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Remembering IEEE Spectrum Columnist Bob Lucky

For four decades, he penned his unique observations on engineering

4 min read
Photo of Bob Lucky
Stephen Lacko

Robert W. “Bob” Lucky, a communications pioneer and prolific technology writer, died on 10 March at the age of 86.

As an engineer, Lucky conducted pioneering research at AT&T Bell Labs in Holmdel, N.J., for more than 30 years. While there, he made important contributions to data communications, including the invention of the automatic adaptive equalizer, a device that corrects the distortion of a telephone channel and enables modems to transmit data more quickly.

He was an active IEEE volunteer who served as vice president of IEEE’s Publication Services and Products Board and as president of the IEEE Communications Society. He was editor of several IEEE journals including Proceedings of the IEEE.

From 1982 to 2019 he wrote a bimonthly column, Reflections, for IEEE Spectrum, in which he told stories and shared his perspective on the engineering field as well as technology trends and milestones.

“I had the honor of being Bob’s last editor at the magazine,” says Stephen Cass, senior editor at IEEESpectrum. “Apart from the qualities most beloved by editors, he always delivered his copy on time and with the right number of words! Bob was a true pleasure to work with.”

A MEMORABLE CAREER

Lucky received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind., in 1957 and 1959. After earning a Ph.D. in EE from the university in 1961, he joined Bell Labs as a communications engineer. His first assignment was working on the T1 system, which could transmit up to 24 telephone calls simultaneously over a single copper transmission line.

In 1964 he invented the automatic adaptive equalizer, which is still used in modems today.

“When I joined Bell Labs in 1961, the highest modem speeds were 2,400 bits per second,” Lucky said in a 1999 oral history interview with the IEEE History Center. “When I invented the adaptive equalizer, it enabled a speed of 9,600 bits per second.”

In the late 1970s, he conducted research on digital switching. He spent his last decade at Bell Labs serving as executive director of the communications sciences research division.

He left in 1993 to join Bellcore, a telecommunications software company and a Bell Labs spinoff in Holmdel, N.J., as corporate vice president of applied research. He retired in 2002.

During his retirement, he served on boards of organizations including the Defense Science Board. The board, composed of former senior military and government officials as well as industry and academic leaders, develops technology solutions for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Lucky was also a member of the Laboratory Operations Board of the U.S. Department of Energy and a member of the advisory board of TTI/Vanguard, an organization of professionals that explores potentially disruptive technologies. Lucky served as chairman of ANSER, a defense research organization in Falls Church, Va.

He was elected chair of the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority, which was created to guide the investment, growth, and integration of the former U.S. Army base at the fort, which is in Monmouth County, N.J.

A LASTING LEGACY

Lucky was an invited lecturer at nearly 100 universities. He was a guest on a number of network TV broadcasts including A World of Ideas, where he discussed the impacts of technological advances.

He received many honors throughout his career for his pioneering research. A Marconi Fellow, he received the 1987 Marconi Prize, an annual award bestowed by the Marconi Society, for his invention of the adaptive equalizer. The award recognizes achievements and advancements in the field of communications. He received a 1998 Golden Jubilee Award from the IEEE Information Theory Society, and he was honored with the 1995 IEEE Edison Medal “for an extraordinary career in telecommunications providing visionary technical leadership, support of his profession, and compelling public advocacy of technology.”

In 1992 he was inducted into IEEE Eta Kappa Nu (IEEE-HKN). Two years later, he was elected to the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Famefor his invention of the equalizer.

INFLUENTIAL SPEAKER AND WRITER

Lucky authored or coauthored three books. His first—Principles of Data Communications—was co-written in 1964 with fellow Bell Labs engineers Jack Salz and Ned Weldon. In 1989 Lucky struck out on his own, writing Silicon Dreams: Information, Man, and Machine. On his personal website, he wrote that the book was about “the ways we represent information and the differences between man and machine in the use and processing of bits.

“It's a chatty and philosophical book with a minimum of mathematics,” he wrote. “I've tried to weave a layman’s introduction to information theory through the book as I muse about the mysteries of information, such as why it takes so many bits to represent a picture and why a human being can only input about 50 bits per second. (Sorry, but that’s all we’re good for!)”

He published a collection of his IEEE Spectrum columns in his 1993 book Lucky Strikes … Again.

“Bob was always insightful and engaged—no mean feat after so many columns,” Cass says. “Many of his articles struck deep chords among Spectrum’s readers, and I miss batting ideas back and forth with him. Ironically, despite many years of exchanges, I only met Bob in person once, on the occasion of his retirement, but I was delighted to find him as warm and thoughtful in person as he was on the page.”

His last Reflections column, “The Crazy Story of How Soviet Russia Bugged an American Embassy’s Typewriters,” was published in the January 2020 issue of IEEE Spectrum. The issue’s Back Story reads:

This month marks the end of an era for IEEE Spectrum. This issue is the last in which Robert W. Lucky’s Reflections column will make a regular appearance. Reflections first appeared in January 1982. That month the editor in chief at the time, Donald Christiansen, wrote about the column’s mission statement: “We hope it will be thought-provoking, occasionally biting, and perhaps even controversial. Above all, it is intended to recognize that even a serious profession like ours has its humorous aspects or, at the very least, serious aspects over which we have little control and about which we may just as well chuckle from time to time…. We think you’ll enjoy reading it as much as we did.”

“It has been such a great privilege, being able to reach out to worldwide engineers on a regular basis," says Lucky. However, with his last two ongoing working engagements with technology coming to an end in 2019, Lucky felt it was time to stop. “Though I could still keep up through reading, that’s not the same, and the danger is that I will become disconnected,” he says. However, he has not completely closed the door on his words appearing in Spectrum in the future: “I may find sometime that I really want to write something.” We can only hope to be so lucky.

To share your condolences or memories of Lucky, please use the commenting form below.

The Conversation (22)
James Knox07 Apr, 2022
M

Sad to learn this. His column was always the first article I read in Spectrum and an issue just wasn't as exciting if it didn't contain one. Thank you for all you have taught me over my career. Condolences to your family, both personal and in the engineering world.

2 Replies
Jeff Hecht07 Apr, 2022
CONTRIBUTOR
LS

I read Bob Lucky's column regularly in Spectrum and had the pleasure of interviewing him on the phone about Picturephone for an article I wrote on it for New Scientist magazine back in the pre-Zoom era of 2016. He he thought he may have been the last person to have a Picturephone in his office during his days at Bell Labs. He recalled, "The only person who ever called me on my phone was my boss Arno Penzias. I found it very awkward [because] I had to stare at him." He was a fascinating and very perceptive gentleman.

Jan Lubbers07 Apr, 2022
M

I thank you deeply for your column in Spectrum. It has always been the first thing I would read! My condolences to your family and friends.

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