A Tribute to L. Dennis Shapiro, Who Helped Develop the Life Alert Personal Emergency-Response System

He was an avid philanthropist who donated to the IEEE Foundation and other programs

4 min read
Photo of L. Dennis Shapiro
Photo: Susan Shapiro

THE INSTITUTE L. Dennis Shapiro, a pioneer in the personal-emergency-response systems industry, died on 16 February at the age of 87. The IEEE life Fellow led the development of a 24-hour alert system for Lifeline Systems, whichmanufactured products such as Life Alert and was acquired by Philips. Such wearable devices enable users to contact emergency services from a pendant worn around their neck.

Shapiro earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at MIT in 1955 and 1957. As a graduate student, he conducted research on FM radio signals for his thesis at the school’s Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE).

After graduating, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Hanscom Field, in Bedford, Mass. There he worked as a R&D officer at the base’s laboratory.

In 1957 he was selected to be a member of the International Geophysical Year team, a global geophysical research collaboration that investigated atmospheric properties. For a year, he was stationed in Thule, Greenland, where he researched the aurora borealis, cosmic rays, radio propagation, and ionosphere absorption, according to a 1996 MIT interview with Shapiro.

After the project ended in 1958, the Air Force transferred Shapiro to Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean, west of Hawaii, and tasked him with setting up radio links for high-altitude nuclear tests, the first such experiments to be conducted in the ionosphere.

Not long after his honorable discharge from the Air Force, he founded Aerospace Research, later renamed Aritech, in the Boston area, according to the MIT interview. The startup conducted field measurements and developed prototypes to study the behavior of radio waves as they travel through the atmosphere.

When Shapiro became interested in how Loran-C transmission (brief radio-frequency pulses) could be used for precise timing, he changed the company’s focus. He developed equipment to synchronize clocks using Loran-C, and his innovation won the company a contract with NASA, which used the equipment to synchronize its tracking stations.

That contract opened up other opportunities, and the company was soon working with other U.S. government agencies on signal-processing projects.

After the Vietnam War, Shapiro changed the company’s direction again and started manufacturing ultrasonic intrusion-detection equipment and alarm products using signal-processing technology.

He sold Aritech in 1975 to home alarm system manufacturer ADT, and continued to serve as vice president and director of the company.

Shapiro left ADT in 1978 to become CEO of Lifeline Systems in Boston. He led the development in 1980 of a 24-hour Lifeline alert system. It had three components: a small radio transmitter worn around the user’s neck, a console connected to a telephone, and an emergency-response center to monitor calls. Depending on the situation, the center could send the appropriate first responders to the user’s location. By 1996 the system monitored more than 125,000 people across the United States, according to the MIT interview.

Shapiro retired in 1988 but continued to serve as chairman of the company until 2006, when it was acquired by Philips.


Shapiro joined IEEE in 1952 as a student member. He was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 2013 for the development and commercialization of personal emergency-response systems.

He was a member of the IEEE Communications and Consumer Technology societies and served on their boards. He noticed a steady decline in membership and member engagement in the Consumer Technology Society, so he spearheaded efforts in 2016 to reinvigorate it, including a rebranding effort, according to a 2018 article in IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine. Because of his efforts, in 2020 the society was renamed the IEEE Consumer Technology Society. He also founded the society’s Boston chapter.

Shapiro was also a philanthropist. He served on the IEEE Foundation board from 2019 until this year and was a member of the IEEE Heritage Circle at the Alexander Graham Bell level. The donor-recognition program acknowledges members who have pledged more than US $10,000 to support IEEE programs such as the “ Scanning Our Past” features in Proceedings of the IEEE. The features, which explore the history of technology and the innovators associated with it, are available to read on IEEE Xplore Digital Library.

Shapiro was an avid reader of “Scanning Our Past,” and his donation allowed six of the features to be available via open access. According to a profile of Shapiro on the IEEE Foundation website, the goal of his gift was twofold: “to continue to bring the feature to as wide an audience as possible at no additional cost to them” and “to lead by example and hopefully motivate others to take a similar path and sponsor one or more issues in the interest of exploring the benefits of open access.”

Collecting historical artifacts was a passion of Shapiro’s. Before his death, he and his wife, Susan, donated a collection of more than 300 rare items related to American presidential administrations from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, to the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, in San Marino, Calif. The museum then created the Shapiro Center, which aims to advance scholarship, knowledge, and understanding of American history and culture.

Shapiro in 2019 donated three historical documents featuring Edwin H. Armstrong and Thomas Edison to the IEEE History Center.

In Shapiro’s memory, the IEEE Foundation established the IEEE L. Dennis Shapiro Collection Fund to support the work of the IEEE History Center. The fund celebrates and advances his passion for collecting artifacts and promoting the heritage of electrical engineering. Donations to the fund support acquisitions to enhance and complement the center’s holdings. The artifacts and other objects collected thanks to fund donations will be noted as part of the Shapiro Collection when referenced in exhibits and publications.

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.