Harry Peters

Harry Peters, Hydrogen Maser Expert

Harry Edward Peters, 87, died May 19, 2010 at the Hospice of West Alabama. Harry was an accomplished researcher, scientist, craftsman, and business owner and operator. Harry spent his youth in Rochester, MN, graduating from High School in 1941. He served in the United States Navy through both the Second World War and Korean Conflict with the rank of Chief Petty Officer before leaving the military with an honorable discharge.

Harry then went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Washington, graduating Magna Cum Laude and entering the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

His passion was for Hydrogen Masers from the very beginning, working with such notables as Dan Kleppner, Howard Berg, Stuart Crampton, Norman Ramsey and others. His early product-development career was at Varian Associates,(Beverly, MA) with Bob Vessot and Jacque Vanier and many others at Varian. Harry moved to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at Goddard ultimately guiding a program essential to tracking and timing for manned moon missions and deep space planetary probes. He continually worked on making the H-maser an ultra-stable, reliable frequency standard for a variety of field applications. He authored an array of papers on H-masers and received numerous awards.

Retiring from NASA in 1975, Harry moved to Tuscaloosa, Al and a couple of years later started Sigma Tau Standards Corporation, a research and development firm dedicated to production of time and frequency standards. Under his leadership, Sigma Tau perfected experimental designs for extremely precise and stable clocks based on hydrogen.

Several words describe working with Harry, but one described it best. He was ‘PROLIFIC.’ He was a product of by-gone days when every mechanical drawing was handmade. Every part handcrafted. And there were thousands of hand drawings and crafted parts (the archive at just NIST proves it). The numerous drawings leave a deep, favorable and lasting impression on anyone in this field.

Another word to describe Harry would be ‘PERSISTENCE.’ Above many other attributes, Harry succeeded in bringing the exceptional stability of the H-maser to commercial availability through Sigma Tau Corporation essentially with his own personal investment. While it’s one thing to be involved in the development of a new and intricate technology, it is quite another to risk a business and reputation to manufacture, deliver, and support that technology. Harry persisted. His designs evolved into what many regard as the first field-operational masers that were commercially available to government organizations, measurement institutes, and research laboratories.

He made his maser as small as possible, his being in the ‘full-size’ category (using a TE011 mode rf cavity). Key to success of the Sigma Tau maser was refinement of an innovative auto tuner to minimize frequency drift. Essential to national and international time measurement, Global Navigation Satellite Systems like GPS, and other high technology navigation systems, these clocks are recognized as the most stable ever manufactured. It was so much more stable and reliable than other frequency standards that its modest size became a non-issue. On that point, Harry wanted his H-masers to appear smaller to the point that he photographed his prototype alongside the tallest secretary he could find.

Those of us who new Harry Peters are saddened by his passing. We pay homage to our friend and colleague, while reveling in his enormous contributions.

EULOGY TO HARRY PETERS by David Howe, NIST, at the IEEE International Frequency Control Symposium, 2 June 2010.