We learned this summer that Dr. Erik Pell DS’41 passed away on August 14 from natural causes at his home in Webster, New York. He was eighty-nine years old. Erik Mauritz Pell was born September 22, 1923 in the rural woods of Delarna, Sweden, the sole surviving son of Eric and Kirsten Pell. His father obtained a degree in electrical engineering and immigrated to the United States when Erik was one. After the death of his mother from tuberculosis in 1931, Erik, then seven years old, came to the United States to be raised by his father in Wisconsin.
Erik arrived at Deep Springs College in the summer of 1941, completing a two-year degree before joining the U.S. Navy during World War II. In his autobiography years later, Erik recalled his delight at the technical and mechanical challenges of life at Deep Springs. He found the work required to live in such isolation to be deeply inspiring. One project of his was to build new mahogany tables for the dining room; which served the college for fifty years until the building was fully renovated in the 1990s. He also felt that in the midst of his intellectual awakening at Deep Springs, the most valuable classes for him were ultimately composition and public speaking – the two courses required of every DS student for ninety-five years.
He attended Marquette University as part of the Navy’s V-12 program, obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. He received further engineering training under the auspices of the Navy at Bowdoin College and Cornell University before serving briefly as a radar officer. After the war ended, he returned to Cornell University where he earned a Ph.D. in physics in 1951. Dr. Pell began his professional career at the General Electric research labs. In 1961, he was recruited by the Xerox Corporation (then named Haloid-Xerox) and within a year was named to head the solid state physics lab. Dr. Pell was part of a nucleus of scientists hired by Xerox in the early 1960s to build a world-class scientific research laboratory that could compete with other booming post-World War II corporate research labs including those operated by Bell Telephone, General Electric, and RCA. In 1971, he was named manager of Xerox’s Webster Physics Research Laboratory.
In later years, Dr. Pell held staff positions responsible for coordinating research being done at Xerox’s several laboratories around the world, including its famed lab in Palo Alto California, which developed laser printers and computer word processors. Dr. Pell recounted the scientific history of the invention of xerography and the later Xerox research effort necessary to commercialize the idea in his book From Dream to Riches — the Story of Xerography, published in 1998. Dr. Pell’s son Terry describes his father as “a man of steadiness, calm, and a cheerful confidence that life would bring good things” who had a fascination with all things technical from his early childhood.
When he received an Alumnus of the Year award from Marquette University, Dr. Pell was quoted as saying: “I define success as achievement of one’s personal ambitions and enjoying the satisfaction one experiences as a result.” Dr. Pell took time out from his career to direct a Telluride Summer Session at Deep Springs in 1958. Throughout his life he remained an avid supporter of the college and counted numerous alumni from multiple classes as his friends. His brilliant memories of student life at Deep Springs – and his warm-hearted way of sharing them – will be missed along with him.
His wife, Ann Christine died in 2008 from complications of a stroke. Dr. Pell is survived by his two sons, Terence and Bartley; his daughter, Holly McConnaughy; and five grandchildren. A memorial service was held August 24th in Webster New York.