum tubes, so at first Kelly didn't think solid state science was particularly important. He thought Bell should focus on vacuum tube research. But in the late 1930s, after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in trying to improve the tubes and not really getting anywhere, Kelly began to change his mind.
Kelly was promoted from head of the vacuum-tube department to research director in 1936. Solid state science was such a new field that Bell just didn't have enough scientists to do the research. Kelly started a campaign to hire bright young Ph.D.s -- like Bill Shockley -- who had the right training.
When World War II came to an end, Kelly reorganized all the labs at Bell, and formed a department dedicated to solid state science. A subgroup of this department developed the transistor. Kelly knew right away how important it was -- he invested enough money and manpower to turn the first moody model into a workable device.
One place where Kelly may arguably have failed was in moderating office politics. Despite warnings that John Bardeen was frustrated working with Shockley, Kelly never stepped in to solve the problem and so Bell lost Bardeen to the University of Illinois.
Kelly was president of Bell from 1951 to 1959. During that time, his faith in solid state science paid off: transistors became standard in phone service and long distance calls no longer required an operator. While Kelly was running the company, Bell also developed the laser and the solar cell.
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