Philips Natuurkundig Laboratorium

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The Philips Natuurkundig Laboratorium (English translation: Philips Physics Laboratory) or NatLab was the Dutch section of the Philips research department, which did research for the product divisions of that company. Originally located in the Strijp district of Eindhoven, the facility moved to Waalre in the early 1960s. A 1972 municipal rezoning brought the facility back into Eindhoven, which was followed some years later by Eindhoven renaming the street the facility is on into the Prof. Holstlaan, after the first director.[1]

In 1975, the NatLab employed some 2000 people, including 600 researchers with university degrees. Research done at the NatLab has ranged from product-specific to fundamental research into electronics, physics and chemistry, as well as computing science and information technology.

The original NatLab facility was disbanded in 2001 and the facility has been transformed into the High Tech Campus Eindhoven, which is open to researchers from many different companies. Philips Research is still one of the largest campus tenants, although not with anything like the number of people employed in the NatLab days. Philips Research also has branches in Germany, the United Kingdom, USA, India and China; the non-Netherlands parts of Philips Research account for about half the research work done by Philips nowadays.


The history of the NatLab spans roughly three periods: 1914-1946, 1946–1972 and 1972-2001.

The start: 1914-1946[edit]

The NatLab was founded in 1914 after a direct decision of Gerard and Anton Philips. At the time Philips was branching out into different areas of electronics and they felt the need to do in-house research to support product development, as well as create a company patent portfolio and reduce the company dependence on patents held by third parties. They hired physicist Gilles Holst (the first director) who assembled a staff consisting of Ekko Oosterhuis and a small number of research assistants; this was the entire scientific staff of the facility for the first decade. Holst held the director's position until 1946 and spent his tenure creating and maintaining an academic atmosphere at the facility in which researchers were given a lot of leeway and access to external research and resources. The external access also included colloquia by some of the great physicists of the day (including Albert Einstein in 1923).

This managerial philosophy made the NatLab very different from all the other Philips facilities and laboratories. Unlike the other Philips labs, NatLab was more like the AT&T Bell Laboratories in the United States. The research was also not limited to industrial research; a good deal of fundamental research was also performed at NatLab, such as that of Bernard D. H. Tellegen and Balthasar van der Pol. Van der Pol was hired in 1922 to start a research program into radio technology. This research program resulted in publishable results in the areas of propagation of radio waves, electrical circuit theory, harmonics and a number of related, mathematical problems. Van der Pol also studied the effect of the curvature of the Earth on radio wave propagation.

Van der Pol's senior assistant (hired in 1923) was Bernard Tellegen. He started working on triodes and invented (with his director Gilles Holst[2]) the penthode in 1926. The penthode was the centerpiece of the famous Philips radio and it soon found its way into every radio and amplifier in the market. Tellegen also did pioneering research in the area of electrical networks. In 1925 Van der Pol took on a junior student from Delft, Johan Numans. Numans designed and built a short wave crystal controlled telephony transmitter for his required period of practical work, with call sign PCJJ. This transmitter made world headlines on March 11, 1927 when it transmitted practically undistorted music and voice across the entire globe. As a result of this, the Philips Omroep Holland-Indië (PHOHI, the Philips Holland-Indonesia station) was founded.

Growth and success: 1946-1972[edit]

In 1946 Holst was succeeded by a triumvirate: physicist Hendrik Casimir (who would later become the primarily responsible of the three and member of the Board of Directors), chemist Evert Verwey and engineer Herre Rinia. The NatLab saw its heyday under this triumvirate.

For the Philips company as a whole, the era of Frits Philips had made the company part of the world's electronics giants with 350.000 employees in 1970. NatLab grew right along with the company and became a world class research facility. By 1963 a new campus was designed for the facility in Waalre, with space for 3.000 employees (more than any Dutch university). NatLab never grew to quite those numbers though, 2.400 was the record – and that included the foreign branches which had been added in the meantime. The NatLab became a superuniversity where the "best of the best" could do research in practically perfect circumstances (full academic freedom, no time devoted to teaching classes, nearly unlimited budgets and so on). Kees Schouhamer Immink, digital pioneer and one of NatLab's top-scientists, formulated the atmosphere at that time: "We were able to conduct whatever research we found relevant, and had no pre-determined tasks; instead, we received full freedom and support of autonomous research. We went to work, not knowing what we would do that day. This view -or rather ambiguous view- on how research should be conducted,led to amazing inventions as a result. It was an innovation heaven".[3]

The result was a slew of commercial and fundamental results, including the Plumbicon camera tube and the Video Long Play disc, which was the technological basis for the 1980 compact disc. Results were also achieved in the area of integrated circuitry: Else Kooi invented the LOCOS technology and Kees Hart and Arie Slob developed the I²C in the early 1970s.

