Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • PAUL M. COOK (1924-2020)



    PAUL MAXWELL COOK, a consummate inventor and exceptional entrepreneur, passed away December 14, 2020, at age 96. He was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey, April 25, 1924, to John and Elizabeth Ransom Cook. He developed an interest in chemistry at a young age and set up a basement laboratory in his parents’ home when he was 12 years old.

    Accepted to MIT, he began his studies in chemical engineering under Warren K. Lewis (NAE 1966) but in 1943 put his education on hold to enlist in the Army. As a lieutenant he joined the famed 10th Mountain Division, serving in combat in Italy toward the end of World War II. After his military service he returned to MIT and completed his BS in chemical engineering in 1947.

    He worked for a year with his older brother in their startup, Warren Wire Company, and then left to join the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) as a chemical engineer, where he supervised a study to determine the potential industrial uses of waste fission products—alpha emitters, beta emitters, and gamma ray producers. Although the study showed limited industrial uses for these products, Paul became convinced that radiation could be used to develop new materials for industrial applications. He continued to experiment with other sources of ionizing radiation that were more controlled and directional to crosslink polymers.

    He founded the Sequoia Process Corporation in 1951 and then, in 1957, the Raychem Corporation, based on his innovations. The company applied radiation chemistry to polymeric materials, creating products with new properties that were widely adopted by the aviation, electronics, and telecommunications industries. Paul served as chief executive of the company and, under his leadership, 200,000 products were created at Raychem. His efforts were transformative and are credited with the industrialization of radiation chemistry and signature materials/devices including shape memory materials (heat shrink polymers) and thermal fuses to protect electronic components from damage.

    He became chair of Raychem’s board of directors in 1990 and remained on the board until 1995. He was also a director (1987–93) and chair (1993–98; emeritus in 1999) of SRI International, and chair of Sarnoff Corporation (1993–2001).

    In 2000 he founded Promptu Corporation and served as CEO until May 2006. The company pioneered the use of speech technology to navigate and search content on TV and mobile phones. At the time of his passing, he was chair of his latest venture, Vox Frontera Inc., a voice recognition company.

    Paul Cook was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1985 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1990. In 1988 he was one of 10 American technologists to receive the National Medal of Technology from President Ronald Reagan. His citation reads: “For his vision and entrepreneurial efforts, his technical accomplishments, and his business and technical leadership as the key contributor in creating a worldwide chemically based industry.” He received the Winthrop-Sears Medal from the Chemical Industry Association in 1986 and, in 1989, the Golden Omega Award for contributions to technical progress from the Electrical/Electronic Insulation Conference (EEIC). In 1991 he was the first inductee into the Raychem P.M. Cook Technical Hall of Fame. He was named to the San Francisco Bay Area Business Hall of Fame in 1999 and won the 2008 Weldon B. “Hoot” Gibson Award from SRI.

    A loyal son of MIT, Paul was appointed to the MIT Corporation in 1971. His service included terms on the visiting committees for chemical engineering, ocean engineering, physics, and 26 years as a member of the visiting committee for chemistry. He was also an active contributor and volunteer to many organizations in his beloved Bay Area.

    Paul is survived by his wife Marcia, son Gavin (Cecilia), stepchildren Richard Souter (Mary) and Susan Lengyel, and nine grandchildren.