Attention NAE Members
Starting June 30, 2023, login credentials have changed for improved security. For technical assistance, please contact us at 866-291-3932 or email@example.com. For all other inquiries, please contact our Membership Office at 202-334-2198 or NAEMember@nae.edu.
Click here to login if you're an NAE Member
Recover Your Account Information
This is the forth volume in the series of Memorial Tributes compiled by the National Academy of Engineering as a personal remembrance of the lives and outstanding achievements of its members and international members. These volumes are intended to stand as an enduring record of the many contributions of engineers and engineering to the benefit of humankind. In most cases, the authors of the tributes are contemporaries or colleagues who had personal knowledge of the interests and the engineering accomplishments of the deceased.
BY DAVID SLEPIAN
Stephen O. "Steve" Rice, a communications engineer of worldwide renown and a pioneer in the applications of probability techniques to engineering problems, died of pulmonary fibrosis on November 18, 1986, at the Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California. He was seventy-eight. During the previous fourteen years, he had served on the staff of the University of California, San Diego, as a research physicist in electrical engineering and computer sciences. He will be missed by the engineering community for his special talents and his scientific contributions; he will be sorely missed by those who knew and loved him for the fine man he was.
Steve Rice was born on November 29, 1907, in the small town of Shedds, Oregon, the only child of Stephen Rice, a buttermaker, and Selma R. Bergren. Some years later the family moved to Astoria, Oregon, where Steve finished his secondary education. Subsequently, he entered Oregon State University, Corvallis, and there received a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1929. It was during his senior year that he met Inez Biersdorf, who two years later became his wife and lifelong companion.
The academic year 1929-30 was spent in Pasadena, California, where Steve undertook graduate studies in physics at the California Institute of Technology. In the fall of 1930, he joined Bell Telephone Laboratories, then located in New York City in lower Manhattan. For the next forty-one years until his retirement in 1972, Bell was to remain Steve's technical home and the center of his professional activities. His first job there was with a small group of mathematically inclined engineers involved in transmission research. The mathematical analysis of communication systems became and remained his primary technical interest.
During his long career with Bell Laboratories, Rice's official title, his department, and his location of work changed several times, but the nature of his work remained much the same. His great talent was recognized very early, and Steve was soon given a free hand to pursue research of his own interest. These interests, inspired by the problems he saw about him, fortunately overlapped closely those of the Laboratories, and so a fruitful and lasting partnership was made. As Steve's contributions became known and as his reputation grew, he was actively sought out as a consultant by many different groups within the Laboratories. In this role, he was invaluable. At the time of his retirement from Bell, Steve's title was "Head, Communication Theory Department" and his work location was Murray Hill, New Jersey. In this role he oversaw a small group of top theorists and pursued his own research.
Rice had two periods of leave from Bell. In the depths of the depression, he returned for a year to the California Institute of Technology where he undertook further graduate studies while working on the Bateman Manuscript Project. This group prepared the first modern comprehensive series of volumes on the integral transforms and transcendental special functions of applied mathematics. Rice's deep knowledge of the classical special functions shows up in many of his later research papers. He was indeed a master of the classical analytic techniques their use demands. His second leave came much later when he served in 1958 as a Gordon McKay visiting lecturer at Harvard University.
Rice published sixty-three scientific papers during his career. With a few exceptions they fall into five categories: electromagnetic theory, applied mathematics, communication devices and systems, traffic theory, and noise theory. His work greatly influenced each of these fields. His contributions were always original and deep; many were seminal. His 1950 paper "Communication in the Presence of Noise" was the first in the new field of Information Theory to evaluate explicitly bounds on the error probability attainable with ideal systems. It preceded by ten years a burst of similar activity that occupied the information theorists in the 1960s. His 1951 paper "Reflection of Electromagnetic Waves from Slightly Rough Surfaces" was fundamental to the understanding of radar return from the ocean and celestial bodies. It was an early application to two dimensions of his methods in applied stochastic processes. The famous 1963 paper ''Noise in FM Receivers" with its ingenious original definition and analysis of "clicks" solved the long mystery of the sudden deterioration of FM above a certain threshold of noise and gave the most profound treatment of that modulation method.
One could cite other contributions of similar unusual merit, but it is for the monumental paper "Mathematical Analysis of Random Noise," published in two parts in the Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 23, July 1944, pp. 282-332, and Vol. 24, January 1945, pp. 46-156, that Steve will be best remembered. This long paper, really a treatise, laid the foundations of noise theory and at the same time solved many of its most interesting, important, and difficult problems. The paper has been of utmost importance in communication theory, ocean engineering, material engineering, aircraft design and analysis, and many other fields of technology where random phenomena play a significant role. That today, forty- six years later, this work is cited fifty times or more a year in papers from a dozen different fields is testimony to its enduring contribution.
The genesis of this famous paper merits comment. In the early 1940s Rice and many other Bell Laboratories engineers pursued graduate studies at Columbia University on a part-time basis. Many ultimately received their doctorates in this program. Rice did not. He completed his course work and submitted a highly original thesis, the result of many years of work and interest in applied probability. According to an oft-repeated story, which I have not been able to verify, the thesis was submitted to two different departments. Each rejected it, claiming that it was not in their purview. Be that as it may, for whatever reason the thesis was not accepted, and Steve gave up the goal of higher degrees. The submitted work was, of course, the paper "Mathematical Analysis of Random Noise." Years later, for his role in founding the new field that grew from this rejected thesis, he received an honorary D.Sc. from his alma mater Oregon State University.
In his forty years of active work after the appearance of "Mathematical Analysis of Random Noise," Steve published many additional papers that extended the theory and applied it to diverse situations of engineering interest. Almost always in these researches he was motivated by a concrete physical problem, and the mathematics he developed were incidental to the goal of solving the physical problem. Not content with results that were left as formulas, he would always evaluate complicated expressions and present curves and numerical results to illustrate the physical problem. Often these evaluations called for the invention of special techniques of approximation or of numerical analysis, and these Steve published as separate contributions to the mathematics literature. Highly skilled in mathematics and appreciative of the needs of rigor, yet motivated by real world problems and blessed with great originality and physical insight, Steve Rice was the ideal theoretical engineer.
After his retirement from Bell in 1972, Steve and his wife moved to La Jolla, California, where he joined the staff of the University of California with the title research physicist in electrical engineering and computer sciences. He had no official duties there but could be found daily in his office from 7 a.m. until noon pursuing his researches and giving freely of his time to students and faculty alike. Afternoons were spent with his family. He continued his researches actively up to the time of his death.
Steve received a number of awards in recognition of his technical achievements. He was a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and received its M. J. Kelly Award in 1965 and their Alexander Graham Bell Award in 1983. As already noted, he was honored with a D.Sc from Oregon State in 1961. He received the National Telecommunications Conference Outstanding Contribution Award in 1974. His election to the National Academy of Engineering was in 1977.
Great as were his technical achievements, to those of us who worked with him throughout the years Steve made an even greater contribution. He showed us how fine and how noble the nature of man can be. Steve was soft-spoken, quiet in his ways—a somewhat private person, yet with the greatest charity to all. He gave unstintingly of his time to all who asked. His patience seemed endless. He was the most genuinely modest person I have ever known. He seemed totally unaware of his very considerable accomplishments and talents. He coveted neither authority, fame, nor power. His life was his work, his family, and the demonstration of kindness to all.
Steve is survived by his wife, Inez; a son, Stephen E. Rice of Del Mar, California; two daughters, Carole Hanau of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, and Joan McHugh of San Diego, California; nine grandchildren and two great- grandchildren. By these and by all who knew him well, this kind and talented man will be forever missed.