Oral-History:John Pierce (Part 3)

John R. Pierce

This is Part 3 of 3 of an interview with John Robinson Pierce, who made many important contributions to microwave and communications technology during his long career at Bell Laboratories. He also made important contributions to the development of microwave electron tubes such as the “traveling-wave tube.” Pierce is also remembered for naming an amplifying device developed by some of his Bell Labs colleagues—the transistor. Finally, in the late 1950s, Pierce was an early and enthusiastic promoter of communications satellites and played a pivotal role in the development of two of the earliest, Echo I and Telstar. The interview details his work at Cal Tech, Bell Labs and Stanford.

JOHN PIERCE: An Interview Conducted by Andy Goldstein, Center for the History of Electrical Engineering 19-21 August 1992

Interview #141 for the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

John Pierce, an oral history conducted in 1992 by Andy Goldstein, IEEE History Center, Piscataway, NJ, USA.

Interview

Stanford

Pierce:

What time will you show up tomorrow? [pause] Okay. We were just getting ready to talk about the move to Stanford.

Pierce:

Well, I was at Cal Tech, and then after I was made emeritus or retired in 1980, I had a part-time staff job, Chief Technologist, at JPL, which was very interesting to me and didn't tie me down because I went East in the summer to a place in Massachusetts that my late wife Ellen owned. Then there was a change in management at JPL. Bruce Murray, the Director, retired, and he retired me at the same time. I think that this was in 1982. That caused me to ask myself what I was going to do in the future. I had had some contact with CCRMA, the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, when I was writing The Science of Musical Sound. Some of the sound examples were made there. Then I had suggested the thesis topic to Betsy Cohen who did a thesis at CCRMA. I'd been to Stanford in connection with that a number of times. Also I knew a number of people from wartime and later from the microwave/vacuum tube days at Stanford. I thought, why not come up to Stanford and work on musical acoustics and computer music.

I inquired into this, and they offered me an appointment. Originally it was undetermined whether I would get paid anything or not. A made-up title, Visiting Professor of Music, Emeritus, enabled me to buy a condominium on the Stanford campus and to be a member of the Stanford Faculty Club and to use the libraries and things like that. I could actually direct graduate students if I wanted to.

I came up for a week or so during the winter of 1982 or 1983? I'm not sure. It was on a visit with my wife, and we stayed in an apartment. She rented a piano, and I haunted CCRMA and saw the people at Stanford. It looked like a good idea, so we went through with it. It came up, I believe, late in 1983. We bought a condominium on Peter Coutts Hill.

At that time CCRMA was located off campus in the D.C. Power Laboratory. This was out among the hills at the end of the Guastradong. I was supplied with an office, introduced to the various people, and started to do things.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Goldstein:

There are a few things you said that I want to follow up on. This is going to take us out of order. You said that you went to JPL. Were working on something that you found particularly interesting? Or did you just want to stay active?

Pierce:

Well, I had become acquainted with some people at JPL during the years that I was at Cal Tech, particularly Ed Posner, with whom I wrote this book prior to retirement. Then he carried on teaching a similar course. I was interested in space, if you wish. And I was interested in particularly the unmanned space probes and with the problems of communication that arose from that. I sort of enjoyed talking to the JPL people and visiting JPL. Out of the blue, the director of JPL invited me to have this rather prestigious staff position, which was rather undefined in his and my mind. I think he hoped wonderful things would happen. So Bruce Murray made me Chief Technologist, and I had a large office on the executive floor. Then in the various divisions of JPL, divisional technologists were set up. We met together and discussed problems and one thing or another. But as far as I was concerned, the job never really quite gelled into anything very clear.

Goldstein:

I see. Well, you said that there was a Chief Engineer. What were your responsibilities?

Pierce:

There was a Chief Scientist.

Goldstein:

Chief Scientist. What were your responsibilities as contrasted with the Chief Scientist?

Pierce:

I never really found out what my responsibilities were. I poked around, people came and talked to me, and I poked around in things that I was interested in. I had regular meetings with the divisional technologists who weren't necessarily staff people, but this was a staff function in a division, not a line function. Once Bruce Murray said that I should have a celebration of mathematics. So I invited a lot of people. Did we have papers, or did we just have a lunch and speeches? I don't know.

It's a very odd thing. I got on very well with the other people, and I attended the regular council meetings where all the higher staff were there. And I met with the visiting committees. That's where I met John Gardner, who was on a Scientific Advisory Board. So it was a good way to observe JPL, and I came to admire JPL very much. But whether I contributed anything to JPL is a real question.

Goldstein:

Were you involved in trying to solve problems of currently-existing programs, or conceive of new programs?

Pierce:

I sat in on meetings where programs were gone over and commented one. I tried very much to get one thing going. Carver Mead at that time had made it easy to make specialized integrated circuits. I thought, golly, this could be very important in JPL. JPL had thrived in many ways because they had computer skills, circuit skills, or mechanical skills imbedded in parts of the organization that enabled them to do things in a reliable and effective way. Or if they were contracting out, to see that the contractor did these things in a reliable way. They didn't use specialized integrated circuits, and I thought that they should have something.

I was humored in this, and something was set up along that line. Unfortunately it was set up under a fellow who could be spared because he wasn't very good. Well, it was very, very odd. I shouldn't be talking so freely, but no one will shoot me for it. I think he got into trouble later anyway. He liked to build an organization, rather than do work. He liked to have people reporting to him, to have a structure. But it was very hard to get anything done. My view of getting something new done was always that you started small with somebody who did something. With good luck, that would grow. There were people in various places in the organization that had problems, particularly the image processing for whom specialized integrated circuits would be useful, but it never got down to finding out what was the first thing to try to build and then building it.

There was a guy, a student of Carver Mead, who thought maybe he would come to JPL and do that sort of thing. Under reasonable circumstances they would have had him at JPL to do that sort of thing. But he was uncertain about what he really wanted.

Long after I left JPL, I'm told that in GALILEO. Some of the functions they just couldn't do without special integrated circuits, so they have some special integrated circuits in GALILEO.

Goldstein:

The atmosphere you describe at JPL is fairly chaotic or disorganized.

Pierce:

Well, it was disorganized because I wasn't associated with something that was really plowing ahead. The people who directed the projects weren't chaotic or disorganized. There were a lot of specialized people who could do this or that or the other thing. These people appeared on the organization chart under content. But then there were projects and project leaders, and it was the job of the project leaders to draw together representatives from these various organizations, or their time, to get the particular thing necessary done in that specialty. So the thing that held everything together in JPL was a series of projects, without which you had a lot of experts in this and that and the other with nothing to do.

Goldstein:

Tell me if this is the wrong way to think about it, but I'm wondering whether JPL is more like research or development effort. It sounds very much like it's development.

Pierce:

It's more like development, yes. Their research was done where necessary on very accurate time sources, for instance. Atomic clocks of one sort or another. And research was done on signal processing and various other things. It is primarily a development or a project organization. Development is a little odd because you think manufacture comes after that, but this was an organization which does projects. There were some things that were kept going such as the deep-space communication network and the antennas with which you communicated with all the space vehicles. It wasn't to manufacture things in quantities. It was to make, at the most, a few tens of something and fire them into orbit.

Goldstein:

Given your background as a research man at Bell Labs, did you feel comfortable at JPL and with their orientation?

Pierce:

Well, I was comfortable with it. With my skills and background and function, if any, there was nothing to tie me into anything in particular in that organization.

Goldstein:

I wondered if your habits were research, and therefore you weren't closely tied to a particular project, and since JPL was organized around projects, perhaps were....

Pierce:

Yes, that's right. It was being tied to a particular project that gave life to JPL. JPL was a resource for doing projects. The resource was organized by content, but the project was organized by goal.

Goldstein:

Pierce:

I had a staff job. Staff functions are functions that aren't line functions. There were staff functions that took care of purchasing and things like that, but that wasn't the sort of staff job I had. I had a very peculiar staff job. Sometimes staff jobs are doing chores — for the director, clear chores. But I didn't have any clear chores.

Goldstein:

Pierce:

What job? If I had succeeded in getting them into the special custom-made integrated circuits, that would have been the sort of thing that I might have done, but I didn't succeed in doing it.

Goldstein:

Yeah, that's one good example, where your experience at Cal Tech and your familiarity with Mead's work brought this technology to your attention.

Pierce:

Actually, I could see that it was going to be important to JPL — sometime.

Goldstein:

Are there any other examples like that? Either from your Cal Tech experience or your Bell Labs experience?

Pierce:

I got deeply intellectually involved with synthetic aperture radar, but there was a very good synthetic aperture radar guy there, and I didn't succeed in contributing anything to that. I did get them off, I believe before I went there, on this pulsed-position modulation optical signaling, and they picked that up. They haven't used it for anything yet because it turns out that its uses would only be over very long ranges. But that got into JPL.

Goldstein:

You said you got them interested in that before you got there?

Pierce:

I believe it was before I had this job.

Goldstein:

You were still at Cal Tech?

