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MIT Professor Jonathan Allen dies; developed talking computer in '70s

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Professor Jonathan Allen of West Newton, Mass., director of MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) since 1981, died Monday at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston of complications from a lengthy illness. He was 65 years old.

Professor Allen guided the laboratory through numerous changes and in many new research directions. His own research centered on speech processing, computational linguistics, computer architecture and integrated electronics. He received worldwide notice for developing a computer named Morris that could talk and read in the 1970s -- an era when such a machine was relegated to the musings of science fiction writers. A system developed by Professor Allen has been used by physicist Stephen Hawking. In recent years, Professor Allen had been working with newly developed interactive software which emphasizes the exploration process and promotes a deeper understanding of circuits.

Professor Allen developed an international network through research relationships, seminars and classes he taught in numerous foreign countries, including Germany, Japan, India, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. He had planned to spend this semester at Cambridge University as a Visiting Fellow at Trinity College, refining his work on computers as interactive learning devices.

In a letter to the RLE community, Daniel Kleppner, acting director of RLE and the Lester Wolfe Professor of Physics, said, "Jon was totally dedicated to RLE. Over the years, the entire RLE community has benefited immeasurably from his wisdom and energy. There is no way for me to describe how much he will be missed."

Professor Allen joined the MIT faculty in 1968 as an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He was promoted to associate professor in 1972 and full professor in 1975. He joined RLE as associate director in 1978.

In the mid 1970s Professor Allen moved away from digital signal processing and speech production, and started investigating computer-aided design techniques for the emerging field of very large-scale integration (VLSI) circuit design. He started teaching "Introduction to VLSI" at MIT in 1979 as a regular term course. Interest in the course was so high that Professor Allen taught it during the summers and at IBM's Yorktown research center. One of his first students in that class, Steve McCormick, became his first PhD student in the area of computer-aided design (CAD). Mr. McCormick, co-founder of Sapphire Design Automation, is a widely recognized expert in techniques for interconnect analysis. Professor Allen had five PhD students whose careers span the breadth of the CAD field.

A native of Hanover, NH, Professor Allen received the AB from Dartmouth College in 1956 and the MS from Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering the next year. He earned the PhD from MIT in 1968. Professor Allen was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Tau Beta Pi and Sigma Xi. He was a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a member of the Acoustical Society of America, and a past president of the Association for Computational Linguistics.

He worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories on the technical staff from 1962-66 before becoming the supervisor of human factors engineering in 1966. His research at Bell Labs involved the design of semiautomatic telephone information bureaus and vocoder systems.

Professor Allen is survived by his wife, Ann (Chase) of West Newton; two sons, Douglas of Auburndale and Jay of Newton Centre; and a sister, Sylvia Nelson of Hanover, NH. A memorial service is being planned. A fund will be established at MIT in his memory.

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