Stanford Report, April 8, 2002
John 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 CCRMA.
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 dollars).
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, N.J.
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
John Robinson Pierce