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John Pierce, Bell Labs Scientist
Man Who Named the Transistor Dies at 92

Copyright 2002 Lucent Technologies. All rights reserved. *

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John Pierce, one of the 20th century's leading engineers and the man behind Telstar, died on April 2, 2002 in Sunnyvale, Calif. He was 92.

Pierce had a 35-year career at Bell Labs that gained him an internationally renowned reputation as a scientist and engineer. He helped lead early advances in satellite communications and digital music, but it was for an informal contribution to a colleague that he might be best remembered: he was the guy who named the century's greatest invention - the transistor.

The revolutionary new switch, invented in Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., in 1947, soon would replace vacuum tubes and drive the digital age, turning the world of electronics, indeed the world itself, upside down and into a world of miniaturized circuits and boundary-less communications.

Bill Baker, a colleague of Pierce's, and former Bell Labs president, felt Pierce's biggest contribution to Bell Labs was his innate ability to inspire and lead people.

"In research for the Bell System," Baker once said, "John Pierce unwaveringly looked for the most challenging ideas that science and engineering could contain. He often personally phrased these in forms which excited the best energies and enthusiasms of whole generations of collaborators.

"His career was unsurpassed in enabling important phases of the onset and growth of the 20th century era of telecommunications, information technology and computer functions."

Pierce considered his most important achievement to be his proposals for satellite communications. He first offered his plan in 1954 (three years before Sputnik) at a Princeton, N.J. meeting of the Institute of Radio Engineers.

"My topic was space, so I thought it would be interesting to make some calculations concerning the possibility of communications satellites, " Pierce said in 1971, the year he retired from Bell Labs. "I was astounded at the way things looked when I actually made the calculations."

Satellite communications was only one of Pierce's many contributions to telephony. He's also noted for a new way to design and manufacture electron guns, traveling wave tubes and the helix waveguide transmission system. Pierce also was known for recording some of the earliest computer-synthesized music, and was largely responsible for the first live international TV broadcast in 1962, through his engineering work on the Telstar I satellite.

Science fiction fans also knew Pierce as J.J. Coupling, a pen name he used to write sci-fi short stories, essays, articles and poems. And his contribution to the century's greatest invention came about in large part because of Pierce's way with words. His colleague, Walter Brattain, one of the three inventors who would share a Nobel Prize for the transistor, asked Pierce if he had any thoughts about what to call this new invention. Combining some of the qualities and features of the new device, Pierce suggested "transistor." Brattain immediately latched onto the name and so did the rest of the world for all time.

Pierce was proud of his seminal contribution to the evolving vocabulary of pop culture and science. "It's the most significant thing that ever happened to me," he once said.

Pierce joined Bell Labs from the California Institute of Technology in 1936, bearing a doctorate degree from Cal Tech to specialize in high frequency electron tubes and microwave research.

In 1952, he became Bell Labs director of electronics research. He was named director of research in electrical communications in 1955; executive director, research - communications principles division in 1958; executive director, research communications principles and communications systems in 1962, and executive director, research - communications sciences division in 1965. Pierce retired from Bell Labs in 1971, becoming professor of engineering at Cal Tech, and joined the faculty at Stanford, in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1983.

Pierce's satellite research with colleague Harold Rosen would earn him the Draper Prize, one of engineering's top honors, in 1995. He also was awarded a prestigious Marconi International Fellowship by Columbia University, the National Medal of Science and the IEEE Medal of Honor. He held honorary doctorates from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Carnegie Institute of Technology, Northwestern, Yale, Columbia, the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and the University of Nevada.

He is survived by his wife, Brenda, and two children.
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