John R. Pierce
John R. Pierce Draper Prize
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  • Draper
Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering
Go To Award

The advent of communication satellites opened the door to a new era of global communication. Today making a transatlantic phone call or witnessing the daily events from Europe and abroad seems commonplace. But before communication satellites, placing a call to friends or relatives in Europe was a time-consuming and expensive endeavor, and the possibility of live video transmissions from foreign countries was almost unimaginable. In fact, science fiction writer and aerospace engineer Arthur C. Clarke is generally credited with first proposing the idea of a communication satellite network in space in 1945 in an article titled "Extra-Terrestrial Relays."

"John Pierce and Harold Rosen are the fathers of the communication satellite," said Clarke. "They designed, developed, and produced it, making real that which I and others thought only to write and dream about."

Pierce, while working at AT&T Bell Laboratories, was able to realize this bold new concept by designing and launching the now-famous Telstar 1, the world's first active communication satellite. Rosen, while at Hughes Aircraft, then took satellites a leap forward by devising an ingenious method of placing the Syncom II satellite in geosynchronous orbit -- orbiting at the same rate as the Earth's rotation, so it appeared to remain at one fixed location in the sky.

Pierce's pioneering work was the catalyst for almost every significant development in space-based telecommunication and satellite technology. During the 1950s, Pierce proposed the foundations for unmanned passive and active communication satellites. Though his ideas were initially resisted, Pierce was able to persuade NASA in 1960 to build and launch Echo. Echo was essentially a large aluminum sphere about 100 feet in diameter that acted like a mirror in space, bouncing radio waves from one ground-based station to another. Its success led to Telstar 1, launched in 1962.

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  • Draper
  • 1995
  • Development of communication satellite technology.