Pierce, father of communications satellites, dead at 92
BY JOHN SANFORD
John Robinson Pierce, the father of communications satellites and
a writer of science fiction who came to Stanford to pursue his
longtime interests in computer music and psychoacoustics, died April
2 at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View. He was 92.
The cause was complications from pneumonia, family members said.
Formerly a resident of Palo Alto, Pierce moved to an assisted-living
facility in Sunnyvale two years ago.
"He was someone who really loved his work," said his
wife, Brenda Woodard-Pierce, who lives in Palo Alto.
Indeed, when Pierce arrived at Stanford's Center for Computer
Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) in the early 1980s, he never
asked for a salary, according to John Chowning, the Osgood Hooker
Professor of Fine Arts, Emeritus, and founding director of CCRMA.
Pierce held the unusual title of visiting professor of music,
emeritus. He "visited" for more than 12 years, and during
his tenure helped bring intellectual and much-needed financial
support to the center.
Colleagues and friends remember him for his charisma, warmth and
keen intellect. "He commanded attention, not in an obvious way
but by virtue of his verbal cleverness. It was absolutely natural to
him -- without pretense," Chowning said.
Pierce was born March 27, 1910, in Des Moines, Iowa. He attended
the California Institute of Technology, where he studied electrical
engineering, earning a bachelor's degree in 1933, master's degree in
1934 and doctorate in 1936. That same year he took a job with Bell
Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., where he held various
positions through 1971 and did some of his most innovative work. He
became director of electronics research in 1952 and research
director of communications principles in 1958.
In 1948 he coined the term "transistor" for the small,
electronic switch invented at Bell Labs. But he is probably most
famous for proposing the scientific groundwork that made unmanned
communications satellites a reality. He urged NASA to build a
satellite based on his design, and it was launched in 1960.
Essentially a large polyester balloon covered with aluminum foil,
Echo I bounced radio waves from a Jet Propulsion Laboratory antenna
near Goldstone, Calif., to a Bell Labs station in New Jersey. The
first message was recorded by President Eisenhower.
The project's success led to the construction and 1962 launch of
the first commercial communications satellite, Telstar I, which
broadcast the first live television signals across the Atlantic.
Later, as executive director of Bell Labs' Communication Sciences
Division, Pierce oversaw work on mathematics, statistics, speech,
hearing, behavioral science, electronics, radio waves and guided
waves. His work chiefly focused on electron devices, especially
traveling-wave tubes and microwaves. He was inventor of the Pierce
Gun, a vacuum tube that transmits electrons and is used in
satellites and, among other things, the klystrons that power the
Stanford Linear Accelerator.
"Pierce Guns are used continually to this day in all
linear-beam microwave tubes," said Glenn Scheitrum, an
engineering physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
"He was a real genius."
It was at Bell Labs in the late 1950s that Pierce became deeply
interested in acoustics, speech, hearing and computer music. As a
director at the labs, he threw his support behind his colleague Max
Mathews' pioneering research in the field of computer music.
After retiring from Bell in 1971, Pierce took an engineering
professorship at Caltech and, from 1979 to 1982, was chief
technologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
When Pierce arrived at CCRMA, the center was under financial
strain, but he quickly helped to turn things around. He convinced
the Systems Development Foundation to fund computer music, which
resulted in a gift of $2.7 million to the center. He also recruited
Mathews, who is now a research professor emeritus of music.
At Stanford, Pierce worked in the area of psychoacoustics -- the
science of how people perceive sound -- as well as computer music.
He was particularly interested in pitch perception but looked into
all aspects of acoustics -- how a sound is produced, how it travels
through the air and how it is processed by the ear and brain.
"John was part of a tradition trying to understand better
the intricacies of the whole chain, and he wrote a lot about
it," said Chris Chafe, a professor of music and director of
Indeed, Chafe said he has used Pierce's The Science of Musical
Sound as a textbook for many of the courses he has taught at
Stanford. (The book recently went out of print, Chafe said.)
In all, Pierce authored or co-authored roughly 20 books and wrote
more than 300 papers and book sections, and he was granted about 90
patents. He also was a prolific author of science fiction, sometimes
under the pen name J. J. Coupling. Roughly two dozen of his short
stories were published in journals and magazines ranging from Fantasy
and Science Fiction to Penthouse. His first published
science-fiction piece appeared in the March 1930 issue of Science
Wonder Stories. He knew science-fiction writers Isaac Asimov,
Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke.
In 1995, Pierce shared the prestigious Charles Stark Draper Prize
with communications satellite collaborator Harold Rosen. (They split
the $400,000 award.) Pierce also was awarded the Japan Prize in
1985. The prize included 50 million yen (about $190,000 in 1985
He also received dozens of honorary degrees, medals and awards.
He is survived by his wife; a son, John Jeremy Pierce of
Bloomfield, N.J.; and a daughter, Elizabeth Anne Pierce of Summit,
A memorial service is scheduled for 2 to 3 p.m. Friday, May 3, at
Memorial Church. A reception and concert will follow at CCRMA.
Gifts in memory of Pierce may be sent c/o Chris Chafe, CCRMA/Music
Department, Stanford, CA 94305-3076. Checks should be payable to
"Stanford University" and have written in the memo:
"John Pierce Memorial Fund, c/o Chris Chafe." SR