Memorial Tributes: Volume 26
Tribute Author
Membership Directory

Search this Publication

  • JOHN B. MACCHESNEY (1929-2021)



    JOHN BURNETTE MacCHESNEY, retired fellow of Bell Laboratories and a pioneer in the fabrication of modern optical fibers, died September 30, 2021, at the age of 92.

    He was born July 8, 1929, in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, to Samuel Burnette and Helen Bond MacChesney. He received his BA degree in chemistry from Bowdoin College in 1951 and served in the US Army from 1951 to 1953. Following his service in the Army, he enrolled at Pennsylvania State University, where he received a PhD in geological chemistry in 1959.

    Doctorate in hand, he began his career as a member of the technical staff in the Research Division of Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ. In 1982 he was elevated to Bell Laboratories Fellow, the highest distinction given to nonmanagement engineers. With the company’s divestiture in 1984, he continued with AT&T Bell Laboratories and, 12 years later, with the newly formed Lucent Technologies. In 2001 he continued working at OFS Laboratories, with the spinoff of OFS Fitel from Lucent, until his retirement in 2006.

    John began his 47-year career by extending his graduate research on high-pressure synthesis of new materials of interest for their optical properties. But in the mid- to late 1960s he observed the efforts at Bell Labs to fabricate optical fibers from highly purified multicomponent glasses. Despite achieving very high purities, these glasses still had impurity levels high enough to absorb too much of the optical signal in the fibers, rendering them impractical for long-distance transmission.

    In the early 1970s John invented a fiber fabrication technique that overcame the impurity limitations and facilitated tailoring of the core-cladding structure. The method, called modified chemical vapor deposition (MCVD), uses silicon tetrachloride (SiCl4) and other dopant gases (e.g., GeCl4) that can be highly purified by distillation. The SiCl4 and dopant gases, along with oxygen, are fed into a silica glass tube rotating in a glass lathe. A burner on the outside of the tube heats the gases and they react to form high-purity silicon dioxide (SiO2) and/or doped SiO2 particles. The particles adhere to the inside of the tube downstream of the torch and are fused to the inside glass surface as the torch passes along the tube. This process is repeated to form the desired refractive index profile for the fiber. After deposition of the cladding and core, the entire deposited tube is collapsed to a rod on the lathe and then drawn into a fiber.

    With the ease of adjusting the level of various dopants and their resultant refractive index profiles, the MCVD method was used by AT&T in its fiber manufacturing business and adopted worldwide. For this achievement John shared the NAE Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering in 1999 with the citation “Conception and invention of optical fiber for communications and for the development of manufacturing processes that made the telecommunications revolution possible.”

    He continued to work on glasses for optical communications, with significant achievements in plasma processing, planar waveguides, and sol-gel silica processing for fibers. He published over 90 contributed and invited papers and had over 70 national and international patents. The most important was US Patent 4,217,027, Optical Fiber Production and Resulting Product by John B. MacChesney and Paul B. O’Connor, granted August 12, 1980, the continuation of a filing on February 22, 1974.

    In addition to the Draper Prize, he received many honors and awards for his contributions, of which the following list is but a sampling: George W. Morey Award of the Glass Division, American Ceramic Society (ACerS) (1976); IEEE Morris N. Libman Award (1978); Engineering Achievement Award, American Society of Metals (1983); International Prize, Japan Fine Ceramics Association (1987); World Materials Congress Award (1988); International Prize for New Materials (corecipient), American Physical Society (1989); ACerS John Jeppson Award (1992); IEEE John Tyndall Award (1999); and Industrial Ceramics Prize (2000), World Academy of Ceramics.

    In 1985 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in the Materials Engineering Section and served on its Executive Committee (2001–03) and Peer Committee (1992–95). He was also an ACerS fellow (1986).

    John shared his lifelong interest in automotive history with his son, and was an avid collector of unusual classic cars. He also loved playing bridge and in about 1960 was a founding member of a duplicate bridge group of Bell Labs friends and colleagues. The group has met monthly since then and John enjoyed the regular get-togethers for over 60 years as the longest participating founding member.

    John’s wife of 68 years, Janice (née Hoyt), preceded him in death on July 6, 2020. He is survived by his son John B. (Jean) MacChesney Jr. of Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, one grandson, and two great-grandchildren.