There were also commercial failures. For example, Dick Raaijmakers (using the alias Kid Baltan) and Tom Dissevelt did fundamental user experience research into the first synthesizers, resulting in internationally acclaimed electronic music and jazz music; but Philips itself felt that this research was just some "fooling around" and let it go to waste.

The end: 1972-present[edit]

The period under Casimir was a time of great success and achievement for the NatLab. But the time after his retirement in 1972 was one of decline and loss.

In 1973, starting with the oil crisis, the long period of economic growth came to an end and companies could no longer afford expensive research departments. With that economic reality, the belief in the stimulating value of fundamental research also seemed to disappear. On top of that, a number of bad decisions by the NatLab management did little to ingratiate the facility to the Philips Board of Directors (such bad decisions including the development of the flopped videodisc, the Video 2000 videocassette recorder, and the initial lack of support for the compact disc.

The compact disc had been initiated and pushed by the audio department,[4] although NatLab researcher Kees Schouhamer Immink played an instrumental role in its design. For the industry group 'Audio' and the NatLab the development of a small optical audio disc started early in 1974 [3]. The sound quality of this disc had to be superior to that of the large and vulnerable vinyl record. To realize this, Lou Ottens, technical director of 'Audio', formed a seven-person project group. Vries and Diepeveen were members of this project group. In March 1974, during an Audio-VLP meeting Peek and Vries recommended a digital audio registration because an error-correcting code could be included [3]. At the end of 1977, 'Audio' recognized that this was the only way to achieve a compact disc with a superior sound quality. Vries and Diepeveen built an error-correcting coder-decoder that was delivered in the summer of 1978. The decoder was included in the CD prototype player that was presented to the international press{4}. To commemorate this breakthrough, Philips received an IEEE Milestone Award on March 6, 2009 [5]. This breakthrough was also appreciated by Sony and they started a cooperation with Philips that resulted in June 1980 in a common CD system standard.

Philips as a whole took a turn for the worse and by the end of the 1980s bankruptcy seemed a very real possibility. Under research director Kees Bulthuis the position of long-term fundamental research at NatLab came under more and more pressure, especially after Philips introduced decentralized financing. Bulthuis reduced research budgets by the equivalent of 60 million euro in three years' time. Hundreds of NatLab employees were fired and departments were closed, including the entire mathematics department in Brussels. By 1989 the NatLab, which had formerly been on the Board of Directors budget, drew two-thirds of its income from contracts with the product divisions. This made the role of the NatLab far more limited than before: it became a source of expertise rather than a source of innovation. Fundamental research, research driven purely by curiosity, was strictly reined in and priority was given to the interests of the product divisions.

In 2000, Philips decided on a new direction for the NatLab and the grounds it was housed on: the decision was made to transform the whole of it into an open innovation facility for technology companies, of which Philips Research was only one. The name chosen for this facility is the High Tech Campus Eindhoven, which has by now completely subsumed the old NatLab. This decision by Philips also fit with the new direction chosen by the company, "Health and Lifestyle". As a result of this new direction, Philips has divested itself of branches like the semiconductors branch (now the independent NXP), which has reduced the on-site size of Philips Research to 600 as of 2006.

Famous NatLab researchers[edit]


  1. ^ Google Maps, location of the facility
  2. ^ G. Holst and B.D.H. Tellegen, "Means for amplifying electrical oscillations", US Patent 1,945,040, January 1934.
  3. ^ "NatLab's History". Retrieved 27 November 2014. 
  4. ^ Kees A. Schouhamer Immink (2007). "Shannon, Beethoven, and the Compact Disc". IEEE Information Theory Newsletter: 42–46. Retrieved 2007-12-12. 


  • Inventing Structures for Industrial Research, thesis by F. Kees Boersma on the founding and history of the NatLab up to 1946.
  • Geschiedenis Philips Nat.Lab. vastgelegd site for the book 80 years of research at the Philips Natuurkundig Laboratorium 1914-1994 by Marc J. de Vries and F. Kees Boersma, commissioned by Philips Research, supervised by the Stichting Historie der Techniek.
  • De veranderende rol van het Natuurkundig Laboratorium in het Philips-concern gedurende de periode 1914-1994, K. Boersma and M. de Vries
  • [1] Opkomst en neergang van een legendarisch lab], Delta (universiteitsblad TU Delft), S. Priester, February 2006.
  • Wetenschap in uitvoering, Het NatLab in Eindhoven TELEAC Film (25 min.), April 2009
  • Hans B. Peek, "The emergence of the Compact Disc", IEEE Communications Magazine, January 2010, pp. 10–17.
  • Hans Peek, Jan Bergmans, Jos van Haaren, Frank Toolenaar and Sorin Stan," Origins and Successors of the Compact Disc", Springer, 2009, Philips Research Book Series, Vol. 11, Chapters 2 and 3.
  • IEEE CD Milestone, IEEEE Global History Network.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°24′38″N 5°27′25″E / 51.41056°N 5.45694°E / 51.41056; 5.45694