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Allen Peterson, electrical engineering pioneer, dies at 72

STANFORD -- Allen M. Peterson, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a prolific contributor to diverse aspects of commercial, environmental and national defense developments over the past four decades, died of a heart attack Wednesday, Aug. 17, at his Los Altos, Calif., home. He was 72.

Peterson was born in Santa Clara, Calif., on May 22, 1922, and was educated at Los Gatos High School and San Jose State and Stanford University. He served in the Army Air Force during World War II as a sergeant in an electronics group. He received his doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1952. At Stanford, he joined the faculty in 1952, was promoted to full professor in 1961 and became emeritus in 1992.

Peterson held dual positions at the university and at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) starting in 1964 through a special arrangement made by the late Provost Frederick Terman, often called the "father" of Silicon Valley. At SRI, Peterson was key in initiating and building up what became the Radio Physics Laboratory and the Communications Laboratory, where about 300 people have been involved in communications and defense problems.

At Stanford, Peterson developed and taught courses on radar systems, digital signal processing, microprocessors, logic design and digital filters. He worked with a large number of graduate student assistants, and was the mentor for about 100 who received advanced degrees. Although officially retired, Peterson was faculty adviser for seven graduate students at the time of his death.

With students and colleagues, Peterson was involved in the initiation of several areas of research that have had significant commercial and government impact. His dissertation subject developed into the Over-the-Horizon Radar systems that were installed in the United States and the Soviet Union for early warning of ballistic missile attack.

Work in the 1950s on radar reflections from the trail produced by meteors helped initiate continuing applications to communications and basic studies of the upper atmosphere. Peterson invented innovative methods to sound the atmosphere with a combination of acoustic and radar waves, and this application has led to current commercial systems and international conferences on this method of environmental and weather measurement.

He also was instrumental in the origin of the general field of radar oceanography, where work continues on measuring ocean waves and currents for investigating coastal effects of pollutants and biota, and for aiding naval amphibious operations.

Commercial applications of digital systems developed by Peterson and his students include a widely applied filter bank for transferring between time and frequency division multiplex signals in telecommunications systems, where worldwide sales of this and similar devices have been on the order of $1 billion.

Related continuing study at Stanford led to an early concept for a million-channel receiver for the national program called the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. At the time of his death, Peterson was working with a former student on a technique for vastly reducing the power consumption of electronic chips, leading to major applications in reducing the size of computers and increasing the lifetime of batteries for portable units.

For several decades, Peterson maintained active relationships with Silicon Valley companies, the Department of Defense and other government agencies. Since 1961 he was a member of the JASON group of about 50 academics (including three Nobel Prize winners) who meet annually to advise the Secretary of Defense on scientific matters related to national defense. He was a member of the White House Science Council on Space Defense, the National Research Council Board on Army Science and Technology, the Naval Studies Board, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, the Voice of America Broadcast Engineering Advisory Committee and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Advisory Committee.

Peterson was a member of a number of professional societies and was elected a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1962 and a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1973. He has served as a consultant to a number of companies and to the President's Science Advisory Committee, the Defense Atomic Support Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Institute for Defense Analysis, the Office of Telecommunications and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He served for a time as the chief scientist of the technical research group of Science Applications International Inc.

Peterson received a number of awards during his career, including the U.S. Air Force Exceptional Civilian Service Award. He had a long association with the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska, and caused a fracas when he was accused in a local newspaper of planning to turn off the northern lights.

Peterson is survived by his wife of 51 years, Shirley Beth (McDonald) Peterson of Los Altos; children Cheryl P. Rau of Arcata, Calif.; Cyndie P. Paul of Oakland, Calif.; Jon Allen Peterson of La Jolla, Calif.; and Robert H. Peterson of Mountain View, Calif.; three grandchildren and two brothers. Funeral services are pending.



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