Pierce:

Yes.

Goldstein:

So you had these ties with them.

Pierce:

Yes. I had ties with various people.

Goldstein:

Okay. Before we leave Cal Tech, you mentioned that you had a few grad students.

Pierce:

I was wondering how many I had. Maybe no more than half a dozen altogether. I don't know.

Goldstein:

Were any of the projects particularly interesting?

Pierce:

Yes. There was one that had to do with image quality in synthetic aperture radars. At JPL they had some very good people who could see deeply into what they were doing, and they had some people who did things sort of by rote. They were expert at it, but they didn't grasp what the fundamental limitations were, or they didn't look into it deeply. This was speckle imagery. You got images that were very speckled for some reason of quantization or the way they were. The question was: What were your limitations in seeing these and to quantify things somewhat? One of the graduate students did that. One of them did essentially a programming topic, essentially software. When we go over to CCRMA , I have the copy. One of my graduate students, Mark Dolson, did a musical thesis, and he's followed up in the field of computer music. It was: What is it that gives you a sense of a choir or an ensemble when three or more instruments play together? He found, as all orchestrators know, that this doesn't appear until you have at least three instruments. Two instruments together just beat. But it turned out that it was a beating phenomenon, but you get a tone that fluctuates through beating in both frequency, or phase, and amplitude. He took each fluctuation out separately. He resynthesized these things with both fluctuations, with the fluctuation phase only and the fluctuation amplitude. Fluctuation in phase is a much more powerful thing.

Goldstein:

That's interesting. So you were the perfect person to talk to for that project.

Pierce:

Well, now this wasn't at JPL.

Goldstein:

Right, I understand.

Pierce:

This was a student at Cal Tech, Mark Dolson.

Computer Music and Musical Scales

Goldstein:

Right. Had you kept up working in computer music?

Pierce:

That's about all. I kept in touch with things, through Max Mathews largely.

Goldstein:

You said a little while ago that you were aware of a woman up at Stanford, when you were at JPL, and that this was part of the reason why you decided to come up to Stanford.

Pierce:

Betsy Cohen. How did I meet Betsy Cohen?

Goldstein:

Yeah, I wondered.

Pierce:

When she was a summer student at Bell Labs. But she did a musical thesis at Stanford.

Goldstein:

I'm wondering what prompted you to write The Science of Musical Sound. You probably told me yesterday. Was it that Freeman approached you?

Pierce:

Well, no. I got the Marconi International Fellowship, and here was $25,000 that I could spend doing something, but how did I want to spend it? A lot of people spend it organizing a meeting or a symposium on something. I thought I would rather spend it on writing a book, paying for help in writing a book. Goldstein: That seems to me that this is your reentry into that area. Is that the right way to put it? Pierce: Yes, that was a sort of reentry. Well, I had been going along. I had this one graduate student, but I hadn't done much. I'd just listened. The work on the so-called Pierce scale was started before I left Cal Tech. Shall I go right ahead and barge ahead on this? Goldstein: Yes, yes. Pierce: These were experiments on the tuning of triads, major triads and minor triads, too, that is characteristic of the equal-tempered scale. Goldstein: You were telling me the Pierce scale has every note three semi-tones above the previous one? Is that right? Pierce: No, that's another scale. Goldstein: That's the one you did in the 'sixties? Pierce: That's the scale of the 'sixties in the 8-tone canon. Goldstein: Right. But the Pierce scale doesn't have octaves. Pierce: It has 3-to-1 frequency ratios. But I'll describe its genesis. Goldstein: Go ahead. Sure. Pierce: The work that Max did that led me to do this. The thing about the major triad and the equal temperament is that the third is about 15 cents out of tune. The fifth is within two cents, which you can't even hear. Goldstein: I know I don't know what you mean when you say "even-tempered." Pierce: Equal-tempered. When you go to the next key, black or white, on a piano, you go by the same frequency ratio. The frequency ratio of the successive notes or tones is the 12th root of 2, and that's equal tempered. That's not the only way to tune a musical instrument. Goldstein: Oh, I see. Pierce: They had mean-tone tuning and Pythagorean tuning, and just tuning which makes some intervals unusable and others right. But now everything's tuned in equal temperament. Well, major and minor thirds are appreciably out of tune, noticeably out of tune. The frequency ratios of the major triads are ideally 4, 5 and 6. But the 5 is out. Well, Max Mathews did some experiments on preferences for having the third right and having the third wrong. He found that were two classes of subjects. Some liked just temperament, the real ratio 4, 5 and 6; and that's smoother, but perhaps less interesting. Some liked triads in equal temperament, which is a little jazzy. There were just these two classes of people. In going further, he asked himself, Well, what else can I try it on? I can try it on the minor intervals. This wasn't such a clear thing. Also the people who liked the third out of tune in a major third also liked it if you made it the same amount too large, which gives the same beating effect. Then he asked, What else can I do? And he did things with triads with the frequency ratios 3, 5, 7 and 5, 7, 9 instead of 4, 5, 6. He tried these with the center interval in tune and out of tune by 15 cents. Lo and behold, the people who liked the major triads out of tune, liked these strange triads out of tune. And the people who liked the major triads in tune, liked these strange triad things in tune. Well, that was interesting. And moreover, it said that something that was true about known chords, major triads, was true about these collections of three tones. It made them seem chord-like somehow, because people responded to their being out of tune in the same way that they responded to the major triad being out of tune. Goldstein: They thought the triad was dissonant? Pierce: If this new thing had just sounded awful they wouldn't have noticed whether one note was in or out of tune. Goldstein: Right. Pierce: So I said to Max, Couldn't a scale be made out of these tones? So we tried to make scales. There are only two sorts of intervals in the diatonic scale: those that go up by two semi-tones and those that go up by one semi-tone. But we kept getting scales with three intervals in them, and it just didn't fit. Then, just experimenting, I found out that it fitted very well if you tried to fit them into a ratio of 3 to 1. Later on I found out that some German had proposed this 3-to-1 scale. I have acknowledged this, and I've had somebody read it to me in English. I don't have a written translation of it, and I've never read the thing. I think he was investigating other things. Goldstein: You mean someone recently or someone from far back? Pierce: Someone about ten years back. Goldstein: Oh, okay. Pierce: So this is very interesting thing because it seems to be based on two things. It was sensible mathematically that you could fit all these chords into this frequency interval 3 to 1 and then repeat them. And that the things that you were fitting in that led to this to behave in a chord-like fashion. So Max Mathews used to have summer jobs fir people while he was at Bell Laboratories, and he had them working on musical things. He had somebody who had something of a musical education who wrote pieces in this scale. They sounded as if they made a sense, but they were different. She wrote very conventional things. And I wrote one or two pieces in the scale. When I got the Japan Prize, I remember, I gave a lecture, and I played a little something in this scale then. Goldstein: When were you writing things? Pierce: I got the Japan Prize in 1985. Goldstein: Right. Pierce: I couldn't have written anything while I was at Cal Tech because I didn't have any way to generate this peculiar scale. But I started work. The scale was devised, I feel, before I came to Stanford, but that was one of the things I started to work on when I came to Stanford. Goldstein: I see. I'm just very curious. If the ratio is 3 to 1, doesn't that ignore the basic periodicity of the harmonics? Pierce: Well, you can look at it this way. There 's an interesting thing about the octave and the harmonics of the upper and the lower tones; any harmonic of the upper tone is also present in the lower tone. Goldstein: Sure. Pierce: That's true for the 3 to 1, too. Any harmonic of the upper tone is also present in the lower tone. Goldstein: And in the relative weight. You know, if you had an instrument that was mostly the first harmonic, then it would still sound right. Pierce: No. If you have only odd harmonics, this is particularly apt because the upper tone consists of odd harmonics of the lower tone. So in the early days of working with the scale, always used tones that had odd harmonics only. But this thing made some sense even if you just used any old tones that had even as well as odd harmonics. A fellow at the Berkeley School of Music in Boston, Richard Boulanger, started to write some pieces in this. At first he didn't understand it very well at first, but he produced good music. Goldstein: Was he working with electronic instruments? Pierce: Yes. He worked with electronic synthesis, but with voice also. The only things you can use are stringed instruments, voice or electronics. Fretted instruments are no good. They produce the wrong tones. These tones are base on the 13th root of 3 rather than the 12th root of 2. Goldstein: Okay. I don't see that right away. Pierce: Well, there's no way of seeing that except that numerologically. If you look at all the things, you can get a lot of 3, 5, 7 and 5, 7, 9 ratios if you put the spacing between the tones of the 13th through the 3 apart. As far as I'm concerned, there are arguments why the 12th root of 2 is musically good, but really it arrived before the arguments. Goldstein: Are they psychological arguments? Pierce: There's a guy who gave arguments that there's a greater variety of something or other there. I would call them numerological arguments. But gosh, what is the branch of mathematics? Goldstein: Modular. Pierce: No, I don't remember, but it's a highfalutin branch of mathematics. I don't remember, but he was able to associate this with some fine branch of mathematics. And he showed that there were more varieties of some sort of relations in this than anything else. I believe why this is good is because it's the most useful approximation of the ratio to the small integral integers. Because the octave is overwhelming, you get the octave because that's just overwhelming. People just sing an octave before they sing anything else both men and women. Goldstein: Okay. Had you begun all this work before you began working on this book? Pierce: I got the Marconi Award in 1979, and I started the book shortly afterwards. So that was before the scale. And as a matter of fact, the scale didn't get into the first edition of the book. The other scale, the 8-tone Canon scale I got into the book, but this came along after 1979. I was at Cal Tech until 1983, so that was toward the latter part of my time at Cal Tech. It was before I got involved in the scale. If I'd been involved in the scale, there'd have been something about it in the book. CCRMA (Stanford) Goldstein: So you wrote the book and started working with Mathews again. And then got involved with CCRMA. I don't know if I understand CCRMA's relationship to Stanford University. Pierce: Organizationally it's a part of the Music Department, but other people in the Music Department haven't been very interested in it. It has to find its own funds except what it gets through teaching courses. It has its own funds. It has an associates program which has brought in the money, but most of the money has come in from John Chowning's invention of FM synthesis, from the Yamaha Corporation. Goldstein: This is a real opportunity for CCRMA to just get you up there. Pierce: They were glad to have me. A friend of mine, Cal Quate, who once worked for me at Bell Laboratories many, many years ago, and is very prestigious in applied physics and electrical engineering, was helpful in getting me a position, so that I could have some of the privileges of a faculty member. Goldstein: I'm trying to think what it is about your background that you're applying here. There's your experience with waves and communication, but do you use any of the specific technologies that you worked on? Or did you use other sorts of technologies? Pierce: Well, I used the computer to the extent that I'm able to. Sometimes I need help in programming. I've published a paper, an experimental paper. I told you I'm not a good experimenter, but when pressed hard enough I can do experiments. I have published one paper of an experimental psychoacoustic nature, using computer-generated sounds. The thing that is useful to me is a general background in, oh, signals, sine waves, circuits, signal processing. Whatever goes with traditional electric things. Plus this willingness to be interested in almost anything that's interesting. Goldstein: You say that you're open-minded and can accept a variety of research topics. But when you got the$25,000 and it was yours to spend, you chose to spend it on the science of musical sound.

