James Angell, electrical engineer and former carillonneur, dies

Chuck Painter angell

Electrical engineer James Angell played the carillon in Hoover Tower from 1960 to 1991. He died Feb. 13.

James Browne Angell, professor emeritus of electrical engineering and university carillonneur for 31 years, died Feb. 13 at his home in San Francisco. He was 81 and had been afflicted with Parkinson's disease.

"Jim's research focused on the application of integrated circuit technology to the fabrication of sensors for biomedical instrumentation and the generation and manipulation of musical sounds with digital systems," said electrical engineering Chair Bruce Wooley, the Robert L. and Audrey S. Hancock Professor in the School of Engineering. "Throughout his Stanford tenure he also served as university carillonneur, playing the 35-bell carillon atop Hoover Tower much to the delight of the campus community."

Angell was born on Staten Island, N.Y., on Dec. 25, 1924. He received bachelor's (1946), master's (also 1946) and doctoral (1952) degrees in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and from 1946 to 1951 studied noise in tracking radars at MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics.

For the next nine years he worked for Philco on circuit applications and evaluation of transistors and other solid-state devices, particularly for computers and high-frequency functions. He joined Stanford's Department of Electrical Engineering in 1960 and became a full professor in 1962. He directed the Solid-State Industrial Affiliates program from 1964 to 1970.

Electrical engineering Professor Bernard Widrow collaborated with Angell in the early 1960s on artificial neural networks for pattern recognition, speech recognition and control systems.

Developing miniature transducers to measure force, pressure and motion, Angell was a pioneer in a field today known as microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, according to Robert White, the William E. Ayer Professor of Electrical Engineering and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Emeritus.

Angell had been working in a hot new field—integrated circuits—when a medical doctor touring the university's chip laboratory in 1964 suggested using the chips in surgical probes. Within two years Angell had a student, Kensall Wise, making neural probes with the diameter of a small needle.

Angell spent the next two decades developing medical probes and sensors and in 1978 coined the term micromachine in a paper that he presented at an international conference. In 1983, with Stephen C. Terry and Philip W. Barth, he wrote a cover story for Scientific American that described the technology behind micromachines, such as the accelerometers used today in automobile airbags.

In 1969, Angell became chair of graduate admissions for the Electrical Engineering Department, handling 1,200 applications per year—a number so large he once joked that he should be called "director of rejections" instead of "director of admissions." In the eighties, the department had 54 faculty and more graduate students than the Medical School, White said. Angell, who retired in 1990 but was recalled to teach in the department as recently as 1998, played an instrumental role in creating the excellence of the department, he said.

"He was 'Mr. Quality Control' for years and years and years," Widrow added. "We got some damn good students. You go all over Silicon Valley and you see."

Angell was a close personal friend and MIT classmate of Intel co-founder Robert Noyce, Widrow said. That relationship brought a student to Noyce's attention who ended up having a huge effect on the microprocessor field. Angell recommended Ted Hoff, a student in Widrow's lab, to work at Intel, where he became employee number 12. When Japanese engineers visited Intel to request a custom chip be designed for the calculator they hoped to manufacture, Hoff pointed out that customers would want their own design—it would be better to design a programmable chip that could perform the tasks required by the calculator and other similar devices. Hoff built the chip and called it a "microprocessor," and that is how Intel got into the microprocessor business.

"[Angell's] great pleasure was to create an atmosphere where creative people can be more creative," Widrow noted.

Angell in the towerPerhaps best known as the university's official carillonneur, Angell played the carillon from 1960 to 1991. Its 48 bronze bells (it had 35 before its makeover) are now hung above the viewing platform at the top of Hoover Tower. In 1964, he played the bells for former President Herbert Hoover on his 90th birthday. Angell began to study the instrument in 1952 with Lawrence Curry of Philadelphia, under whom he served as carillonneur of the First Methodist Church of Germantown for eight years.

In 1971, Angell submitted a proposal that the Stanford carillon be tuned and upgraded—an expensive process requiring that the interiors of the bells be precisely lathed. That request was denied in favor of faculty raises and classroom improvements.

On Oct. 17, 1989, Angell was on the 13th floor of the Hoover Tower, where the carillon was at the time, changing his shoes to get ready to play a concert for a small group. Current university carillonneur Timothy Zerlang, who learned to play from Angell, was there as well. At 5:04 p.m., the Loma Prieta earthquake struck, shaking the books lining the walls into huge heaps on the floor.

"I got a tremendous shot of adrenaline," Angell told Stanford Report in a 2002 interview. "I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience."

The quake spared the carillon but injured the automatic drum player that set the bells pealing twice a day, at noon (playing "Harmonious Blacksmith") and 5 p.m. ("To a Wild Rose"). In 1996, funds became available to restore the bells, which were sent to the Netherlands in 2000 and returned to Stanford in 2002. Angell no longer played the instrument then, as it required athletic as well as musical ability to work foot pedals and handles on a keyboard bigger than an organ's. But the man whose favorite tunes included "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof and "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music and the Beatles' "Yesterday" lived to hear the bells restored to glory.

"Jim Angell contributed enormously to the [Electrical Engineering] Department and the university, and we will miss him greatly," Wooley said.

Angell was active in his church choir and, before Parkinson's disease took its toll, enjoyed travel, hiking and squash.

He was a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and had served as a scientific adviser to the U.S. Army.

His wife of 50 years, Elizabeth "Betty Belle" (née Rice), died in 1999. Angell is survived by his daughter, Carole, of Sacramento; his son, Charles; daughter-in-law, Nada; and grandson Charles James of Redwood City.

Condolences may be sent to the Angell Family, P.O. Box 1206, Redwood City, CA 94064-1206. Please include contact information if you would like to be notified when services have been arranged. Plans for services are pending, probably for April.