History Column

Engineering Hall of Fame: The 100th Birthday of John Pierce, Communications Engineer

By Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center

John Robinson Pierce was born in Des Moines, Ia., on 27 March 1910. He attended the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, where he earned a B.S. in 1933, an M.S. in 1934, and a Ph.D. in 1936. He then moved to the East Coast, accepting a position at Bell Telephone Laboratories, which at the time was the leading industrial research organization in the world. Pierce worked on electron-tube design, notably on microwave tubes as part of radar development during World War II. In 1947, Pierce suggested the name ‘transistor’ (from ‘transfer resistor’) for the solid-state amplifier invented at Bell Labs by John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, and in the early 1950s, Pierce collaborated with Rudolf Kompfner, also at Bell Labs, in developing the traveling-wave tube.

Beginning in the 1950s, Pierce was a vigorous promoter of communications satellites, and he played a large role in work on Echo I, launched in 1960, and on Telstar I, launched in 1962. Echo was a passive satellite, providing a reflecting surface for transmissions from the earth. Telstar, on the other hand, was an active satellite, bearing receiver, amplifier and transmitter. As Pierce wrote, “Telstar involved problems of a scope and magnitude far beyond any we had faced in Echo. The transistor and the traveling-wave tube were key components, but they had to survive a rocket launch and survive for a long time in space.” The range of knowledge and experience that Bell Labs offered were crucial to the success of the project.

In addition to technical publications, Pierce wrote quite a few books for the general public. In a preface to one of these popular books, Pierce wrote “The reasons for writing this book are … enthusiasm for science, concern about current ignorance of science, and alarm about books which try to give an understanding of science without conveying anything of its content.” This sentence provides important insight into Pierce. He loved science and technology, delighting in understanding things and figuring things out, and he wanted to share this love with others. It bothered him that so few people had much understanding of science, and he believed that society suffered from this. Finally, he had high expectations of his audience and attempted to convey a much deeper understanding of the science than popular books usually attempted.

Pierce also wrote science fiction, using the pen name J.J. Coupling. (In quantum mechanics, one type of interaction between atoms is called jj coupling, where j is angular momentum.) One of his early stories prophetically told of a computer able to compose music in the style of famous composers.

In 1971, Pierce left Bell Labs and took a position at Cal Tech. While there, he worked also at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Pierce had long been interested in music and in acoustics, and in 1983, he moved to Stanford University to pursue these interests, joining the faculty of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. He remained active at this center for more than fifteen years. Pierce died 2 April 2002 in Sunnyvale, California.

Pierce was awarded the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1975, the Marconi Fellowship in 1979, and the Japan Prize in 1985. In 1992, the IEEE History Center conducted an extensive oral-history interview of John Pierce. Transcripts of the three parts of the interview are available on the IEEE Global History Network (ieeeghn.org).

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Frederik Nebeker is Senior Research Historian at the IEEE History Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page at: www.ieee.org/organizations/history_center.

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IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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