Pierce:

Well, I guess that goes right back to Max's 1957 Using Computers to Generate Musical Sound. It just seemed to me that this was something interesting to me because have what somebody once called "an unreciprocated love of music." [Laughter] Somebody said the British have an unreciprocated love of music.

Goldstein:

[Chuckling] Right.

Pierce:

All this stuff in speech and hearing opened my eyes to the problems of perception, to relating the physical or mechanical event, to perception. I guess you could say this about it. Psychoacoustics hasn't been cleaned up; it's in a state of considerable confusion, I think.

Musical Preferences

Goldstein:

Was your second wife an influence in this interest?

Pierce:

Was her being a talented musician attractive to me? And, yes, it was. She tolerated my interest in music.

Goldstein:

Did she have an open mind to this sort of avant-garde approach to music?

Pierce:

Not overly. But then I don't either. I like striking and effective music. I think that one of the troubles with avant-garde is that they don't know what else to do to be different. Boulanger says that what he likes about the Pierce scale is it gives him a chance to write tonally, which isn't avant-garde, and still be different.

Goldstein:

What sort of music do you like?

Pierce:

From reading Samuel Butler was infatuated with Handel. Yet Handel's music is very likable. So I like Handel. I like Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky. I like music that sounds good. Here it's interesting to contrast Tchaikovsky with Brahms. Brahms is a very fine musician and writes very fine music, and my wife Ellen liked it. I don't dislike it. But Tchaikovsky produces wonderful-sounding music.

Goldstein:

Does this put you at odds with some of the people you find yourself working with?

Pierce:

No. Not at all.

Goldstein:

I mean, generally speaking that you prefer the tonal.

Pierce:

Oh, I see. Not necessarily tonal, but I like it to sound good and sound rich. I feel that's one of the things that the computer offers is a variety of sound. This is like any hand being rare in card games, what matters is the variety of hands that you like. Yet all the hands are equally probable. In some sense you could think of a field of sound in which everything is equally probable. But finding something that was worth listening to, that's very narrow.

Goldstein:

Like Jackson Pollock paintings. You know, just a random splattering, then pick the ones that happen to be good.

Pierce:

They're bright and decorative. But, I don't see anything wrong with representational art.

Intellectual Style

Goldstein:

You twice mentioned you no longer feel there's something to be learned from books.

Pierce:

Well, that's overdoing it. As an only child with a certain amount of timidity, I led a somewhat sheltered life. I should have been learning more from other people and less from books. I took books very seriously now. I don't take books as seriously. I think that Wells had a great influence in the world through writing books, but thank heavens no one tried to follow his prescriptions. Somebody once said that it's nice for children to learn poems when they're young and their memory is good and they don't have better things to do, because then after they've lived a while, they'll find out what they mean. [Chuckling] It'll dawn on them what they mean. I'm sort of anti-intellectual, I guess.

Goldstein:

All the evidence around us refutes that. [Chuckling]

Pierce:

Well, it does. I'm sure that it's important to take care of the environment, but I get very suspicious about people if I think they're doing it for dubious inner reasons.

Goldstein:

Yes, there's a lot of self-aggrandizement and image-building.

Pierce:

Identifying with burning heretics. [Chuckling]

Goldstein:

Do you think that your new attitude about the value of books reflects a change in your character, or a change in the character of books that are being produced?

Pierce:

You know, that's a very good one. The nature of the present science fiction books that turns me off, rather than anything else, yet I can still read mystery stories.

Goldstein:

You know, you said that they were too cosmic.

Pierce:

Too cosmic, too complicated. There's a mystery story writer, P.D. James. Well, this is silly, but I'll say what I was going to say anyway.

Goldstein:

Pierce:

She has all the trappings of a psychological novel with lots of deep issues in it. And in the end what she's doing is writing a murder mystery with lots of implausible things in it. I wish that Agatha Christie were still writing. I like her things very much, and they're unpretentious, and they're fun. And they're well worked out on the intellectual side, but not in the ways that a major novel would be. Even when you go to major authors like Jane Austin is, I doubt if there are any better than hers, but she's also fun. She doesn't parade her insights, you know. It's written in plain, everyday terms. She doesn't pretend that she's deep, she just is. [Laughter]

Goldstein:

I wonder if I can relate that value that you have back to engineering. Do you find that you have a taste for real basic and straightforward designs as opposed to elaborators?

Pierce:

Oh yes, I do. When we were talking about my being editor of the IRE, you raised the question of whether the papers were really too complicated in the first place, which I was unwilling to address. It wasn't my job, and I don't really know. But I will say this of our multitude of technical journals, they beat the hell out of ideas mathematically and erect an awful lot of mathematics about things. And whether they really find out anything, I don't know. I will say that one of my criteria of life is that things have to be good enough. But after they're good enough, they get a little boring. [Chuckling]

Goldstein:

I see what you mean. But it's really a question of balance because Kompfner built the traveling wave tube, but it needed your mathematical analysis.

Pierce:

That's right. There was a Swede who made a mathematical analysis. But he started out with a physical device, and with the aid of Bessel functions chased everything through the helix and so forth. I asked myself, What are the things that a make a physical difference? There's the charge density in the bunching of the beam. It turns out that produces electric field, partly by exciting the wave in the circuit and partly just locally by the accumulation of charge. So I put in quantities which weren't defined in terms of the physical configuration, which were defined in terms of function. And I got the general behavior. Then I related the meaningful (I thought) parameters, the coupling to the circuit, and the local field produced by the space charge, which would have been the same if the circuit had been just a conducting tube and the circuit parameters. And the equations I had, they had a few meaningful parameters, which could be evaluated in terms of the physical thing by various calculations. These few parameters were labeled A, B and C and they told me qualitatively and quantitatively in terms of the parameters how the tube would work. If you just make a straightforward analysis, you know, fitting the boundary conditions of everything to everything else, you will get the right answer, but you can still be completely in the dark about what changes will cause what or what the whole thing's about.

Goldstein:

Can you understand why it was that you approached it in this more effective way? Was that your style?

Pierce:

That's my style. It's like network theory. If you were a very fine physicist but there weren't common networks around, and you found one among artifacts, you could try, with the aid of Maxwell's equations, to find out what this could do, but you wouldn't find out. [Laughter] It would be just too difficult. Network theory is a wonderful thing. It's a wonderful thing, and it's a considerable distance from the physical structure of the things. The reason you have something that is a pure inductance is network theory. You wind a coil because that's one of the elements. Or you make a capacitor. When you do things for which networks aren't suitable, such as microwaves, you don't have these lumped elements. The ideas of network theory can still be identified with resonators and waveguides.

Goldstein:

I am not sure of what you mean.

