ERIC E. SUMNER
BY SOLOMON J. BUCHSBAUM
ERIC E. SUMNER, a retired vice-president of AT&T Bell Laboratories, died suddenly on January 19, 1993, while working at his computer terminal. He was sixty-eight. At the time of his death he was serving as the chairman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Strategic Planning Committee and vice-chairman of the IEEE Nominations and Appointments Committee. He served as president of the IEEE in 1991. Eric is survived by his wife, Anne-Marie, and four children. His son, Eric E., Jr., is a research engineer and is head of a software engineering research department at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Naperville, Illinois.
Eric Sumner was born in Vienna, Austria. He was brought to the United States at an early age and was educated here. He lived in and attended public schools in New York City. He received his B.M.E. degree from Cooper Union in 1948, and his M.S. (in physics) and Ph.D. (in electrical engineering) degrees in 1953 and in 1960, respectively; both graduate degrees were awarded by Columbia University.
His English was fluent, of course—not so his German—perhaps with a tinge of an accent, which made it a delight to listen to his oratory. There was a certain flair about Eric Sumner, a debonair demeanor that was unmistakable. For example, he always drank his tea and coffee from porcelain cups, properly served, never from paper or plastic cups.
Eric joined Bell Laboratories in 1948 and soon established himself as an engineering inventor par excellence, specializing in switching and transmission systems development. He led the development of the first commercial pulse-code modulation system. This T1 system became the most widely used transmission system in North America and signaled the start of the digital era. He was promoted to director of Bell Labs' work on antisubmarine detection systems, where he applied new automated detection and data processing to those worldwide systems. In 1967 he was promoted again, to executive director of the Transmission Media Division with responsibility for a new laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia, tied to a ''mother'' factory in the same city. This period in his career saw the birth of electronic loop transmission systems, so-called SLC systems, and the design and manufacture of early optical fiber and cable systems. Spurred by the recurring service problems of the early 1970s, he pioneered the design of a family of "operations systems"—computers, software, sensors/controllers and terminals—used to design, install, monitor, operate, and reconfigure as well as maintain complex communications systems—a field that now pervades not just communications but all businesses, from airlines to banks.
He was elected vice-president, Computer Technologies and Military Systems Division in 1981. Under his drive, the many internal versions of UNIX were coalesced into a single operating system for universal use, allowing portable application software—an area of growing commercial importance. He foresaw the need for increased software productivity as a business necessity and led a major architectural and technical thrust to satisfy this need. Over a three-year period, he managed to triple the productivity of certain software systems. Then from 1984 until his retirement in late 1989, Eric was vice-president of operations systems and network planning.
Eric Sumner was an expert in research and development management and business analysis, especially troubleshooting, functional audits, and efficiency evaluation. He was granted eleven patents and several honors. He received the following awards: the Alexander Graham Bell Medal of the IEEE; the
1988 Computer and Communications Prize (NEC Corporation); the Gano Dunn Medal for Engineering Achievement from Cooper Union; and the Cooper Union Distinguished Alumni Citation. He was elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering in 1985.
Eric served on many professional and advisory boards and committees. In addition to his serivce to IEEE, Eric advised the following organizations: National Research Council; American Society of Mechanical Engineers; Georgia Institute of Technology; University of Virginia; University of California, Davis; and Cooper Union.
Eric and Anne-Marie were a delightful couple, a pleasure to be with on any occasion. Eric's many achievements will be long remembered by his many colleagues and friends at Bell Laboratories. Well remembered in particular will be his success in introducing dance music at the annual Bell Labs management conferences.