William L. Keefauver


William L. Keefauver
Associated organizations
Bell Labs
Fields of study


William Keefauver was a youth of many talents. Growing up in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, it was perhaps predictable that history would be the first to mature. That though was then followed by the sound of music and then the thrill of sport until the prudent advice of his father turned his mind towards electrical engineering, which he pursued at Penn State University. But there he was not to stay, for Pearl Harbor sparked the nation to war in 1941, and young William answered the call to duty in the not-so-expected fashion of volunteering to be a meteorologist. However, as William was judging the clouds, the Army Air Corps was judging William, and they judged him more useful as a communications officer. In due order he was shipped to Greenland, where spent the rest of the war puzzling over the encrypted messages that passed about the sea.

The GI Bill carried Keefauver through graduation at Penn State, after which he immediately took a position at AT&T's Bell Laboratories. The position was a career track to becoming a house patent lawyer, which meant law school at New York University. As Keefauver found after he arrived, Bell Labs at that time had close and secret relationships with the various government bodies that would soon become the National Security Agency. With Keefauver’s experience with Army cryptology, he was well prepared for working on the patents of secret technologies, including SONAR and anti-ballistic missile systems. The future of computers was only in the imagination at this point, and for a patent lawyer the big question was whether a program was patentable. The US Patent Office was flummoxed, and so eventually the matter arrived at the Supreme Court, where Keefauver and the Ball Labs attorneys lost the case but won the issue as the opinions of the Honorables paved the way for proprietary programming.

Keefauver was promoted to General Patent Attorney in 1971, and this put him in charge of all ninety or so house attorneys. This responsibility then grew exponentially, for in 1974 Bell System’s recurring ailment resurfaced as the government once again tried to break up the company with an anti-trust suit. Negotiating the suit occupied all of the next ten years, until Chairman Charles Lee Brown accepted the Department of Justice’s proposal to permit AT&T to retain its long distance operation, Western Electric and most of Bell Labs but at the expense of losing the telephone operating companies. The disassembly proved long and difficult and in the end Bell Labs was not to remain intact, and throughout the following messy years, Keefauver was deeply involved in the legal divisioning of the Labs. Eventually Keefauver became General Counsel and Vice President of Bell Labs, and then Vice President of Law of AT&T.

After being forced to retire, Keefauver became a private consultant in patent law, working again for AT&T and also Lee Publishing Company of Iowa. He also continued his civic activities in the legal profession as an officer of the Electronics Industry Association and the American Bar Association, and playing a significant role in the International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property.

Further Reading

To read this person's story in their own words, see Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation