George Washington Pierce, physicist and university professor, was born in Webberville, Texas, on January 11, 1872, the son of George W. and Mary Elizabeth (Gill) Pierce. He received a B.S. degree in 1893 and an M.A. degree in 1894 from the University of Texas. He worked as a high school teacher in Texas before going to Harvard to earn another M.A. degree in 1899 and a Ph.D. degree in 1900. Pierce also spent 1900 and 1901 at the University of Leipzig. Harvard appointed him assistant professor in 1907, professor in 1917, and Rumford professor from 1921 to 1940, when he became professor emeritus of physics and communication engineering. During this long tenure he also served as chairman of the Department of Physical Sciences (1927–40) and director of the Cruft High Tension Electrical Laboratory (1914–40).
In 1910 Pierce's first book, Principles of Wireless Telegraphy, was published, and he received the medal of the Institute of Radio Engineers for distinguished service in radio communication. Pierce developed the mercury-vapor discharge tube used to control electric current for sound recordings, and he discovered the concept of motional impedance. During World War I he worked on submarine detection and developed an academic course on underwater sound signaling. He applied his research in magnetism to the development of such ultrasonic devices as sonar. By 1920 he had published his second work, Electric Oscillations and Electric Waves. He invented the quartz-crystal Pierce oscillator used for the frequency control of radio transmitters. In 1948 he published The Songs of Insects, which was inspired by his work in ultrasound.
Pierce was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Science and the Texas Academy of Science. He received many honors for his work in the field of radio communication, such as the 1928 Franklin medal of the Franklin Institute. He was also a member of the Philosophical Society of Texas. He was married to Florence H. Goodwin on August 12, 1904. After her death in 1945 he married Helen Russell, on November 2, 1946. Pierce died in Franklyn, New Hampshire, on August 25, 1956, and was buried at Cambridge, Massachusetts.