William Keister, born on June 6, 1907 in Montgomery, Alabama, had an interest in puzzles that began as a boy, where he designed puzzles when he wasn't busy building crystal radio sets and writing poetry.
He graduated from Auburn University in 1930 with a B.S. degree in electrical engineering.
In the late 1930s and 40s, when engineers were only beginning to appreciate the logic that would later form the basis of computers, Mr. Keister began to look at logic puzzles and how they could be solved through formal design methods. "At the time," he says, "we knew that computing machines could add, multiply, and divide, but it was not so apparent that they could be programmed to perform logic."
Mr. Keister began working in his spare time to prove that puzzles could be solved through logic design.
Mr. Keister specialized in switching systems since joining Bell Laboratories in 1930. Initially, he worked on the development and testing of toll switching and signaling circuits, and later was involved in special studies of relays and dial telephone switching systems.
One day he raided Bell Labs' stock room, gathering up pushbuttons, electronic relays, and light bulbs to build an electronic version of the Chinese Ring Puzzle. After a few hours work, he realized he had wired it up wrong, but studying what he had done he also realized that he had stumbled onto a whole series of binary code sequence puzzles, of which the famous Chinese Ring Puzzle was just one variation. He went on to sketch out a whole series of logic puzzles and show how they could be solved mathematically with Boolean algebra, a precursor to today's computer languages.
During World War II, Mr. Keister taught theory and maintenance of radar equipment to military personnel in the Bell Labs School for War Training. After the war, Mr. Keister joined the staff of Bell Labs' Communications Development Training Program for graduate engineers, where he taught courses on switching.
The first exploratory development work on electronic switching systems was started in 1952 in a small group headed by Mr. Keister. He was one of the first to recognize the advantage of control by a stored program and to participate in planning a system based on this concept.
In 1958 Mr. Keister was appointed Director of the Switching Systems Studies Center. In this position, he was in charge of the engineering planning of Electronic Switching Systems to meet both the present and future needs of the Bell System.
He was also responsible for the operation of the computer center at the Holmdel Laboratory and for research activity on computer languages and programming systems. At the time of his retirement from Bell Laboratories in July 1972, after a 38-year career, he was Director of the Computing Technology Center at Holmdel, New Jersey.
Mr. Keister has written a number of technical articles and has been granted 5 patents. He co-authored the book, "The Design of Switching Circuits." He is a Fellow of the IEEE and a member of the honor societies Eta Kappa Nu, Tau Beta Pi, and Phi Kappa Phi.
Until his death on 28 June 1997, he and his wife, Nancy, resided in New Jersey. They have four children, William, Jr., Dean, Mary and Nancy.
He was co-recipient of the Alexander Graham Bell Medal in 1976, along with Amos E. Joel, Jr., and Raymond W. Ketchledge 'For conception and development of Electronic Switching Systems and their effective introduction into a nation-wide telephone system.