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John Robinson Pierce
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John Robinson Pierce
Born March 27, 1910 (1910-03-27)
Died April 2, 2002(2002-04-02) (aged 92)
Nationality American
Awards Stuart Ballantine Medal (1960)
IEEE Edison Medal (1963)
IEEE Medal of Honor (1975)
Marconi Prize (1979)
Japan Prize (1985)

John Robinson Pierce (March 27, 1910 – April 2, 2002), was an American engineer and author. He worked extensively in the fields of radio communication, microwave technology, computer music, psychoacoustics, and science fiction. As a sideline to his professional career he wrote science fiction for many years under various names: John Pierce, John R. Pierce, and J. J. Coupling. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, he earned his PhD from Caltech, and died in Sunnyvale, California, from complications of Parkinson's Disease.

At Bell Labs

Pierce wrote on electronics and information theory, and developed jointly the concept of pulse-code modulation (PCM) with his Bell Labs colleagues Barney Oliver and Claude Shannon. He supervised the Bell Labs team which built the first transistor, and at the request of one of them, Walter Brattain, coined the term transistor; he recalled:

The way I provided the name, was to think of what the device did. And at that time, it was supposed to be the dual of the vacuum tube. The vacuum tube had transconductance, so the transistor would have 'transresistance.' And the name should fit in with the names of other devices, such as varistor and thermistor. And ... I suggested the name 'transistor.'

—John R. Pierce, interviewed for PBS show "Transistorized!"

Pierce's early work at Bell Labs was on vacuum tubes of all sorts. During World War II he discovered the work of Rudolf Kompfner in a British radar lab, where Kompfner had invented the traveling-wave tube; Pierce worked out the math for this broadband amplifier device, and wrote a book about it, after hiring Kompfner for Bell Labs. He later recounted that "Rudy Kompfner invented the traveling-wave tube, but I discovered it." According to Kompfner's book, the statement "Rudi invented the traveling-wave tube, and John discovered it" was due to Dr. Eugene G. Fubini, quoted in The New Yorker "Profile" on Pierce, September 21, 1963.

Pierce is widely credited for saying "Nature abhors a vacuum tube", but Pierce attributed that quip to Myron Glass. Others say that quip was "commonly heard at the Bell Laboratories prior to the invention of the transistor."

Other famous Pierce quips are "Funding artificial intelligence is real stupidity", "I thought of it the first time I saw it", and "After growing wildly for years, the field of computing appears to be reaching its infancy."

The National Inventors Hall of Fame has honored Bernard M. Oliver and Claude Shannon as the inventors of PCM, as described in 'Communication System Employing Pulse Code Modulation,' U.S. Patent 2,801,281  filed in 1946 and 1952, granted in 1956. Another patent by the same title was filed by John Pierce in 1945, and issued in 1948: U.S. Patent 2,437,707 . The three of them published "The Philosophy of PCM" in 1948.

Pierce did significant research into satellites, including an important leadership role (as executive director of Bell's Research-Communications Principles Division) in the development of the first commercial communications satellite, Telstar 1. In fact, although Arthur C. Clarke was the first to propose geostationary communications satellites, Pierce seems to have arrived at the idea independently and may have been the first to discuss unmanned communications satellites. Clarke himself characterized Pierce as "one of the two fathers of the communications satellite" (along with Harold Rosen). See ECHO – America's First Communications Satellite (reprinted from SMEC Vintage Electrics Volume 2 #1) for some details on his original contributions.

Pierce led the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee that produced the ALPAC report, which had the effect of curtailing most funding for work on machine translation in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Life after Bell Labs

After leaving Bell Laboratories, he joined Caltech as a professor of electrical engineering in 1971. Shortly thereafter, he also took the position of Chief Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In 1980 he retired from Caltech and moved to his final position at Stanford's CCRMA. Here he was prominent in the research of computer music, as a Visiting Professor of Music, Emeritus (along with John Chowning and Max Mathews). It was at Stanford that he became an independent co-discoverer of the non-octave musical scale that he later named the Bohlen–Pierce scale.

Many of Pierce's technical books were written at a level intended to introduce a semi-technical audience to modern technical topics. Among them are Electrons, Waves, and Messages; An Introduction to Information Theory: Symbols, Signals, and Noise; Waves and Ear; Man's World of Sound; Quantum Electronics; and Signals: The Science of Telecommunication.

In 1960, Pierce was awarded the Stuart Ballantine Medal. In 1962, Pierce received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement. In 1963, Pierce received the IEEE Edison Medal for "his pioneer work and leadership in satellite communications and for his stimulus and contributions to electron optics, travelling wave tube theory, and the control of noise in electron streams." In 1975, he received the IEEE Medal of Honor for "his pioneering concrete proposals and the realization of satellite communication experiments, and for contributions in theory and design of traveling wave tubes and in electron beam optics essential to this success." In 1985, he was one of the first two recipients of the Japan Prize "for outstanding achievement in the field of electronics and communications technologies."

Personal life

Besides his technical books, Pierce wrote science fiction under the pseudonym J.J. Coupling, which refers to the total angular momenta of individual particles. John Pierce also had an early interest in gliding and assisted in the development of the Long Beach Glider Club in Los Angeles, one of the earliest glider clubs in the United States. According to Richard Hamming "you couldn't talk to John Pierce without being stimulated very quickly."

Pierce had been a resident of Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, Pasadena, California, and later of Palo Alto, California.

In his later years, as a Visiting Professor at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, he and his wife Brenda were known for holding dinner parties in their Palo Alto home, in which they would invite an eclectic mix of guests and lead lively discussions on topics ranging from space exploration to politics, health care, and 20th-century music. One such dinner party was reported in This Is Your Brain On Music, written by Pierce's former student Daniel Levitin.

The papers of John R. Pierce are at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

At his death Pierce was survived by his wife Brenda; a son, science fiction editor John Jeremy Pierce; and a daughter, Elizabeth Anne Pierce.

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