Pierce:

Somebody was telling me the other day that people sometimes try to apply science to, social problems in the wrong way. They're looking for something they can hang a lot of mathematics onto, when really you can say things that are very true sort of in a network theory way. All cultures have some sort of family structure; all cultures have religions of some sort. These are pretty much true. But they aren't given to too much mathematics.

Goldstein:

That's interesting. You recognize the limitations of mathematics, the areas in which it's applicable.

Pierce:

In this theory of the traveling wave tube, thinking of it in terms of these parameters, these three A's, B's and C's that typify certain functional properties, you could then apply mathematics to this and get the answers. But then you have the whole mathematical problem of fitting it to the actual physical structure. Making it complicated in the beginning is not going to help. You realize then that in the fit between this and the actual traveling wave tube, you don't know quite what the parameters are until you measure them or calculate them separately.

Goldstein:

All right. This is great!

Pierce:

It has no place in our discussion.

Goldstein:

No, no. It really does, but we've just lost the thread. Unless you want to continue on.

Pierce:

No, let's get back onto something solid.

Goldstein:

[Chuckling] Right.

The Pierce Scale

Pierce:

Well, the most substantial thing I've done in connection with CCRMA, (I think it started before I actually got here) was the Pierce scale. And either this will survive or it will not. You can write attractive music in it, but a good composer can write attractive music with any sounds. A bad composer can't write attractive music, not no how. [Laughter]

Goldstein:

Does the Pierce scale give any scientific insight? Or is it valuable in its contribution?

Pierce:

It's a question of how learnable it is. Max and I tried to get NSF support or some support for seeing to what degree it could be learned, in the sense the diatonic scale is learned.

Goldstein:

By learning you mean integrated into the mind to sound right?

Pierce:

Yes. So that you can recognize chords. Not by deep analysis, but SNAP! Oh, yes, that's so-and-so. Or you can recognize pitches and pitch intervals. We couldn't get any support for this. The idea would be to make a course about ear-training on the Pierce scale instead of the diatonic scale. We couldn't get any money to do that. The issue has been settled because Maureen Chowning had learned to sing in the Pierce scale, to transpose in the Pierce scale, and to interact with Boulanger and to participate in his compositions. So it is learnable in that sense. There's a criterion here. Composers can even write good music, in the12th-tone scale. The twelve-tone music is based on certain manipulations of the tone row. The manipulations are transposition and inversion and retrograde.

Goldstein:

I'm sorry. I was taking notes on another part. Could you just repeat that last thing?

Pierce:

Twelfth-tone music is based on three things that you are allowed to do with the tone row. You start with a tone row that has all 12 tones in it. You're allowed to do three things to it, transposition is the first. That's common in all music. Transposition fits in with the human ability to recognize a tune, no matter what key it's played in. The second is inversion. You turn the interval up and upside down. Now if you pay close attention, you can see that DA-DA is the inverse of DA-DA, if I could only hit the things. [Chuckling] But it goes about that far. Now you can hear a whole complicated tune in transposition, you see, and hear that it's all the same. Or if you have music talent, you can. But in inversion, pretty soon you get lost. You can see that going up is different from going down, but quantitatively you can't handle it. Retrograde is even worse.

Goldstein:

You mean playing backwards?

Pierce:

Fore and aft. Now it's interesting that the eye is different from the ear. The eye sees symmetry very clearly and sees left to right as being the same as right to left. This is known in art. Symmetry plays an important part in art, and mirror images play an important part in art. Schoenberg wanted to find a new kind of music. He relied on things that have no saliency in music. This is important in connection with our appreciation of order. Bela Julesz did a lot of work on order in visual perception at Bell Laboratories with fields made up of black-and-white dots. There are some sorts of order you can see, and some sorts of order you can't see. For instance, if you compare something where every dot is randomly black or white with where if you have a dot that is black here, you have to have a dot that is black next to it, and if you have a dot that is white, you have to have a dot that is white next to it. It's really a random mixture of two white dots and two black dots.

Goldstein:

Random couplings?

Pierce:

Yes. And that looks very different from random dots. On the other hand, if something doesn't give any local order, it can have just as much order as being white-white or black-black, and you won't be able to tell it from random.

Goldstein:

I see. You mean it's just as deterministic.

Pierce:

It's just as deterministic, but the human senses are not such that you'll be able to see the order that is there. And Belu Julesz did a lot of work on this in vision. What I'm saying now is that Schoenberg made much of two sorts of order that are not easily perceived. What is not easily perceived may guide the composer, but it's not going to be appreciated by the listener. This doesn't mean that a talented composer can't write good 12-tone music. But the reason it sounds good is not because the person is sensitive to inversion and retrograde; he isn't. That's wasted on him.

Goldstein:

I see.

Pierce:

To get back to the Pierce scale. It's my belief that the chords of the Pierce scale were perceived in the same way, the 3, 5, 7, 9 and 3, 5, 7 chords, as being in or out of tune, in the same way that major triads were. Because I'm a great believer in music in the perceptual importance of things with ratios of small integers, I believe that these things can be perceived automatically. Here's a scale that is different and maybe doesn't have a strong appeal or isn't as strongly or as easily perceived, but there's every reason to believe that the order that was put into this scale is perceivable and is learnable in the sense that Maureen Chowning learned to sing in the scale and transpose in the scale.

Goldstein:

I'm thinking about something about the Pierce scale. Let's see if I can find it. Somewhere this is in Electrons, Words and Messages. Right. You write this in the introduction in the book: "The astronomer who deals with gravitational fields is confronted with particular fields that already exist in a world he never made. His problem is to calculate the motions of heavenly bodies in these fields. The problem of the electronics engineer is quite different. It is to produce inside the vacuum tube fields which will cause electrons to go where he wants them to go and to do what he wants them to do. He's fundamentally a maker of universes, on a small scale of course, rather than a student of a universe already given." I wonder if you think the formulation of the Pierce scale in the same way.

Pierce:

Well, yes. The discovery by the Greeks of the relation of the ratio of small integers to musical intervals, which were easily perceived, was of a scientific nature. Composing something is an engineering problem, if you wish. You're given that in this case certain things will at least be noticed by or can be noticed, can be heard out, or can give qualities. But composing is like engineering.

Goldstein:

I see what you mean by that, but even beyond that creating a scale is like development of a new component by an engineer.

Pierce:

You could create a scale purely mathematically, but why should you expect it to have anything to do with music? But I have plausible reasons for believing that the order that has been put into the Pierce scale is an order that can be heard.

Goldstein:

Have you experimented with scales that have some logical consistency but aren't effective?

Pierce:

No. I can tell you one thing, though. This first scale, the 8-tone scale in which I wrote the eight-tone canon, had dissonance and consonance. But I later realized that it really didn't have harmony. You can't be in the key. Any other starting point is just the same as any starting point.

Goldstein:

I see. So there's one key, is what you're saying?

Pierce:

Yes. Because the intervals are all equal.

Goldstein:

That makes sense.

Pierce:

Starting out one note is just the same as starting out with another. On the other hand, we know that changing keys can have an important and noticeable effect in music, and you can change key in the Pierce scale.

Goldstein:

On the other hand, on your scale it's on the 8-tone.

Pierce:

You can't.

Goldstein:

Well, if you were to start at a different place, and then maybe at some places two notes would happen to correspond to a traditional, harmonic interval.

Pierce:

Yes. You might but it's a different thing. There's a quality there. So as an engineer, the first time I left something out, maybe you can do without it. Then the second time around, it has all of the qualities, in some sense, that the traditional diatonic scale has, but the notes are all different.

Goldstein:

Is that in retrospect, or did you know for a long time that the 8-tone scale was lacking harmony?

Pierce:

Well, it dawned on me afterwards.

Goldstein:

After the Pierce scale.

Pierce:

I was thinking of consonance and dissonance, but there's more to harmony than that.

Goldstein:

Right. So you do mean after the Pierce scale, this all occurred to you?

Pierce:

No. It occurred to me before the Pierce scale, I believe.

Goldstein:

Ah, really!

Pierce:

That is one of the things I pursued at CCRMA. I'm not pursuing it anymore. Now Boulanger, he's composed several pieces in the Pierce scale, and Max goes around with his radio baton playing these. It's like catching fire now: There's nothing I can do about it. It will either catch fire or it won't.

Goldstein:

Where's Boulanger?

Pierce:

He's at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.

Goldstein:

Yeah, I've been there. Right.

Pierce:

You have?

Goldstein:

Yes. I had a friend who went there.

Pierce:

I've never been there.

Goldstein:

My friend played bass. It's on Boylston, I think. Or maybe Mass. Ave.

Pierce:

It's a musician's place, you know, not a musicologist's place.

Goldstein:

Yes.

Pierce:

He had some of his students compose in the Pierce scale. Either it'll survive or it won't.

Goldstein:

[Chuckling] You can really be that indifferent? Would you like to see it survive?

Pierce:

Oh, of course I'd prefer it. [Chuckling] But I'm not going to worry about it if it doesn't.

