May 2010 History

Scanning the Past: A History of Electrical Engineering from the Past 

Submitted by Marc Bell, Editor

Copyright 1996 IEEE. Reprinted with permission from the IEEE publication, “Scanning the Past” which covers a reprint of an article appearing in the Proceedings of the IEEE Vol. 84, No. 10, October 1996.

John S. Stone and the Professionalization of Communications Engineering

Eighty years ago this month, the PROCEEDINGS OF THE RADIO ENGINEERS (IRE) included a paper by John Stone concerning oscillations in electric circuits. At the time he was a self-employed communications consultant in New York City and the immediate past president of the IRE. As one of the first practicing engineers to apply sophisticated mathematical analysis to the improvement of communications systems, Stone (See Fig. 1) played a significant role in the emergence of communications engineering as a profession.

Stone was born in Dover, VA, in 1869. He spent his childhood in Europe and Egypt, where his father, a former U.S. Army general, helped modernize the Egyptian Army. In 1886, Stone enrolled in the School of Mines at Columbia University, New York, but in 1888 he transferred to Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, where he devoted two years to the study of physics and electrical engineering. He spent the summer of 1889 in Paris, France, in charge of an exhibit of the American Bell Telephone at the Paris Exposition.

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Fig. 1. John S. Stone, a pioneer in wireless telegraphy, was a founder

of the Society of Wireless Telegraph Engineers and a co-founder

of the IRE. (Reproduced from A Century of Electricals, IEEE Press, 1984.)

In 1890, Stone joined the technical staff of the American Bell Telephone Company in Boston, MA, where he worked until 1899. During this period, he did both theoretical and experimental work related to wire telephony and wireless communication. He introduced Oliver Heaviside’s transmission line theory to his fellow engineers and corresponded with Heaviside concerning applications of the theory. Stone received about 20 U.S. patents during his decade with the company, including an 1897 patent on the use of bimetallic wire with high self-induction to facilitate impedance matching. He also patented the Stone common battery system for use in telephony and experimented with the use of resonant circuits to enable multiplex transmission. His work set the stage for the introduction of loading coils and wave filters by a former assistant, George A. Campbell.

Stone was a consulting engineer in Boston from 1899 to 1902 when he founded the Stone Telegraph and Telephone Company to manufacture and market a system of wireless communication. Fig. 2 shows the typical schematic diagram of a Stone wireless telegraphic system and Fig. 3 shows the typical layout of apparatus in the telegraphic station.

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Fig. 2. This is a schematic for a complete wireless telegraph

station, designed around a cut-over switch which switches the

antenna from sending circuitry on the left to receiving apparatus

on the right. (Reproduced from Principles of Wireless Telephony

by George W. Pierce, McGraw-Hill, 1910.)

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Fig. 3. A view of the wireless telegraph installation including the

distinctive sending helix on the table. (Reproduced from Principles

of Wireless Telephony by George W. Pierce, McGraw-Hill, 1910.)

He presented a paper on the theory of wireless telegraphy at the International Electrical Congress in St. Louis, MO, in 1904. He also gave lectures on electric oscillations and resonance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As an outgrowth of the seminars for his employees, he founded the Society of Wireless Telegraph Engineers (SWTE) in Boston in 1907. Stone served as the first president of the SWTE and its members were commonly known as “swatties.” Twenty-two members, including Stone and Lee de Forest, became charter members of the IRE when it was formed in May 1912 through a merger of SWTE and the Wireless Institute of New York City. After the Stone Telegraph and Telephone Company went out of business in 1910, he moved to New York where he worked as a consultant and as an expert witness in patent litigation cases.

Stone called attention to the potential of the de Forest audion as a telephone amplifier in a paper at the Franklin Institute in 1912. In October 1912, he arranged a demonstration of the audion for engineers of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). This initiative led AT&T to purchase rights to the de Forest patents on the audion and to develop it into a reliable repeater for long distance telephony.

Stone served as the president of the IRE in 1915 and was awarded the IRE Medal of Honor in 1923. He received approximately 120 patents during his career. In 1919, he moved to San Diego, CA, for health reasons but continued to work as an AT&T consulting engineer from 1920 to 1934. He died in 1943 at age 73.

James E. Brittain

School of History , Technology and Society

Georgia Institute of Technology