Communications satellite pioneer dead at 92

By Matthew Fordahl, The Associated Press
Saturday April 06, 2002

SAN JOSE — John Robinson Pierce, an electrical engineer who pioneered satellite communications and coined the word “transistor,” has died. He was 92. 

Pierce, who died Tuesday in Sunnyvale, also was a musician and science fiction writer. He recorded some of the first synthesized music and wrote under the pen name J.J. Coupling. 

But he once said his greatest contribution took place in 1948 while he worked at Bell Laboratories, then the research arm of AT&T. Colleagues had invented a solid state device that amplified electrical signals. 

One of the inventors, Walter Brattain, knew of Pierce’s ability with words and asked for advice for a name. He suggested it be called a transistor. 

“It was supposed to be the dual of the vacuum tube,” he said in a PBS interview for the program “Transitorized!” “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,” he said. “And ... I suggested the name ’transistor.”’ 

The name stuck and transistors would be used to develop everything from small radios to computers, ushering in the digital age. 

In 1954, Pierce said satellite communication would be possible by bouncing signals off an orbiting object — an idea first proposed by science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in 1945. 

Pierce’s ideas were proven in 1960 with the launch of Echo, a giant balloon that bounced phone calls across the country from the Bell Labs facility in Crawford Hill, N.J. 

In 1962, he played a key role in the development and launch of Telstar, the first active communications satellite. In addition to carrying phone traffic, it relayed the first live television images between the United States and Europe. 

Clarke later applauded Pierce for turning his dream into reality. Pierce, on the other hand, credited Clarke for inspiring his work. 

Pierce won one of engineering’s top awards, the Draper Prize, with fellow satellite pioneer Harold Rosen in 1995. He also was awarded the prestigious Marconi Fellowship by Columbia University. 

Pierce retired from Bell Labs in 1971 as director of research in communications. He returned to his alma mater, the California Institute of Technology and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as an engineering professor. 

Later, he was a music professor at Stanford University and wrote books on theories of music and sound. 

He is survived by his wife, Brenda Woodard Pierce, as well as a son and daughter from a previous marriage.