The Bohlen-Pierce Symposium
First symposium on the Bohlen-Pierce scale, Boston, March 7 – 9, 2010
John Pierce


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. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, he earned his Ph.D. from Caltech, and died in Sunnyvale, California.

He 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 he had invented the traveling-wave tube; [1] Pierce worked out the math for this broadband amplifier device, and wrote a book about it, after hiring Kompfner for Bell Labs. [2] 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 [1]. Others [3] say that quip was “commonly heard at the Bell Laboratories prior to the invention of the transistor.”

Other famous Pierce quips are “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.”

He did significant research into satellites, including an important leadership role (as executive director of Bell’s Research-Communications Principles Division [4] in the development of the first commercial communications satellite, Telstar 1. [5] 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. See ECHO – America’s First Communications Satellite (reprinted from SMEC Vintage Electrics Volume 2 #1) for some details on his original contributions. After leaving Bell Laboratories, he joined Caltech as a professor of electrical engineering in 1970. 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; and Quantum Electronics.
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.