Dr. C. Burke Swan

A biography about Wall of Recognition Inductee Dr. C. Burke Swan.

Clarence Burke Swan, son of Clarence David Swan (1896-1987) and Zella May Wilson (1901-1971) was born on a farm on the Tweedside Road, Harvey, York County, New Brunswick, on November 9, 1931.  He goes by the name Burke Swan.

Growing up, Mr. Swan was always interested in how things worked, both mechanical and electrical.  Eventually, he was awarded a full Beaverbrook scholarship to attend the University of New Brunswick where he received a BSc in Electrical Engineering in 1954.  He then began working for Northern Electric at Bellville, Ontario, with a team of engineers and technicians servicing long range radar equipment in Northern Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.  Northern Electric eventually became Bell Northern Research, then Nortel Networks.

Through his work experience at Northern Electric, Mr. Swan was introduced to the field of microwave radio waves used for long distance communication.  This technology was becoming increasingly important at that time.   After three years, he received a National Research Council scholarship for graduate studies at the University of Toronto.  His PhD Thesis entitled “Generation of Microwave Harmonics in Ionized Gases” was completed in 1962.

Shortly after, Dr. Swan began his career at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey in 1962.  His work at Murray Hill was on the generation of higher frequency microwaves using semiconductors. This led to his transfer to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to manage a group developing microwave amplifiers and microwave integrated circuits to upgrade the cross-country microwave communication systems. There was enormous pressure at that time for more capacity in AT&T’s long distance microwave systems which were installed in the 1950s. These systems used towers spread every 25 miles or so across the country with the sugar scoop microwave antennas. The designs developed by Dr. Swan’s group were manufactured at Allentown and Reading, Pennsylvania and were deployed across the US and probably Canada, as well. These microwave systems are now largely obsolete.

The development of semiconductor lasers and optical fibers in the 1970s and 80s completely changed the thrust of communications research and development. In addition to land based systems, Bell Labs undertook the development of an undersea fiber-optic system capable of spanning the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Dr. Swan’s group had responsibility for the optical transmitters and for optical isolators in the first system. The huge challenge was to develop products that could be certified for 25 years with virtually zero failures.  Dr. Swan has said that an undersea system is like a very long string of Christmas tree lights strung along the ocean floor where one failure takes out the entire system. Repairs can be done but are extremely difficult which is why reliability was so critical.  A massive effort ensued in which Dr. Swan’s group’s role was vital.  The first AT&T cable went across the Atlantic in 1987 and exceeded all expectations. That cable has now been decommissioned and made obsolete by the vast network of subsequent cables now spanning the globe that transmit information and communications with thousands of times the capacity.  Without these cables, the internet would not be what it is today.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Swan was awarded at least twelve patents for his work on microwave and fiber-optic communications.  In 1986 he received the Microwave Applications Award from the IEEE Microwave Theory & Techniques Society for outstanding application of microwave theory and techniques. He has also been awarded a Life fellowship of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

He presently lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania with his wife, Pat (Herschel) Swan and loves bringing his family to their cottage at Harvey Lake every year for fun and relaxation.

Recommended Reading

Interested in learning more about the rich history and heritage of the Harvey region? Here are a few blog posts that might pique your interest: