John Pierce

views updated May 21 2018

John Pierce

Electronics engineer John Pierce (born 1910) is apioneer in the development of communication by satellite. While working for communications giant Bell Laboratories, Pierce proposed the Echo 1, Telstar, and Relay satellites and patented nearly 100 devices, many of which aid in communications technology in the form of amplifiers and vacuum tubes.

Pierce is a prolific writer as well, having authored more than a dozen scientific books, hundreds of technical papers on science and technology, and even some science fiction stories. Some of his later research focused on the intersection of science and music theory, and he was instrumental in the advance of computers in music composition and performance.

Early Life

John Robinson Pierce was born March 27, 1910, in Des Moines, Iowa. His parents were John Starr and Harriett Anne (Robinson) Pierce. Pierce attended Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, where as a teenager he learned to fly a glider he built himself, inspired by an article he read in National Geographic. After five friends were killed in crashes, he sold his glider and bought plywood to build a 14-foot boat that he sailed in the ocean.

His first marriage, to Martha Peacock on November 5, 1938, ended in divorce in 1964 but produced two children: John Jeremy and Elizabeth Anne. Pierce married Ellen R. McKown on April 1, 1964.

Pierce's entire academic career was played out at the California Institute of Technology. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1933, a Master of Science degree in 1934, and a doctoral degree (magna cum laude) in 1936. In addition, he holds ten honorary degrees from various schools, including Newark College of Engineering, Northwestern University, Yale University, Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, Columbia University, Carnegie Institute of Technology, University of Nevada, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Bologna.

Bell Laboratories

Immediately after earning his doctoral degree, Pierce took a job with Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, ostensibly to carry on the work of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. Pierce found himself part of a surge of innovation that would launch communication into the realm of science fiction. At Bell Labs, he was part of a team that developed the traveling wave tube, an amplifier that facilitates satellite communication.

"This has been a century of telecommunication," he later wrote in the introduction to Signals: The Science of Telecommunication. "We have come to talk warmly and directly over the telephone rather than writing considered letters and fretting for a reply. Facsimile serves us better than first class or express mail. Through radio, compact discs, and television, we experience directly and movingly people and events far from us in space or in time. Through telecommunication, our world has expanded, and we with it."

One of Pierce's early projects was studying communications satellites. His first technical book, The Theory andDesign of Electronic Beams, published in 1947, foreshadowed the blossoming of the space age. Pierce first proposed the use of unmanned passive and active communication satellites in 1954, although his early writings were mostly ignored. Within ten years, however, Pierce had convinced the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to launch Echo 1, an early communications satellite. Later projects included Telstar, which relayed signals between Earth stations via radio-wave reflectors in space.

Other Pierce research involved the transistor, and he had the opportunity to coin a now-household word. Engineers were searching for a replacement for vacuum tubes, which process signals in computers. Vacuum tubes are the reason the first computers were roughly the size of mobile homes. Transistors, on the other hand, were more efficient, cheaper, and smaller, making possible such things as the $10 pocket calculator. Walter Brattain, who with John Bardeen and William Shockley won the Nobel Prize for inventing the device, asked Pierce for ideas on what to name their new gadget. Pierce suggested "transistor," after a number of other similar Bell inventions. The name stuck, and Pierce earned a tiny spot in the history of the English language.

Pierce turned some of his attention to the role of computers and music. In Electonic Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music, Joel Chadabe wrote that Pierce "played an essential role" in the development of electronic music. In his role as a director of research, Pierce encouraged his workers to tinker with sound. "Bell Laboratories was in those days a benevolent autocracy," Pierce told Chadabe. "The management was convinced I was a good guy, so I could slip things in." Pierce not only encouraged and aided his workers but also created pioneering electronic music of his own, composing pieces including Stochatta (1959), Variations in Timbre and Attack (1961), Sea Sounds (1963), and Eight-Tone Canon (1966).

In 1961 Pierce tried to stir up interest in the project among actual composers. He wrote in his 1983 book The Science of Musical Sound that he mailed off copies of Music for Mathematics, a record made by one of his employees, to Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. "The implications are dizzying," Copland wrote in response. "If I were 20, I would be really concerned at the variety of possibilities suggested. As it is, I plan to be an interested bystander, waiting to see what will happen next."

