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Oral history interview with Morris Tanenbaum

  • 2004-May-03
  • 2004-Jul-26

Oral history interview with Morris Tanenbaum

  • 2004-May-03
  • 2004-Jul-26

Morris Tanenbaum grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, one of three children. His Jewish parents had come from Russia and Poland by way of Buenos Aires, Argentina; they owned a delicatessen, in which Morris worked after school. He liked and did well in school, always interested in science. A trip to the 1939 World's Fair further focused his interest in science. He graduated from high school and chose Johns Hopkins University because of its reputation for chemistry. He liked physical chemistry and physics and somehow found himself often being the business manager of college organizations. One of his professors, Clark Bricker, who was leaving for Princeton University, convinced Tanenbaum to accept a research assistantship there and to obtain a PhD. Tanenbaum worked on spectroscopy in Bricker's lab. He married Charlotte Silver whom he had met during his sophomore year at Johns Hopkins. For his thesis, he moved to Walter Kauzmann's lab to study the mechanical properties of metal single crystals; he won the DuPont and Proctor Fellowships. After being awarded his PhD, Tanenbaum went to work at Bell Laboratories where he did the original studies of single crystal III-V semiconductors. He was asked by William Shockley to head a group to determine if transistors could be made using silicon. Up to that time, all semiconductor technology had employed germanium where the transistor effect had first been discovered. Within a year, Tanenbaum, with the assistance of Ernest Buehler, made the world's first silicon transistor. A few months later, Gordon Teal at Texas Instruments made a similar transistor. Working with Calvin Fuller, Tanenbaum invented the diffused base silicon transistor using solid-state diffusion. When Shockley left Bell Labs, he invited Tanenbaum to join him to start up a silicon device company funded by Arnold Beckman. After much consideration, Tanenbaum decided to remain at Bell Labs and moved from semiconductors to the broader field of Metallurgy and Materials Science where he led a group including Gene Kunzler who invented high field superconducting magnets. He then moved from the Research Division of Bell Labs to the Electron Device Division where he directed the Laboratory responsible for the development of new devices other than semiconductors, such as solid-state lasers and magnetic memories. Western Electric recruited Tanenbaum to lead its new Engineering Research Center. He recruited PhD's in the physical sciences and engineering with an interest in applications for the manufacturing floor. He later became Vice President of Engineering for all of Western Electric and then moved from the technical side to become Vice President for Transmission Equipment with responsibility for the several plants that manufactured transmission equipment. Tanenbaum was called back to Bell Labs as Executive Vice President with responsibility for all of development. Then he moved to AT&T Corporate Offices as Senior Vice President of Engineering and Network Services. He later served as President of New Jersey Bell. In 1980, he was called back to AT&T as Executive Vice President for Administration. During that period, he was much involved in the Federal antitrust case against AT&T that was eventually settled by a Consent Degree that separated AT&T into several independent companies (the "Baby Bells") providing local telephone service and AT&T retaining Western Electric, most of Bell Labs, and the long distance services. As Tanenbaum says, that separation while maintaining quality telephone service was like trying to separate a Boeing 747 into two 737s while in flight. He became Chairman and CEO of AT&T Communications with responsibility for all long distance service. His final position was CFO and Vice Chairman of the AT&T Board of Directors. Recognizing that his position, though perhaps more exalted, no longer provided the "fun" he had always sought and found, he prepared to retire. He continued to serve as a Trustee at Johns Hopkins and MIT and on a number of corporate boards. After retirement he consulted for General Motors on their Board's Science Advisory Committee and served as the Vice President of the National Academy of Engineering and a member of the Governing Committee of the National Research Council of the National Academies. He and his wife have always loved classical music and he was a Founding Director of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center while his wife, Charlotte, served on the Board of the New Jersey Symphony. He also served on the Board of the New York Philharmonic. Throughout the interview Tanenbaum reflects on his enjoyment of his work; his interactions with his colleagues; his retrospective view of the history of transistors, semiconductors, and electronics; his fascination with and insistence on the importance of chemistry; and his long and deep association with AT&T in its various stages.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 162 pages
  • 9h 20 m 5s
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewers

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.

Christophe Lécuyer is a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and he received a PhD in history from Stanford University. He was a fellow of the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology and has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and the University of Virginia. Before becoming a senior research fellow at CHF, Lécuyer was the program manager of the electronic materials department. He has published widely on the history of electronics, engineering education, and medical and scientific instruments, and is the author of Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech, 1930–1970 (2005).

Institutional location

Oral history number 0668
Physical container
  • Shelfmark QD22.T3646 A5 2004

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • November 10, 1928
  • Huntington, West Virginia, United States
  • February 26, 2023
  • New Providence, New Jersey, United States


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1949 Johns Hopkins University AB Chemistry
1952 Princeton University PhD Physical Chemistry

Professional Experience

Bell Telephone Laboratories

  • 1952 to 1956 Chemistry and Chemical Physics Division, Technical Staff
  • 1956 to 1962 Assistant Director of Metallurgical Department
  • 1962 to 1964 Director, Solid-State Development Laboratory
  • 1975 to 1976 Executive Vice President, Systems Engineering and Development
  • 1976 to 1978 Vice President, Engineering and Network Services
  • 1980 to 1984 Executive Vice President

Western Electric Company

  • 1964 to 1968 Director of Research and Development
  • 1968 to 1972 Vice President, Engineering Division
  • 1972 to 1975 Vice President, Manufacturing: Transmission Equipment

New Jersey Bell Telephone Company

  • 1978 to 1980 President

AT & T Communications

  • 1984 to 1986 Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board

AT & T (Firm)

  • 1986 to 1988 Vice Chairman, Finance
  • 1988 to 1991 Vice Chairman, Finance and Chief Financial Officer


Year(s) Award
1970 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellow
1972 Vice President and member of the National Academy of Engineering
1975 ASM Campbell Lecturer
1980 New Jersey Institute of Technology Honorary Doctor of Science
1981 Seton Hall University Honorary Doctor of Science
1982 Stevens Institute of Technology Honorary Doctor of Engineering
1983 Worcester Polytechnic Institute Honorary Doctor of Science
1984 IEEE Centennial Medal
1990 Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1992 Lehigh University Honorary Doctor of Science
1996 Elected Life Member of MIT Corporation
1999 John Hopkins University Heritage Award

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PDF — 1.1 MB

The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

16 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads