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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.

PHILANTHROPY AND IEEE

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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