George C. Southworth

George C. Southworth
George Southworth testing a waveguide
Little Cooley, PA, USA
Death date
Associated organizations
Bell Labs
Fields of study
IEEE Medal of Honor

Biography[edit source]

Radio waves are said to be electromagnetic waves because they consist of variations in electric and magnetic fields. Electromagnetic waves can travel through the air (as they do when radio and television signals are broadcast, for example) or even a vacuum. Electromagnetic waves can also travel along an electric wire. That’s what happens with telephone lines. There is, it turns out, a third, completely different, way of transmitting electromagnetic waves: the waveguide. The person most responsible for developing waveguides was Bell Labs engineer George Clark Southworth.

Southworth was born on 24 August 1890 in Little Cooley, Pennsylvania. He studied physics and received the B.S. degree from Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in 1914. and did graduate work at both Columbia University in New York City and Yale University in New Haven Connecticut. Prior to World War I, Southworth began experimental work at Grove City College, and during the war continued with research work at the National Bureau of Standards and at Yale University. He spent approximately one year working at the radio section of the National Bureau of Standards, and then in 1918, he became an instructor at Yale University. He he studied radio waves of very short wavelength at Yale, completing a Ph.D. in 1923. In 1923, he began his career with the Bell System, working for AT&T where he came to specialize in the transmission of very high frequency electromagnetic waves. He worked on transoceanic radio telephony and later with the early development of microwave techniques.

It was for transmitting microwaves that Southworth developed waveguides. With transmission through the air (as in radio broadcasting) there is considerable wasted energy because the waves necessarily spread out to some extent. With transmission through wires there are significant losses, especially at the higher frequencies of microwaves. But a waveguide, essentially a hollow metal pipe, channels the microwaves effectively and reduces transmission losses by a factor of five or so.

The waveguides of George Southworth became very important in radar systems during World War II. For his work in waveguides, he received the Morris N. Liebmann Prize of the IRE in 1938 and the Stuart Ballantine Medal of the Franklin Institute, in 1947. He received the Louis Levy Medal of the Franklin Institute for his work on microwave radiation from the sun, in 1946. In 1963 the IEEE awarded him its Medal of Honor. He died on 6 July 1972 in Chatham, New Jersey.