By 1965 Pierce was the executive director of Bell Laboratories' Research-Communications Sciences division. During his years at Bell Labs, Pierce wrote or cowrote a number of scientific books, including Theory and Design of Electronic Beams, first published in 1949; Traveling Wave Tubes, published in 1950; Electrons, Waves and Messages, 1956; Man's World of Sound, 1958; Waves and the Ear, 1960; Symbols, Signals and Noise, 1961; and Science, Art and Communication, 1968. He also published science fiction stories using the pseudonym of J.J. Coupling.

California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

In 1971 Pierce retired from Bell Laboratories and returned to Pasadena and his alma mater, the California Institute of Technology, as a professor of engineering. At CalTech, Pierce worked with scientists to develop computers designed to talk, their memories fed with pronouncing dictionaries and tips on mimicking natural speech sounds. "Computers that imitate human speech with a remarkable degree of accuracy already are a reality," Pierce announced in 1972. Recordings of early talking computers amazed the scientific world. One such recording, Pierce said, "so intrigued science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke that he had Hal, the computer, sing an imitation of it in the motion picture space epic 2001. "

In 1979 Pierce delivered a talk to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in which he foreshadowed the shrinking of computers by way of Large Scale Integration, the technology of cramming thousands of digital computer circuits onto tiny silicon chips. "Above all," he told the audience, "digits and LSI are taking us, or accompanying us, into the information society." He worried that such a shift could mean a "future world rich in information, but poor in other commodities."

Scientists had just begun to develop digital transmission that would allow huge amounts of data to be transmitted by wire. "It is terminal costs and reliability that stand in the way of electronic mail," Pierce said. "At the lowest night rate one could send 6,000 words of digital text from Los Angeles to New York for $.22. But," he lamented, "who has the terminals that will do this?" Pierce would live to see his question answered in the form of the Internet.

In 1974 Pierce published Almost All about Waves. Five years later, he became chief technologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, one of America's leading centers for robotic exploration of the solar system. The project is managed by CalTech for NASA.

Further Research

Pierce retired from CalTech in 1980, continuing to serve as professor emeritus. He continued his own research and exploration, in 1983 publishing The Science of Musical Sound, an illustrated introduction to musical acoustics, drawing on his own research and interaction with centers for computer research in music and acoustics. Roger N. Shepart wrote in Science that the book "demonstrates once again the wide-ranging wisdom, infectious enthusiasm, and unique flair for rendering the complex comprehensible that John Pierce has manifested in numerous earlier scientific books." In The Science of Musical Sound, Pierce demonstrates the transformation of the worlds of music and psychoacoustics. "Pierce," Shepart asserted, "enlivens his presentation with illuminating historical commentaries, personal anecdotes, photographs, and 'microbiographies' of contemporary notables in the fields of electronic and computer music and in the fields of acoustics and psychoacoustics." Shepart was particularly taken with Pierce's description of the work of Manfred Scroeder, D. Gottlob and K.F. Siebrasse, who studied the acoustic qualities of 20 major European concert halls in an attempt to somehow duplicate the halls' rich, spacious sound in modern concert spaces, which are notorious for beautiful design but sloppy acoustics.

In 1990 Pierce published Signals: The Science of Telecommunications, coauthored by A. Michael Noll. The book updated Pierce's earlier work Signals: The Telephone and Beyond, and included stories of pioneers including Morse, Marconi, Bell, and Vail, as well as explanations of dozens of communications breakthroughs. New Scientist reviewer Barry Fox called the lavishly illustrated book "a basic, readable history of telecommunications, from the telegraph to optical fibre digital links." Pierce includes personal anecdotes about his own experiences on the forefront of technology, writing of his interest in combining space exploration with telephones.

"What makes Signals special," Fox wrote, "is the way the authors blend essential theory with practical examples—for instance, how the capacitance of a wire in water effectively soaks up some of the signal. Everyday phenomena, such as the annoying echo you hear on international calls, are also clearly explained."


Chadabe, Joel, Electronic Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music, Prentice Hall, 1997.

Contemporary Authors, The Gale Group, 1999.

Current Directions in Computer Music Research, edited by Max V. Mathews and John R. Pierce, The MIT Press, 1989.

Pierce, John R., Science, Art, and Communication, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc, 1968.

Pierce, John R., The Science of Musical Sound, Scientific American Library, 1983.


New Scientist, March 23, 1991, p. 54.

Science, October 19, 1984, p. 333.


"Pierce, John Robinson,", (January 26, 2001). □