Frequency Experiments

Goldstein:

What have you been focusing on more recently?

Pierce:

More recently somebody pointed out that when you think of a musical instrument, you think of a vibrating string or a vibrating bell. And the characteristic of this is usually that you whack it. It has a lot of modes, and the modes have roughly the same which means that they'll die out in the same number of cycles. There are a lot of harmonics present at first, but the higher ones die out first, and the general spectrum gets lower and lower.

Goldstein:

That's why it doesn't shift tone as it decays?

Pierce:

Yes. But Chinese gongs and cymbals do something different. You strike them, and the center of the spectrum goes up with time. It isn't just the high frequencies dying out; the low frequencies get converted into higher frequencies. And I didn't know that until about a year ago. Somebody pointed it out to me. I wondered why it happened, and I got an idea of why it happened. Couldn't you do it in strings? Wouldn't it be interesting to have a string sound that had this same thing.

Goldstein:

When you say you got an idea why it happened, you mean you found out physically?

Pierce:

Audio File
MP3 Audio
(141c - pierce - clip 1.mp3)

Well, I'll tell you about the idea. First of all I asked why this was happening. I decided that the most plausible reason that it would happen is that as the waves came out, they hit an obstacle. The thing was circular symmetrical, but it wasn't uniform going out and generated a higher frequency, probably a double frequency. If there was something resonant in the gong, there'd be a build-up for this reason. Now why? I thought about it. It's harder for me to get back to my state of mind. Yes, I made a calculation of a particular thing. Suppose you have a stretched string coming in here, and here you support it by a springy leaf that has no mass that will allow the end of the string to go this way. But it can't go this way or this way. And then from this joint, you put another stretched string going this way. As the wave travels along here, it has a momentum, and if you reflect it, there'll be a force in this direction because of the changing momentum. You can think of this for electromagnetic waves, which are perfectly linear, for instance. If you send an electromagnetic wave at a conducting wall, it will induce a current in the wall, and there'll be a magnetic field at the wall when the thing is reflected. The current time of the magnetic field will produce a force on the wall. But this varies periodically. It has an average value and a varying value that is double the frequency of the impinging wave, because the current is always produced by the magnetic field. So if you reverse the direction of the magnetic field, you reverse the direction of the current, and the force is still in the same direction. So there is this frequency-doubling effect. If you want to go further, it produces all sum and difference frequencies. If you have two frequencies, you get a force with both the sum and the difference frequency.

So then I thought: Max said you could go around in a square and get this to double frequency. Then I thought of a simpler way of getting the frequency doubled. Suppose that you tie one end of the string down and you put a 45o spring on the other. Now the longitudinal force here will move this here at twice the frequency of the oscillation back and forth. Because you push this way and you shorten the thing, or you push this way and you shorten the thing.

Goldstein:

Pierce:

Well, these are both strings. This is a wave that can be oscillating in this way, and it's reflected. This wave can only oscillate in this direction because this spring is rigid in this direction and this direction.

Goldstein:

Okay.

Pierce:

The other thing was to set out to try to get the effect in the guitar. The first thing I did was buy (unwisely) a small non-electronic guitar with nonmetallic strings. Well, some of the string were over wound. Well, then a first-year graduate student who was doing other things really for his thesis, got interested in the guitar. So we bought an electronic guitar, which we still haven't had used with CCRMA funds. Then it was impractical to build the mechanical thing on the end of the string. So I built a wooden frame out of wood and 2-by-4's with a machinist's vise, a table-top vise on one end, which would clamp various things and the guitar fret-turner, well, the screws and things.

And we had this string. It was easier to change things mechanically at the end. The effect isn't nearly as easy to get, or as prominent, in any practical thing that we found with an actual bass. I started with a bass guitar string because I thought the highs would be most noticeable in that, and with the right length. It was discouraging to do this mechanically.

Goldstein:

Pierce:

I built it myself with my own hands.

Goldstein:

Did it take a couple of days?

Pierce:

Yes, something like that. A day.

Goldstein:

It sounds complicated.

Pierce:

The guitar we were buying was an electronic guitar. We gave up about \$400 worth of CCRMA funds.

Goldstein:

Nice guitar!

Pierce:

I thought electronic guitars pick things up from strings or that the string could be driven. If we measure the tension on the string, that will do the doubling and we could feed that back and drive the string, and get this under control. So proceeded with the help of two different graduate students there is piezoelectric tape that generates voltage from pressure. So one of the graduate students made a little thing in which the tension of the string compressed the piezoelectric tape. Well, the piezoelectric tape picked up everything, including rapping on the apparatus. It picked up the tension of the string due to vibration — somewhat. But it was overwhelmed by miscellaneous pick-up. Then I learned that there are electronic guitars in which you pick up from the strings and feed back to them.

Well, anyway, first of all the audio engineer, Jay Kadis, is a guitar player. He plays in a guitar group. He brought in some old pick-up coils. So we put two of those near the ends of the string that was strung guitar-like. Then he made a circuit that full wave rectifies, which does this 2 for 1 motion. We tried that, and we got the effect of plucking the string, rectifying it, and getting some double frequency.

But all sorts of things happened. The amplifier overloaded. If you were looking at the waveform, sometimes it was doing something sensible, and sometimes it wasn't. You looked at it with an oscilloscope, and it was just an unholy mess. And you couldn't get a feel for anything.

We didn't get enough high frequencies, and I was trying to get high frequencies by an RC network, adding an RC network to the amplifying path. But this made everything look very complicated. And also you realized that the RC network and the pre-emphasis of this sort, if you ever came back to a guitar with frets, if it were right for one fret position, it wouldn't be right for the others. So then I had this idea: The output of the full-wave rectifier, if you put a sine wave in, has two peaks per cycle. Why don't we clip this so that what you pick up, is just a bunch of very short pulses? Now what you're seeing is simpler, and if the amplifier overloads, you still get pulses. So this looked better. And indeed, it behaved more reasonably. It was easier to jiggery-pokery with the parameters and get this build-up.

As soon as it began to work, Atau Tanaka, the graduate student (he's a guitar player, too) had gotten a hold of a guitar (somebody loaned him a guitar) that has both the pick-up and the driving to get special effects. They're there. But as far as I know, there's no idea of putting a rectifier in that path. It's used to get various effects that require a feedback, a positive feedback. Tanaka reconnected everything in this and put it onto our apparatus. And by gosh, you could hear the high frequencies evolve when you played it, and it was very promising.

But it wasn't the end because this was flying, if not blind; good guidance. It was easy to get into the following state. You flipped the thing at low frequencies, the low frequencies died away, and high frequencies evolved. These almost died away, but they didn't quite. They kept oscillating.

On the other hand, if you touch the string and stop the highs they wouldn't come again.

There was some sort of hysteresis entering in this. There were some diodes in the path, and I'm almost sure that they were such that it would change the amount of feedback if there were a signal there. If there weren't a signal there, or you stopped the signal, there was no way of getting the diodes into that same bias condition again.

So what happened at this point? Atau Tanaka, the graduate student, is going to the Stanford Center in Paris, and he'll work at IRCOM. He will take these ideas with him. His idea of the profitable thing to do next is to pick up from the string. It's in line with a lot of things that are done in tying computers to sound processing these days. The other thing would be to just simulate this whole thing in the computer. We never got around to that, and I wish we'd done that first because it's faster. This fits in with his ideas.

Certainly the feedback path, the processing of what is picked up, will be better known than it is in analog circuits because analog circuits designed for one purpose. Usually have a lot of other properties.

Goldstein:

So really what you're doing is replacing the rectifier with the computer.

Pierce:

Yes. My idea of the next stage would be to clean up the analog circuitry, now that we know what is wrong with it. Brenda's son, James Erd, whom you met at the door, has been spending the summer here. He's studying photography at the University of Hawaii. With university he came back here hoping he could get a job for the summer but it's impractical to get a short-term job in California. He's been living with us for the summer. He's leaving within a week or so. He got drawn into this. He plays the guitar and was anxious to learn more about electric guitars. He spruced up the equipment. My vision isn't very good and I'm out of date on circuits. I may try to get something done while Tanaka is away. But it's rather disappointing to just start to get a sensible result.

Goldstein:

You started working on this when?

Pierce:

Goldstein:

What's your overall ambition here? Is it the curiosity of instruments that have this property?

Pierce:

It's curiosity. This is a very good effect. You remember in these British pictures where they hit the big gong and this phenomenon takes place?

Goldstein:

Sure. In "Gunga Din" they do that. [Chuckling]

Pierce:

Yes. It's an interesting musical effect. It's quite in opposition to what we usually think of strings and bells and things like that, in which the higher frequencies die out. If it sounds nice in a gong, couldn't it sound nice in some other instrument? And what instrument? The guitar is a natural because it's one of the few acoustical instruments with electronic additions still used in large numbers, except for percussion instruments. It would be a good place to try it, both because the technology is adaptable and because it's widely used. Guitars are also good because they like funny things in popular music more. My interest is: Wouldn't this really be a nice musical thing?

