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Bernard M. Oliver (1916–1995)

Published onSep 01, 1996
Bernard M. Oliver (1916–1995)

Bernard Oliver, after a life of extraordinary contributions to the fields of electronics, radio engineering, physics, astronomy, computer science, and biology, died on 23 November 1995 at the age of 79. Known to friends and family as "Barney," he was born 17 May 1916, on a modest farm in the coastal village of Soquel, California. A farm boy and only child, his father William was a civil engineer in Santa Cruz county, and his mother Margaret was a successful teacher in the Santa Cruz schools, encouraging her son to take a strong interest in all aspects of the world. Her standards and active intellect became Barney's professional hallmark. Echoing his mother's interests, Barney was an unrestrained defender of proper English grammar all his life, and was affectionately known for this trait.

Although he professed an interest in astronomy from the age of four, he also was keen on inventing things and gradually turned to electrical engineering. He entered Stanford and graduated in 1935 at the age of 19 and earned an MS from Caltech one year later. Two of his classmates at Stanford were William Hewlett and David Packard, both of whom were upstaged academically, and impressed, by the younger Barney. Following a year of study in Germany under an exchange scholarship, Barney returned to Caltech and completed his PhD degree, Magna cum Laude, in 1940. He was only 24 years old.

Barney went to work at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey, where he quickly established a reputation for brilliant creative insights and clever inventions. He made major contributions to the development of radar, and contributed to the development of the earliest television systems. An example of his seminal contributions is a paper on the "Philosophy of PCM (Pulse Code Modulation)," a coding system which was to become widespread.

In the meantime, Hewlett and Packard were starting a new electronics instrumentation firm in Palo Alto, acquiring electronics engineers from Stanford. They remembered Barney, tracked him down, and after many refusals of very attractive job offers, Oliver decided to join the fledgling Hewlett-Packard Company in 1952 as Director of Research, partly because it was close to his childhood home in Soquel.

Barney was central to the technical innovations which contributed to the emergence of Hewlett-Packard (HP) as one of the industrial wonders of the modem world. In 1957 he became Vice-President of Research and Development, and in 1966 he founded what is now known as the HP Laboratories, which he directed until his retirement in 1981. World renowned for its desktop computers and calculators, HP instrumentation also contributed to the development of radio astronomy. A curious twist to this history is that the HP Board originally thought there would be no substantial market for electronic calculators. The Board decided to produce the calculator mostly because Barney insisted that it could be made a commercial success.

While at HP, Barney retained his passion for astronomy. In particular, his background in radio engineering led to his interest in radio astronomy and the possibility that radio telescopes might be a means to detect extraterrestrial intelligent life. He was fascinated when, in 1960, attempts were begun to detect radio waves from other civilizations. He had already calculated that such a search, with existing telescopes, made sense. He visited the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, and was eager to give any aid that he might to the project.

He made a giant step when, in 1971, he took time off from HP to guide a major feasibility study, sponsored by Stanford and the NASA Ames Research Center, of radio telescope systems for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). From this came "Project Cyclops," a radio telescope system capable of detecting quite ordinary radio signals from great distances in our galaxy. Although the design was very sound and the report strong, the projected cost of the project, some tens of billions of dollars, was far more than was politically acceptable. The report stands to this day as a sound description of an ingenious unfulfilled enterprise. From 1983 until 1993, Barney headed the NASA Ames SETI office. During this period, SETI became a major project within NASA with an overall budget of more than $100 million. Observing started in the Fall of 1992 at both Goldstone and Arecibo, but Congress cut off funding for this project only one year after the searching began. A decade earlier Barney was a prime mover in the formation of the not-for-profit SETI Institute to carry out research related to life in the universe. Abhorred by bureaucracy and waste, he wanted the SETI Institute to demonstrate that the highest quality research could be done with a minimum of overhead. After his retirement from NASA in January 1994 he was on the Board of Directors of the Institute and watched it build into a successful research center, providing a major bequest to ensure its continued activity.

Barney was always eager to support projects which might contribute to the discovery and understanding of life in the universe. Among his largest gifts was to the Allegheny Observatory to upgrade the lens of the telescope, which was being used to search for extrasolar planetary systems. Another was a $200,000 challenge grant to the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy (MIRA) which made possible the construction of a high-quality observatory at Chews Ridge, near Carmel, now named the "Oliver Observation Station" in his honor. He supported searches for earth-orbit crossing asteroids and made major contributions to the Exploratorium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and, in a time of crisis, to the San Francisco State/Marine World Dolphin Communication Project. He made generous contributions to many universities, but his largest gift was to the SETI Institute, which included his home and his beloved ranch in Soquel.

Among Barney's many awards and honors was the National Medal of Science, which he received at the White House in 1986. He was President of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in 1965. In 1966 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and in a very rare event, he was elected also to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973. In 1990 he received both NASA's Medal for Exceptional Engineering and the Pioneer Award of the International Foundation for Telemetering in recognition of a lifetime of service to the telecommunications profession. Other significant honors came from Caltech, the IEEE, the Halley Lectureship, and the Harvey Mudd College Wright Prize. He was an Adjunct Professor of Astronomy at Berkeley, and served on numerous boards. He was a founder of the Biosys Corporation, which seeks environmentally sound means to eliminate agricultural pests.

Barney was awarded 50 patents, some pending, and authored 71 publications in more than seven scientific and technical fields. He was also a marvelous communicator, by spoken or written word. His scientific papers were models of clarity, and he eschewed anything which was verbose or pretentious. He preferred the term "light-year" over "parsec" as more clear-cut and immediately obvious. He always wrote out his patent applications without a wasted word. His telephone conversations were always terse and to the point. He believed that clear and concise communication was important to success, whether the communication was with humans, dolphins, or people of other stars. As one final intellectual bequest to humanity, just before he died he finished the manuscript of a book detailing the fine points of English grammar, and why they ensure clarity in communication.

Oliver married Priscilla (Suki) Newton in 1945, who died in 1994. He is survived by three children, Karen Newton Oliver of Vancouver, Gretchen More Oliver and William Eric Oliver, both of San Francisco.

He will be remembered for the quick and profound insights he could provide when confronted by a wide range of scientific and engineering problems. His cornucopia of intellectual and practical gifts to the world will continue to enrich us far into the future.

Photograph (available in PDF version) by S. Shostak, 1994.

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