• 1928 May 13
    (b.) -
    2008 December 02


A British physicist, who spent most of his career in the United States, he discovered the Gunn Effect, which led to the invention of the Gunn diode, the first inexpensive source of microwave power that did not require vacuum tubes. Gunn diodes have been used to build cheap oscillators - up to 100 GHz - used in measuring automobile speed by police radar. He was born in Cairo, Egypt, to Battiscombe "Jack" Gunn, a leading Egyptologist and Lillian Florence (Meena) Meacham Hughes Gunn, who studied psychoanalytic technique with Sigmund Freud. In 1931 the family moved to Glen Riddle, Pennsylvania, while his father was Curator of the Egyptian Section of the museum at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. As a young boy he already showed an interest in electronics taking the family radio set apart at the age of 4 to see how it worked. The Gunn family returned to England in 1934 when his father was appointed Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford. It was at this point that the younger Gunn rejected the name "John". From then on, he was known personally as "Ian" or "Iain" (the Scottish form of "John"), given to him by his aunt, the Scottish nationalist Wendy Wood. He was educated in England, with the exception of two years spent at Solebury School, Pennsylvania as a wartime evacuee. He was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1945 to 1948. Official records show that he studied Natural Sciences prelim Class II in 1946, Natural Sciences tripos Class III in 1947, Mechanical Science Class II in 1948 (in the terminology Cambridge used for its curricula) and graduated with a B.A. degree in 1948, but did not take an M.A. degree. He described it himself as, "I took two years of the natural sciences; physics, chemistry, mathematics and so on. In the last year I was able to switch to electronic engineering, which was something that was just started at Cambridge at that time." While at Cambridge, he spent a "work-study" term at the Royal Radar Establishment (RRE) in Malvern, Worcestershire, where he met Freda Pilcher (1924?1975), an Infant School teacher who was working in the RRE library. They married in London in 1950, and had three daughters, Janet, Donna, and Gillian. After Freda's death from lung cancer, he did not remarry. His first full-time job was with the computer manufacturer Elliott Brothers in London. In 1953 he returned to RRE in Malvern, taking up a post as a Junior Government Research Fellow, where he worked on avalanche injection, carrier accumulation and related topics in experimental semiconductor physics. He left England for North America as part of the post-war brain drain. He first moved to Canada in 1956, to take up an Assistant Professorship at the University of British Columbia, before going to the United States in 1959 to work at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center at Yorktown Heights, New York. He stayed with IBM for the rest of his career, spending time on the Corporate Technology Committee, and at the San Jose research lab in California, before returning to Yorktown. He retired in 1990. In 1962, while working for IBM, he discovered the Gunn effect based upon his refusal to accept inconsistent experimental results in Gallium arsenide as simply "noise". This led to the invention of the Gunn diode, a miniature microwave generator. While he recognized the importance of the effect, he was not able to determine the underlying physical process. In December 1964, Herbert Kroemer claimed that the Gunn Effect was based upon the Ridley-Watkins-Hilsum effect. Alan Chynoweth, of Bell Telephone Laboratories, showed in June 1965 that only a transferred-electron mechanism could explain the experimental results. His research papers on solid state physics and electronics relate to microwave oscillations, lattice wave amplification, the Hall effect, quantum electronics, and applications of microwave oscillations to astrophysics. He stopped working on semiconductor physics in 1972, and pursued a number of different interests in his role as IBM Fellow. He spent nearly three years developing an APL computer model of a computer-controlled car, which showed that fuel consumption could be halved. This was part of a joint effort with John Cocke, who made major contributions to computer architecture, and R. A. Toupin in a study, that used computer simulation to investigate regenerative braking, a high-pressure hydraulic system to store energy, and several other topics that are now quite common practice. He then became engrossed in APL itself, seeing it as a way to "make a tool to make a tool to do something" (just like his extensive home machine shop). His work on "self-documenting code" led to early work in computer viruses. At one point he was mistakenly credited with inventing the term. In the early 1980s, IBM was having problems with particular circuit boards failing even though they had passed their initial reliability tests. He was the first to suggest non-linear measurements to detect incipient opens, and this led to a production tool which effectively solved the problem. Later, he was involved in various task forces addressing the design and reliability of new disk drives. His final area of technical investigation was multi-valued logic, which is a propositional calculus in which there are more than two truth values. The philosopher Patrick Grim states "J. B. Gunn has done significant work in solving various self-referential sentences in this sense. See for example his 'Notes on an Algebraic Logic of Self-Reference', unpublished. I am obliged to Gunn for extensive and very helpful correspondence. PG" However, IBM was less interested in this area, and he retired from IBM in 1990. He was a Permanent Resident Alien in the US for almost 50 years (1959 to 2008). After retirement his primary mechanical outlet was vintage cars and racing motorcycles (of which he had eight and 40 respectively at the time of his death). He raced for another 10 years after he retired from IBM, applying his problem solving approach to his motorcycle racing: He is quoted as saying, "The world is not full of unfathomable mysteries that you can only solve with luck. If you really want to understand why something is happening, you can probably attack it in a scientific way and find out what is going on." He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received the 1969 IEEE Morris N. Liebmann Memorial Award, the Valdemar Poulsen Medal of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, and the John Scott Award. He was named an IEEE Fellow in 1968 and IBM Fellow in 1971.
  • Date of Birth:

    1928 May 13
  • Date of Death:

    2008 December 02
  • Noted For:

    Inventor of the Gunn diode, the first inexpensive source of microwave power that did not require vacuum tubes
  • Category of Achievement:

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