Goldstein:

It really sounds like you just want to hear the sounds.

Pierce:

Yes.

Goldstein:

Couldn't you simply play guitar, have the output fed into the computer, and do whatever you want to the waveform?

Pierce:

Well, that's what Atau is going to try to do while he's away.

Goldstein:

Do you think it's interesting that you didn't think of trying that in the first place? That you wanted it to be a genuine thing?

Pierce:

Well, I was fascinated first of all by having a purely physical embodiment of it, not electronic. That proved to be a bad way to go. The electronics gradually entered and took over. Right now the thing that I may do is learn enough about the Next computer and programming to simulate the process. There's a guitar simulation program somebody wrote which we tried out, but his parameters are all wrong. For instance, he filtered out the high frequencies because there aren't a lot of high frequencies in characteristic guitar sounds. There will be drastic changes necessary. Anyway, we got a little of the effect.

Avoidance of Computer Programming

Goldstein:

You were talking about your computer skills. I was wondering, back in the 'fifties, you said that you didn't program. How did you get programming done?

Pierce:

Through Max Mathews and through some people in the speech and hearing area.

Goldstein:

Oh. I'm not talking about only in the speech and hearing. You were using computers also for communications work.

Pierce:

People were using them, but not me. I just did theory in the communications area.

Goldstein:

So all the computer work was for the electronic sound projects?

Pierce:

Well, the only thing that I actually programmed at Bell Laboratories, I learned enough Fortran to keep track of my wife's lending money to a friend. [Chuckling]

Goldstein:

[Chuckling] Right.

Pierce:

That's the only programming. I did other things. I was interested in the spectrum of oscillations in rods which slope from a finite diameter to a point. I thought they might be musically interesting. I didn't program this, but a mathematician/physicist was interested enough to program that also. That produced a very interesting result.

Goldstein:

Was that back in the late 'fifties?

Pierce:

It was in the late 'fifties or the early 'sixties. An interesting result was that you can get sensible answers from the computer. But I got some answers from the computer that made no sense at all. Then he did some analytical work, and this strange thing happened. This is all right. This isn't all right. This isn't all right. What happens here is that the small signal theory, the ratio of the vibration at the end becomes infinite. Of course, the small signal theory is wrong. [Chuckling] But if you get the point too sharp, then the computer just blows up. The reason behind that is that the problem you're trying to solve doesn't have a sensible solution.

Goldstein:

I'm not sure I follow it completely, but that's all right. Because I was really interested in your use of computers. Here was a case where you launched a computer study and got somebody else to work on it. But has it been easy in your career to avoid getting into programming?

Pierce:

Yes. It's a great handicap to me now. But when I'm forced to do things by myself, I find out I can learn things so I can presumably learn more about using the computer.

Goldstein:

As a matter of fact, when you were describing the construction of this guitar, that sounds pretty experimental. You say you that you don't do much experimentation. Is this an example of that?

Pierce:

Well, the fine-grained experimentation. I can clutch things together and see what happens.

Goldstein:

So the example you just described to me, that's not atypical?

Pierce:

No, that's not atypical. Another thing I never learned to do that experimental physicists do is use machine tools. Well, I've used them in very rare cases, and not to much effect.

CCRMA Cont’d.

Decentralized Research

Goldstein:

Well, that brings us up to the present. Did you want to head on up to CCRMA?

Pierce:

Well, why don't we head on up to CCRMA. Or, it's ten minutes to twelve. Why don't we have something to eat and then visit CCRMA?

Goldstein:

We just got back from CCRMA. You were telling me in the car that it's different than most of the other environments you've been in because people tend to work by themselves.

Pierce:

They get together somewhat on things, but I think everyone, certainly all the graduate students, are doing their own thing.

Goldstein:

Is there an overall direction to it? Does what you're doing fit into an overall program?

Pierce:

Only to the degree that I might fit it in. It was a big upset when the NEXT computers came in. There were a number of things to be done with them: getting the network set up and operating was one of them, and using the next with four-channel sound. So that was a problem that I'm sure that Atau didn't invent. To what degree it was suggested to him, or to what degree he just picked on it, I don't know.

Goldstein:

When did Max Mathews come to CCRMA?

Pierce:

About three or four years ago.

Goldstein:

Did he come because he knew you were there, he used to work with you?

Pierce:

That I was already here played a part. He came out for one summer, and he liked it. He retired from Bell Laboratories and came out here. I'm sorry I can't remember the exact date.

Goldstein:

It doesn't matter much. The thing I wanted to get to was this decentralized research effort at CCRMA. Do you regard this as an opportunity to focus on what it is that you're most interested in?

Pierce:

Well, I regard it is a good thing.

Goldstein:

A good thing for you, or a good thing for research?

Pierce:

A good thing for CCRMA and research.

Goldstein:

So that's a useful approach to research?

Pierce:

Yes. Everyone does something that has something to do with some aspects of computer music and sound processing. Those are the things that are taught at CCRMA, those are the things that the people do. I like it. I'm not sure whether it's suitable for me.

It's all centered ultimately around music. John Chowning is a musician, and Chris Chaffe is a musician. Max plays the violin and he plays the radio baton, and he is spiritually a musician, whatever that is.

Goldstein:

I don't really know what this radio baton is. You've mentioned it a few times.

Pierce:

Well, I showed it to you. It works best when the score is stored in it. For instance, all the notes of the scales and their relative durations will be stored in it. A quarter note is different from an eighth note. But the rate at which they come out depends on your beating, and the qualities depend upon where you beat or stroke the surface. That can put a little waver in the sound.

Goldstein:

Okay. That was just a digression.

Pierce:

One thing that is really astonishing is that I encountered micro-intonation. Speech doesn't sound speech-like. Perry Cook found out, unless there's this little random waver in pitch. It doesn't sound even voice-like. Or if it's speaking something in sequence. When you start a vowel, you get a sensation of a vowel, and then it'll tail off into a buzz that isn't at all vowel-like. But with a little wiggle, you can maintain the vowel quality. It's something that's very true about musical sounds, that you have to do this if they're not to sound electronic.

In a particular method of synthesis, John Chowning got all the right formant frequencies, but it didn't sound at all like a voice until he put a really strong vibrato in to tie it together. The ear expects things to change, and it's set for changes. The sound quality can be entirely different with a succession of small changes than if it's just left to go on. It is heard as an undifferentiated, unpleasant buzz.

CCRMA Compared to Bell Labs

Goldstein:

All right. I want to get back to your role at CCRMA.

Pierce:

Okay.

Goldstein:

Your impression of it. When we were driving back, you said that, you know, it's a good way for you to spend your retirement. Do you think it would have been a good place for you to have been at any stage in your career?

Pierce:

No.

Goldstein:

No? In what ways was Bell Labs a better environment?

Pierce:

Bell Laboratories is generally better equipped as far as money and resources go. It was more cooperative. There's nothing uncooperative about these people in a negative sense. But they're all here pursuing their own projects. If it's a senior person, he's here for a sabbatical which he wants to devote to doing something that he already has in mind. Or if he's a graduate student, he's devoted to getting his thesis done, which may be composing a piece and coping with a system or a process of doing this. People do learn from one another and from the senior staff such as Chris Chaffe or Julius Smith. Perry Cook is a member of the staff, and his obligation as he sees it is to help people.

There was a wider pool of talent, of course, in the research department at the Bell Laboratories, or even in my division than there is in all of CCRMA. One could also undertake things that were on a larger scale, like the ECHO experiment. Well, very frankly, I could participate in things that were going on in my division in a more direct way than here. It's because it's just a different place. Its goals are different, the way it runs is different. I think it's a wonderful way for it to run.

Goldstein:

Okay.

Pierce:

From whom at Bell Laboratories did I learn things? I can't say that there's any one person. The person I admired most was Harald Friis. Not that he was the smartest person in the world, but the way he ran this little individual Holmdel laboratory. Always rightly, very effectively and economically. Internally, if they needed some technology they mastered it. They didn't send something out to the plating shop to be plated if this were important. Friis gave a talk at the annual Executive Conference, to high level people, executive directors, on some observations on research. I later went to question him about these things, and wrote up interpretations, and got this thing published after his retirement: "The Wisdom of Harald Friis."

I learned a lot of things from other people. I admired several people very much. I admired Bill Baker very much. I admired Mervin Kelly very much though we had very little to do with one another. I admired Bill Shockley very much; he was a contemporary. One good thing about Ralph Bown, (he's the person whom Bill Baker said had blinders on), was that when he was head of the research department, he had a luxurious office, and he was always there, and he was never busy. You could always walk in and talk to him. I thought that was wonderful. When I was executive director, the person who appeared at my door or who called me had precedence over anything else. These weren't arranged meetings. They happened because somebody wanted access or information or help.

Goldstein:

You just said you admired Bill Shockley. Shockley introduced you to Liouville's Theorem.

Pierce:

Yes. That was in connection with the deflection tube.

Goldstein:

Here was somebody who had a theoretical understanding.

