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January 30, 2006

Physicist H. John Shaw, Stanford's most prolific inventor, dead at 87

By John B. Stafford

Herbert John Shaw, a professor emeritus of applied physics and Stanford's most prolific inventor, whose numerous patents included an optical gyroscope for navigation systems, died Jan. 19 of natural causes at his home in Palo Alto. He was 87.

"He was very innovative throughout his life," said Professor Emeritus Gordon Kino of the Department of Electrical Engineering. "Even toward the end, he was getting interested in new subjects. For a man of his advanced age, it was very impressive how he grabbed onto new subjects."

In 1982, Shaw and his colleagues developed an optical gyroscope for navigational use in airplanes, missiles and ships. The device, which fit into a box of chocolates, was smaller, weighed less and lasted longer than conventional mechanical gyroscopes.

During his distinguished career, Shaw authored 291 technical publications and was awarded about 100 U.S. patents. In 1986, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the highest professional distinction that can be conferred on an engineer.

Shaw's research interests spanned nearly the entire field of fiber optics, from fiber-optic devices for inertial rotation and acoustic sensors to applications of fiber optics in medicine. He also was interested in fiber-optic systems for communication, sensing and processing control.

"John invented a fiber-optic technology that was one our most important physical science inventions," said Katherine Ku, director of Stanford's Office of Technology Licensing (OTL). "He was the most prolific inventor at the university."

Since 1996, the royalties from Shaw's patents have brought the university more than $34 million, according to OTL licensing liaison Brenda Martino. In 2001 alone, the royalties from three patents relating to fiber-optic amplifiers brought the university more than $10 million¬ómore than any other patents that year.

Shaw was born June 2, 1918, in Seattle. He received his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Washington in 1941. In 1942, he received his master's degree and in 1948, he received his doctorate, both in electrical engineering from Stanford.

Shaw joined Stanford as a research associate in the Department of Electrical Engineering in 1948. Two years later, he moved to Stanford's Microwave Laboratory, later renamed the Edward L. Ginzton Laboratory, as a research associate and, by 1977, became its associate director. Six years later, Shaw became a research professor in applied physics. He retired in 1989.

Shaw was a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and also a member of Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society. His awards include the 1976 Morris N. Liebmann Memorial Award of the IEEE "for contributions to the development of acoustic surface wave devices" and the 1981 Achievement Award of the IEEE Group on Sonics and Ultrasonics "for many contributions, through research and education, to ultrasonics technology."

Aside from his academic pursuits, Shaw loved fishing, boating, line dancing and spending time with his family. He was even a licensed masseur.

Friends remembered Shaw as kind and patient. "He was just loved by all his students," said Joan Dermody, his former administrative associate. "People were drawn to his sweet, gentle personality."

Kino added: "He was a very modest man."

A celebration of his life will be held at 12:30 p.m. March 4 at the Stanford Faculty Club.

Shaw is survived by his daughters, Kathleen Shaw of Eugene, Ore., and Karen Shaw of Menlo Park, Calif.; one granddaughter, Sarah Glidden of Eugene, Ore.; and sister Connie Smith of Hayward, Calif. Shaw's son, John Joseph "Jack" Shaw, died in 1988, and his wife of 59 years, Francel Shaw, died in 2002.

Donations in Shaw's memory may be directed to the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health, 770 Welch Road, Suite 350, Palo Alto, CA 94304.

John B. Stafford is a science-writing intern at Stanford News Service.

Editor Note:

CORREX: Shaw's date of death was incorrect on a prior release. The correct date is Jan. 19. A survivor was omitted on the prior release also. She is Shaw's sister, Connie Smith, of Hayward, Calif. Below is a corrected release. A photo of Shaw is available on the web at



Dawn Levy, News Service: (650) 725-1944,


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