Pierce, George Washington

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(b. Webberville, Texas, 11 January 1872; d. Franklin, New Hampshire, 25 August 1956)

applied physics.

Pierce was the second of three sons of G. W. Pierce, a farmer and cattleman; his mother was Mary Gill Pierce. Academic talent manifested itself early: despite the limitations of rural schools in central Texas, he entered the University of Texas at eighteen with sufficiently advanced standing to graduate in three years. His first publication was written with his professor, Alexander Macfariane, during his senior year. Pierce then taught in secondary schools and held various odd jobs for four years. In 1898 he won a fellowship to Harvard, where he remained for the rest of his scientific career. In 1900 he received the Ph.D. with a thesis on measurements of short radio waves.

After a postdoctoral year spent partly in Ludwig Boltzmann’s laboratory at Leipzig, Pierce was appointed assistant in physics at Harvard and progressed steadily to a full professorship (1917); in 1921 he succeeded E. H. Hall as Rumford professor of physics. During these years he worked out much of the scientific underpinnings of electrical communications. He wrote basic papers of great lucidity on the resonant circuits and crystal detectors used in early radiotelegraphy, extended the use of semiconductor crystals to electroacoustics, and showed how mercury-vapor discharge tubes could be used for current control and sound recording.

In 1912 Pierce collaborated with A.E. Kennelly on measurements of the electric characteristics of telephone receivers, in the course of which work they discovered the concept of motional impedance. Pierce ’,s work on submarine detecion during World war I led to his offering the first postgraduate course anywhere on underwater sound signaling, to which th U.S. Navy for many years sent an annual contingent of student officers. Together with undergraduate courses on the application of electromagnetic phenomena, it led to Harvard ’,s pioneering position in radio communications, a position in radio communications, a position Pierce consolidated by writing the two classic American Textbooks on the subject and by writing the two classic American texbooks on the subject and by becoming the first director of Harvard ’,s famed cruft Laboratory in 1914. At Cruft he was associated for thirty years with E. L. Chaffee, who succeeded him as director.

Pierce is best remembered for bridging the gap between phenomenological knowledge and technological application of two similar physical effects: piezoelectricity and magnetostriction. The first effect led to the development of the quartz-crystal “Pierce oscillator” used in circuits that control the frequency of radio transmitters, standards, and meters; the second, to generators of underwater sound used in sonar and ultrasonic devices. The elucidation of physical phenomena by a professor, the elaboration of the principles of their applications by his doctoral students, and the technological utilization of the principles (and sometimes patents) outside the university-the sequence that came to characterize postgraduate education at the best American schools of engineering and applied science-thus had its inception at the Cruft Laboratory under Pierce and Chalice. Less typically. Pierce became wealthy through his patents, some of which he exploited vigorously, and usually successfully, In the face of interference suits by large corporations. He was an exceedingly warm and droll individual, much revered by his students.

Pierce’s work in ultrasound led to his later interests in sound generation by bats and insects, which persisted past his retirement in 1940 and led to a book published when he was seventy-six. His many honors included election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1920, the Medal of Honor of the Institute of Radio Engineers (of which he was president in 1918 and 1919) in 1929, and the Franklin Medal in 1943.


I. Original Works. Pierce’s books are Principles of Wireless Telegraphy (New York, 1910); Electric Oscillators and Electric Waves (New York, 1919); and The Song of Insects (Cambridge, Mass., 1948). He also wrote or was coauthor of some 30 scientific papers and received 53 patents.

II. Secondary Literature. The article by Frederick A. Saunders and Frederick V. Hunt in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 33 (1959), 351-380, includes a complete list of Pierce’s publications and American patents. A memoir by David Rines, his patent attorney, in the form of a letter addressed to F. V. Hunt, is in the archives of Harvard University, together with some of Pierce’s notebooks and correspondence. For gylimpse of Pierce’s influence on his contemporaries, see B. F. Miessner, On the Early History of Radio Guidance (San Francisco, 1964), 14, 24-25.

Charles Süsskind