Pierce:

He was very generous with his time and very straightforward.

Goldstein:

Was Shockley the theoretical one, Kompfner, the empirical one, and were you somewhere in between?

Pierce:

I think I'm somewhere in between.

Goldstein:

Is that the way you like to see yourself?

Pierce:

Yes, I guess so. Except Shockley, he was a theoretical rather than an experimental person, but he wasn't obsessively theoretical. He really wanted to get down to the understanding of things.

Goldstein:

Of real things?

Pierce:

Real things, yes.

Goldstein:

What you liked about how Friis' lab was that if they needed something they just made it.

Pierce:

Goldstein:

It seems like there's an appreciation of self-reliance.

Pierce:

Harald Friis' laboratory was important. They made it themselves. They understood thoroughly what they were dealing with, and they made it well. Much better than some things are done at CCRMA. But nonetheless, some things are done at CCRMA very well: taking care of the computer network. You met the guy who does that.

Goldstein:

Right. Here's the thing I want to get at: A lot of your work has been you following through on an idea that you yourself had.

Pierce:

Yes.

Role in ECHO

Goldstein:

And pushing it as far as you could go. You work on your own projects. I want to contrast that with your role in ECHO which is, perhaps, what you're best known for.

Pierce:

Yeah.

Goldstein:

Pierce:

Propagandist.

Goldstein:

[Chuckling] Do you see both roles fitting comfortably in your character?

Pierce:

No. They're not that many things that I would feel as strongly as I did about ECHO. Communications satellites have revolutionized the world. And if you don't believe that, think of Hussein broadcasting from Baghdad during the Gulf War. It's impossible to hide anything anymore. You can ignore things if they don't have news value, but they can't be hidden anymore. Communications satellites were more important than I could have realized. But it seemed, here was space, which was a wonderful new frontier, and here was something useful you could do. And as a matter of fact, it's the only thing that pays for itself in space. But there are very few things that I could have any relation to that I would be so convinced about as communications satellites.

Goldstein:

Pierce:

Yes. The things that I think I'm better adapted to are thinking about things, talking with people about things, and writing about things.

Goldstein:

When you found yourself in this motivational role for ECHO, did you have any trouble doing it? Or were you able to effectively prod people?

Pierce:

"Prod" is the wrong word. "Inspire" is better. I should have disturbing dreams, and maybe I'd find the answer to this. [Chuckling] I think I did what was called for at the time.

Bell System in “2001”

Oh, let me tell you a story that has nothing else to do with it except that it's suggested by this. I'd known Arthur Clarke for a long time when he hit the big time and set out to do the film "2001." He was in New York. He came to New York periodically anyway, and I'd known him for a number of years. He was trying to get support, technical support. I don't think it was money support; maybe he wanted that, too, from various companies, including AT&T, for help in making the film. Really, technological help.

And you'll remember, John Kelly's "Bicycle Built for Two" got into the thing. Well, I've told this before, but not that I got in touch with AT&T, thinking they would jump at this. But they would have nothing to do with it. The argument that was given me: Suppose that 2001 came around and what they provided hadn't been right. [Chuckling] Well, when 2001 will come around, there will be no Bell System. There isn't right now. And that was a big shock for them. So I just told a young guy to give Arthur Clarke whatever he wanted, and he got insignia and there was a Bell System phone in the Orbiter Hilton, video phone, and so on. Well, it didn't bother me to do this. And nobody seriously objected. The people at the AT&T public relations department there called up Mike Noll, who is the guy who did this, and started to question him about why he was doing it. He told them that I'd told him to do it, and it sort of stopped there. They didn't want to tangle about it. But your question is how do I deal with things? Somehow I manage to deal with things.

Economic Issues

Goldstein:

All right, this is a whole different line now. I remember that we talked for a little while about your work at Bell in the late 'sixties. Many of your technical memoranda involve economic issues, and you said that's because the economists came to Bell.

Pierce:

I now wonder what's in those memoranda. [Chuckling] I don't have the slightest memory.

Goldstein:

Maybe we can find out.

Pierce:

Well, we could. They're in Wyoming.

Goldstein:

Oh, really! That's where things are kept in the AT&T Archives.

Pierce:

No, when I was moved from Cal Tech up to here at Stanford, I had a lot of stuff I didn't want to move. There's an archive in Wyoming that asked if I would send my stuff there. They said, We've got Bill Baker's stuff. That was good enough for me. So I sent all my technical memoranda and a lot of books to which I had contributed. I sent all this miscellaneous clutter out to this place in Wyoming.

Goldstein:

I should find out about that. Maybe we can pause anyway if you're going to look for something.

Pierce:

Well, I was going to look for Wyoming.

Goldstein:

The Center publishes a Guide to Manuscript Repositories and this is the kind of thing that we need to know about.

Pierce:

Here's Wyoming. This is the latest thing in 1991, thanking me for signing the Deed of Gift to the John R. Pierce Collection. Shall I Xerox this?

Goldstein:

Yes. We didn't have it.

Pierce:

Here's the address. American Heritage. [pause] You can send it to Wyoming. I paid the postage myself. I didn't pay it myself. Whatever money I had at Cal Tech paid it. Claude Shannon said that I had to have a Xerox machine, and he was right. Since then a fellow at Stanford asked me if I would give my documents to Stanford, and I said it was too late. I'd already given them to somebody else. Well, this has the address and at least one name.

Goldstein:

Thank you very much.

Pierce:

I've never visited this Wyoming place. I don't have any eyewitness evidence that it exists. [Chuckling]

Goldstein:

Okay, I'll get to publish this soon. I don't know if I know what you were after with those economic studies, and if you found what you were interested in.

Pierce:

I had just got interested, talking to the economists, in the sort of problems they had and what they did about them. It gave me ideas. One of my reasons for writing things is to explain them to myself. If I can't explain them to myself, I won't be able to explain them to anyone else.

Goldstein:

Did you conclude that what the economists were doing was worthwhile?

Pierce:

Some of them. I still worry about economists.

There's a nice economist, essentially retired, Moe Abramovitz here, whom I met through a friend. I see him occasionally. He is a good practical economist. I asked him, Where does economics come from anyway? What's the basis of it? I can understand if you have Maxwell's equations or Newton's Laws of Motion and the Laws of Relativity, you can deduce a lot of consequences.

So the next thing I knew I was having lunch with Kenneth Arrow, this Nobel Laureate. I asked him in my naive way where do the economics come from. He mentioned human behavior and so forth. But I think he was a little offended. I hadn't really meant to offend, but I sure did.

I have another friend who's a professor at mathematics and computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, whose name I will remember. He's a brilliant information theorist and mathematician and statistician. He had worked up ways of making money on the commodities market, and it was working pretty well. He said that the economists who worked on things like that were really very sound. It's a sort of probabilistic thing, and it apparently worked. They had come to the same sort of mathematics that he knew, all by a different route and under different names. But this is something that's testable.

Do you make money on the commodities market this way? You don't make much, because things are pretty well set up against you at making much.

Where does economics come from? It comes from the abstract idea of a market. What we were talking earlier about ideas, you know, that in all societies there's some form of marriage and family, and there's some religion. And these are just almost universal to human behavior. But you don't go very far from that mathematically. It isn't that sort of knowledge. Is mathematical elaboration justified by the accuracy or the determinacy (or something or other) of whatever it starts out with?

Goldstein:

That's a key question. What would you think?

Pierce:

I'm really in no place to answer things like that. I haven't studied enough. But I noticed a little bit of it in the economists at the Labs, too, the ones that came in from outside: Treating the subject as if it were another of the laws of nature or something. The laws are really right. The laws are really there. But I have a feeling that the mathematics comes in in more specialized ways, as in making money on the market. Where you can see a little more about what the undetermined things are, and what part chance is playing in all this. It's a more determined thing than general economic behavior. I have a sort of feeling that maybe there's more mathematics there than the subject can comfortably bear.

Goldstein:

You mean it doesn't have the conceptual foundation? What they're doing is making very elaborate formulas based on shaky notions?

Pierce:

Yes, essentially.

Goldstein:

Do you remember specifically what any of the economic investigations you did concluded? Or even looked at?

Pierce:

I remember one that I looked at. I had an argument that an increase in productivity should raise the price of everything. I can't remember the argument. I think that the argument was valid, however. Just as valid as saying you should make everything cheaper. I had a young economist there, and I was talking with him. He had been filled full of all sorts of stuff that may or may not have been true, but he believed implicitly.

Goldstein:

When you say "should," do you mean "should have the effect to make"?

Pierce:

Should have the effect, yes. It's probably embalmed in one of those memoranda. I know I tried to get a paper published, and that was a mistake. Because publication in the field of economics is different from publication in other fields. It requires a lot of empirical data as well as theory. They exist in separate bins somehow. There was a very nice and sensible economist who was a consultant to Bell Laboratories. I can't remember his name.

Goldstein:

The proposition that you just made, that increased productivity should increase the prices, that sounds iconoclastic and teasing. Did you take this seriously?

