Joseph Henry (Joe) Condon, Ph.D.
Physicist, Engineer, and Computer Scientist
Joseph Henry Condon, an experimental physicist and engineer, died on January 2 at the age of 76. He, in partnership with Ken Thompson, created Belle, a pioneering combination of computer and special hardware that played championship quality chess.
Joseph was born in Princeton, NJ on February 15, 1935, to the noted theoretical physicist, Edward Uhler (E. U.) Condon and Emilie Honzik Condon, and was named after the 19th century American physicist, Joseph Henry. At the time of Joe’s birth, Dr. E. U. Condon was a young faculty member of the physics department at Princeton University. Joe earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. in physics from Northwestern University. He and his wife, Carol (nee Merklinger) Condon, Ph.D., have resided in Summit, NJ since 1963, when Joseph joined AT&T Bell Laboratories at Murray Hill, NJ immediately after finishing graduate school. Joseph and Carol were married on March 26, 1960, at Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge NHP, PA.
Joseph started his research career at Bell Labs in low temperature solid-state physics. His initial research centered on developing an ultra-sensitive torsion balance to study the electronic band structure of metals. His seminal research on the low-temperature behavior of pure metals showed that, under certain conditions, magnetic domains can form in nonmagnetic metals such as beryllium. He developed a theory of such domains and obtained experimental verification of his theory.
He had wide ranging interests, and it was difficult to remain focused on low temperature solid-state physics when a digital revolution was in progress. In 1968 he contributed to the emerging technologies of digital switching and produced many patents in that area.
By 1975 Joe had joined the Computer Research Center at Bell Labs where, around the same time, the C programming language and the Unix operating system were created. Sandy Fraser and Joe collaborated to automate the laborious and error-prone task of manually converting a circuit drawing into a circuit board. They designed a system, the Unix Circuit Design System (UCDS), which automated the production of circuit boards from drawings. This system launched an era of rapid prototype construction for research and product development. Joe became an avid user and contributor to the UCDS software, and he promoted the system within the Bell Labs engineering community.
The purpose of another of Joe’s projects was to convince AT&T’s development organizations to adopt the C programming language for their switching system control programs. To this end, it was decided that C should be used to reprogram an existing switch. Joe acquired a small AT&T PBX (telephone switch) that handled about 50 phones. He made the necessary hardware changes and Ken Thompson wrote the necessary software programs such that the PBX code re-write in C was a success and hastened the adoption of C for all switching system’s software within AT&T.
Another major collaboration between Joe and Ken Thompson was the creation of the chess-playing machine named Belle. Joe designed custom hardware while Ken designed the software. The hardware evaluated board position, did piece move generation, and used a cache memory for previously evaluated board positions. Belle’s hardware could evaluate millions of board positions and generate all legal chess moves every second. The control software kept track of how many moves ahead the hardware was evaluating and selected the best current move. Belle was very compact and easily portable and was taken to many chess tournaments where it achieved a master rating. Belle won the world computer chess championship in 1980 and the U.S. computer chess championships in 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1986.
Joseph was a physicist and engineer noted for his insight and intuition into physical systems and for talented digital system design. His designs were parsimonious and supremely effective, yet his collaborations were generous and never compromised by ego.
Joe had a delightful sense of humor and unlimited curiosity. He loved to travel with Carol in their RV and loved American Indian crafts, classical music, and the theatre. He was very active in The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and was a frequent volunteer in the FISH Hospitality Program.
In addition to his beloved wife, Carol, Dr. Condon is survived by a brother, Paul Edward Condon, Ph.D., of Lafayette, CO, and was predeceased by a sister, Marie Condon Thornton of Berkeley, CA. Other survivors include a sister-in-law and husband, Joan & Raymond Featherer, Jr., of Cherry Hill, NJ, four nieces: Katherine Condon, Ph.D, of College Park, MD; Francesca Davis of Lafayette, CO; Rachel Condon & husband Bruce Troedson of Calpine, CA; & Raynette Featherer Anderson of Washington, DC; four nephews and their wives: Edward & Esty Thornton of Jakarta, Indonesia; Donald & Cathy Thornton of Fresno, CA; John & Jane Thornton of Paso Robles, CA; & Jeffrey & Sharon Thornton of Santa Cruz, CA; 3 great-nieces & 6 great-nephews.
In lieu of flowers, please send contributions in Joseph’s name to The Rahway and Plainfield Monthly Meeting of The Religious Society of Friends at the above address, or to the FISH Hospitality Program, P.O. Box 170, Dunellen, NJ 08812, or to a charity of your choice.