Jewett, Frank Baldwin

views updated

Jewett, Frank Baldwin

(b. Pasadena, California, 5 September 1879; d. Summit, New Jersey, 18 November 1949)


The descendant of a long line of New England ancestors going back to Pilgrim days, Jewett was the son of Stanley Jewett and Phebe Mead. Originally from Cincinnati, his parents moved to California, where his father became a pioneering railroad man. Jewett attended Throop Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena (now the California Institute of Technology); after graduation in 1898 he went to the University of Chicago to work with Albert Michelson, who was to become the first American scientist to receive the Nobel prize (1907). Before obtaining a ph.D. in physics in 1902, Jewett helped develop a laboratory machine for the manufacture of diffraction gratings used in spectrographic analysis and also formed a lifelong friendship with another future Nobel laureate, Robert A. Millikan, then a young instructor in thesame department .

Jewett next spent two years teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1904 he joined the engineering department of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, then head-quartered in Boston. There his excelellent technical and managerial judgment quickly attracted attention. When the department moved to new York in 1907, its laboratory was consolidated with the engineering department of Western Electric, the company’s manufacturing branch. Jewett continued his work as transmission engineer in New York until 1912, when he became assistant chief engineer and was put in charge of the newly formed reseach department. His main responsibility was to develop the transcontinental telephone line that would link New York with San Francisco in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.

Jewett believed that the crucial component was a more reliable amplifier for the repeater circuits inserted at regular intervals in all long-distance transmission lines. On Millikan’s suggestion, he hired H. D. Arnold to do research in this new area of electron physics, and Arnold soon solved the problem by devising a production model of de Forest’s three-electrode vacuum tube (triode) amplifier. Arnold’s improvements of the device (notably high vacuum) permitted production of electronic ampifiers with predictable performance and long life, and the New York-San Francisco service was initiated on schedule.

When the Bell Telephone Laboratories were organized in 1925, Jewett became the first president and Arnold the director of research. Together they established the laboratories as one of the foremost centers of industrial research and supervised Bell’s contributions to radio communication systems, carrier telephony, the talking motion picture, the electric phonograph, the transmission of photographs by telephone, the transatlantic telephone, and the highspeed cable. Jewett was an early proponent of the idea of a nearly autonomous research department within an industrial organization, and under his leadership as president and chairman of the board until his retirement in 1944, his vision was most successfully realized.

In addition to his role within the Bell System, Jewett was commissioned in the U. S. Army Signal Corps in World War I and served in several important posts. From 1933 to 1935 he was a member of President Roosevelt’s Science Advisory Board and in World War II he was one of the eight members of the National Defense Research Committee of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. After the atomic explosions, he spoke up in favor of civilian control of scientific research.

He received many professional and scientific honors, including the presidency of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (1922-1923) and of the National Academy of Sciences (1939-1947)—the first time an industrial scientist had been elected to that post.

Jewett married Fannie C. Frisbie of Rockford, Illinois, a fellow graduate student in physics at the University of Chicago, in 1905; she died in 1948. They had two sons.


“The Career of Frank Baldwin Jewett,” a biography written by John Mills, his friend and collaborator, on the occasion of Jewett”s retirement, appears in Bell Laboratories Record, 22 (1944), 541-549, followed by an announcement of five annual Jewett Fellowships in the Physical Sciences begun in his honor. For a biography, followed by a bibliography, see O. E. Buckley, in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 27 (1952), 238-264. Obituaries are in the Bell Laboratories Record, 27 (1949), 442-445; New York Times (19 November 1949); and Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, 38 (1950), 189.

Charles SÜsskind

About this article

Jewett, Frank Baldwin

Updated About content Print Article