Pierce:

Oh, that may not have been exactly what it was. It did sound wrong, but it seemed sensible to me at the time. I can't remember the details. Sometimes when I try to talk to you about things, I remember the details, and in this case I didn't.

Goldstein:

You looked after it for a few years. And I just wondered whether it was to satisfy a personal curiosity of yours?

Pierce:

I was supposed to be interested in it. I got interested in it because these people were in my division.

Goldstein:

You dropped it fast once you were out of Bell Laboratories, unlike music.

Pierce:

Yes. It had no strong fascination for me.

Goldstein:

Yeah. Do you know if any of the work you did had an impact at Bell?

Pierce:

I'm sure it didn't.

Goldstein:

Did the economics department at Bell at all have an impact?

Pierce:

Well, it created a number of good economists. Whether it did the Bell System any good or not, I don't know. It really can't have had an impact because they were brought there to study a regulated industry. If they know it down to a gnat's eyelash, it wouldn't matter anymore because of the divestiture.

Goldstein:

You're right. We have the divestiture. There's also the Consent Decree of 1956. Now we started to talk about that just briefly once. But do you remember that having much impact in the Labs in general or your position?

Pierce:

Nineteen fifty-six. What did they do?

Goldstein:

It was an anti-trust suit that had been going on for a few years. Then in '56 the decision was made that the Bell System wouldn't be divested of its holdings, but Bell couldn't go into the computer manufacture.

Pierce:

Yes. Well, the main thing about that was that they gave up all their patent rights. Maybe that was an earlier one.

Goldstein:

I'm not sure.

Pierce:

There was one, and there was a tremendous stir after that to patent everything that came up new.

Goldstein:

Oh, you mean all patents from before that date?

Pierce:

From before a date, yes. So there was a great patenting push. The patent department, the patent attorneys, couldn't cope with it. So people, myself included, learned how to at least take the first step in drafting a patent application ourselves.

Goldstein:

It sounds like you're saying there was no sharp discontinuity in research before and after '56.

Pierce:

I don't think so.

Goldstein:

Pierce:

Except for that computer thing. There was a big effort at Bell Laboratories to apply computers to the way that the Bell System did its business. That was led first by a couple of people I know. I don't think that in itself it accomplished much. The first part of it didn't accomplish much.

Goldstein:

Pierce:

I'm trying to think. I don't just know. Gordon Thayer was put in charge of the first stage of it. He was a Bell Laboratories person, and then he'd gone up as a vice president of a Telephone Company. Later he came back and was put in charge of this. And I can't even remember the name of it. That was probably in the 'fifties or 'sixties.

Goldstein:

Well, we know that you were in charge of switching theory research right around 1960. Was that an extension of that program?

Pierce:

No.

Goldstein:

That's something very different?

Pierce:

Too bad that I can't remember all these dates. I didn't even keep a record of what my title was at various times. Let me look and see what on earth it is that I have there. [pause] Let's see what "Miscellaneous" is. [pause] Well, this is what "Miscellaneous" is. This wasn't helpful.

Goldstein:

Right, I've got that sheet. Yeah.

Pierce:

Someplace I have a lot of stuff about from which these dates were drawn. Consulting and so forth. I've forgotten all of these things. This brings back a lot of things. Commission on the Year 2000, member 665. I sat through that next to a sympathetic biologist, and he said that, "Now I understand the difference between social science and science. In science you try to replicate what other people have done. In social science you try to get other people to say what you've said." [Chuckling]

Goldstein:

Pierce:

Well, that was his experience. I didn't disagree with this.

Professional Activities and NSA

Goldstein:

I noticed a few other IEEE activities. I guess these don't stand out prominently in your memories.

Pierce:

No, they don't. But I was in from 1/65 to 12/31/68. Science Editorial Board, American Newspaper Publishers Association. Advisory Committee many years. Member, Commission Six, '62 to '67. Advisory Board, '62 to '63. 'Sixty-four to '66. What is NSA? Newspapers and something or other of America.

Goldstein:

Isn't that the National Science Association?

Pierce:

What is that?

Goldstein:

The NSA. No, I'm sorry. I was thinking of the National Security Agency.

Pierce:

Yes, it's the National Security Agency. Electromagnetic Panel.

Goldstein:

Let me ask you. In making decisions to serve on a board like this, what do you consider?

Pierce:

I must have considered whether I thought it was worthwhile. Whether I was asked through somebody at Bell Laboratories. The National Security Agency, the NSA, Bill Baker was deep in that. So he asked me to serve, and I served until I got tired of it.

Goldstein:

You mean you had the freedom to quit serving? It wasn't sort of an obligation of your job, your position under Baker?

Pierce:

If I'd told him I didn't want to do it, I wouldn't have done it.

Goldstein:

Do you remember the sort of issues you treated?

Pierce:

Yes.

Goldstein:

I remember you were telling me that you were interested in security.

Pierce:

After the war I didn't have much to do with this. That was a very interesting story, and I met very interesting people. And I will say this for the National Security Agency, it really does something. It gathers data and it monitors radio transmissions. It decrypts (or tries to) encrypted things. For years, at least, it was classified enough to keep Congress more or less out of its hair. It as by far the most effective government agency I ever saw and the highest technical level of any government agency I ever saw.

Goldstein:

Do you think that's because they managed to steer clear of all the normal pitfalls of public civil service agencies?

Pierce:

Yes, they were pretty much hidden from the public. Unlike the CIA, which I had a brief experience with. CIA is very good at the things that are really pretty well hidden, launching and benefiting from surveillance satellites and things like that. The other things are very spotty.

I didn't know the CIA nearly as well as I knew the NSA. Some of the peripheral intelligence gathering of the CIA I mentioned earlier, but without naming the agency. When Stalin fell and everything didn't have to be certainty but could be probability, the Russians got into cybernetics and things like that. They convinced some very low-level people in the CIA that they had a hold of wonderful new things that were going to influence the future. The true thing was that this was the first chance they'd been able to talk about the work of others.

Goldstein:

Were you personally concerned when Sputnik went up?

Pierce:

Well, I have a story about this that I partially remember and Cal Quate vouches for. He had known about my earlier interest in communications satellites, and he asked me what me reaction to Sputnik was. I said it was the same as a mystery writer who went home and found a body in the living-room. [Chuckling] This was something that I really hadn't taken seriously. It was just good science-fiction fun until Sputnik.

Goldstein:

Did you worry about America's position, America's security?

Pierce:

No.

Goldstein:

Did you know any who did take it seriously?

Pierce:

Well, not a serious person. This was mostly general public feeling.

Goldstein:

Right. My impression was that there was a hysteria. But you think it was just a poorly-informed one?

Pierce:

Yes. Things had been perking along too slowly. The IDA Starlight Study. Advisory Panel. NAS Computer Science & Engineering Board. I was a vice chairman of that. Incredible! Science Editorial Board. That I remember. American Newspaper Publishers Association, Member of the Science Advisory Committee. Then went on for years and years. That was interesting. Starlight Study Group. Princeton University Advisory. Good grief! '63 to '69, I'd forgotten all about that. Carnegie Institute of Technology, member of the EE Visiting Committee. I was a team member of the EE Visiting Committee. I don't remember anything about that. NAS....

Goldstein:

What I sense from all this is that your involvement was only peripheral.

Pierce:

I think so, yes. DOD part-time consultant, 1964. Fubini was either the head of the ARPA or next to the head of the ARPA. Or maybe he was on some other government organization. But I used to go and see him when I was in Washington on other business. Gene Fubini. At one time he gave me a lush lunch at the Pentagon. He had a major, I guess it was, who was his aide, and they had, apparently, zippy dining rooms. And he gave the full-fledged zippy lunch. Edison Medal Committee member. American Academy of Arts & Sciences Commission on the Year 2000. IDA, Princeton, for the National Security Agency. The Institute of Defense Analysis ran for some of the less deeply classified things a very interesting program. I was on that from '64 to '67. I met very bright people who helped NSA. Desert Research Institute chairman of the Board of Advisors, '65, '66. Well, that one just went on. That was when I went out to Reno to get a divorce. PSAC member, '63 to '66. IEEE International Editorial Board of Electronics Letters, '65. Science Year, the World Book of Science Annual Board of Contributing Editors, '65. Dropped '66 it says. NRC, NAS representative section of the Division of Engineering, '66 to '69. National Academy of Science, Committee on Science Technology, Citizen Commission, '67. Department of Transportation Advisory Board, '70 to — it doesn't tell how long. That was when Bob Cannon was Assistant Secretary, and I was mentioned on that. Well, Battelle Memorial Institute, Associate Trustee and then Trustee. That's the one that ran from '53 to '88. Aerospace Corporation Trustee. It was three years, but I don't remember when. I still get invited back to a bash once a year.

Goldstein:

The strange thing is if your involvement was incidental, I wonder why you picked the ones that you did to participate in?

Pierce:

I guess I must have been asked by those.

Goldstein:

Pierce:

True.

Goldstein: