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25 September 2014updated 01 Oct 2014 5:17am

The most influential tech company you’ve never heard of

The scientists and engineers at “Alca-Loo”– as it is known among financiers – think of themselves as “the plumbers of the internet world”.

By Philip Maughan

The year is 1871. An 18-year-old Frenchman named Alphonse Garreau is about to start work at the new locomotive factory in Belfort, Alsace, when he spots a woman drowning kittens. Though he is not sentimental where animals are concerned, Alphonse rescues one cat from the litter.

He names the little feline Chaussette. He plans to take it to the local photography studio, where he will have postcards made up and sent out on the trains. “Just imagine all of the people in the world enjoying your beautiful little Chaussette in all her adorable kitten poses!” he thinks. That Garreau will work for a company later credited with developing the internet raises a tantalising question: could it be that sharing cute pictures of cats was the original purpose of the internet, as well as its ultimate end?

As part of Alain de Botton’s Writers in Residence series, the Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland spent a year snooping around Alcatel-Lucent, probably the most important technology firm you’ve never heard of. The scientists and engineers at “Alca-Loo”– as it is known among financiers – think of themselves as “the plumbers of the internet world”. “You don’t know us,” the marketing vice-president Gary Nugent tells Coupland, “but you’d certainly miss us if we weren’t there.”

Alcatel-Lucent is responsible for the unsexy but indispensable elements of modern communications technology. It runs routing stations, sets up cloud networks and digs huge trenches at the bottom of the sea in which it lays fibre-optic cables (enough to circle the globe 12 and a half times). Its R&D department, Bell Labs, has won seven Nobel Prizes and owns 30,700 patents, though in recent years there has been less “pure research”. Some employees blame the company’s increasingly commercial approach.

At 10.30pm on 29 October 1969, a computer system devised at Bell Labs was used to transmit information between two university campuses in California. The internet was born. The project was non-profit and was funded by government subsidy.

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“The people here were odder back then,” recalls Debasis Mitra, an Indian mathematician who worked at Bell Labs for over 40 years. “But not just mutton-chop sideburns – though there were those – just odder. In a nice way.” Despite revenues of over €14bn (£11bn) in 2013, Alcatel-Lucent has been struggling since the dotcom and telecoms crashes of 2000 and 2001. It made 10,000 people redundant last year.

Coupland found that Alca-Loo employees were ambivalent about the technology they helped to create. None he met carried an iPhone – instead, they’d keep a “coal-burning flip-phone in the bottom drawer . . . for emergencies”. They all express surprise at how popular the internet has turned out to be.

As I recently scrolled through the spec for the iPhone 6, which promises “to make shopping faster, easier and more secure” by using contactless payment, it felt as though Apple had begun to parody itself. “I miss my pre-internet brain,” Coupland writes, after telling the story of Chaussette and Garreau. This is a familiar lament and the innovators behind the hardware that produced it largely concur. He continues: “Across the entire span of the 1980s, the only new technology society had to absorb was push-button phones and the Sony Walkman . . . These days, I sometimes wake up and think, dear God, just for today, nothing new.”