John Campbell; Eclectic Teacher, Writer, Inventor and Composer


John Scott Campbell, an eclectic and innovative educator, engineer, composer, inventor, writer and all-around interesting character who dreamed of creating a floating technical college, has died. He was 86.

Campbell died of heart failure at a Pasadena nursing home Jan. 7, his longtime friend Walter S. Chamberlin of Los Alamos, N.M., said this week.

The always-entertaining Campbell taught analytical geometry, calculus, surveying and mechanisms at Pasadena City College from 1939 to 1942 and then taught mechanical engineering at Caltech until 1952.


A pied piper to engineering students, he took five of his best students on a spring vacation hiking trip to Zion National Park in 1939, instructing them to take altimeter readings every few miles to plot an altitude profile of the highway.

Under the Boulder Dam power lines, he gave an impromptu lecture about high-voltage power transmission.

At Pasadena City College, Campbell organized an engineering orchestra that self-destructed after a single concert, and wrote a play featuring engineering students lunging at each other with slide rules. He organized an engineering club and published the Future Engineer magazine.

In 1941, Campbell worked at Caltech’s secret rocket research site in Eaton Canyon, developing instrumentation for pressure and thrust for Sidewinder, Tiny Tim and bazooka rockets.

During his decade at Caltech, the indefatigable professor composed and directed campus performances of an opera titled “Spooks in the Basement” and the “Double Double Concerto” for two double basses and orchestra. He also performed piano solos and composed music for weddings and choral groups.

As an inventor, Campbell earned his first patent as a teenager, for an inverse feedback circuit which is now widely used in modern electronic systems. He also invented a metal detector, an early facsimile machine and various household gadgets, and tried to create a new kind of air transport he called Dynalift. But none of the creations, Chamberlin said, brought him riches.


Beginning in his youth in Seattle, Campbell wrote and illustrated his fictional comedic “Korperwurst Stories” about an imagined university with a colorful faculty that included the Baron Von Wienerschnitzel (a self-parody) and professors Splopsizzle and Boopfuta. For fun, he also wrote science fiction for Amazing Stories magazine and produced “The Punny Dictionary.”

But Campbell was also a gifted technical writer and wrote series of courses in electronics, a college textbook on physics and several technical instruction manuals for engineering and electronics firms.

In 1954, Campbell founded Pacific Institute of Technology, whose activities included establishing engineering curricula for other colleges, organizing industrial classes for large firms, organizing a program in electrical instrument calibration for the Navy Bureau of Standards and founding high school groups of Future Engineers of America.

Campbell also intended his institute to include a seagoing engineering campus similar to Chapman College’s 1960s University of the Seven Seas.

But like his Dynalift design, that dream failed. In 1962, Campbell went to Seattle to buy the Aquilo, a 1901 yacht originally powered by a coal-burning steam engine. Hoping to make the yacht his campus, he lived aboard and worked to restore it while teaching at the University of Washington.

In 1966, Campbell attempted to sail the Aquilo to Los Angeles to create his college. More knowledgeable about physics than sailing, Campbell crashed into a pier, wedged the yacht under a bridge and ultimately lost it to fire.


In addition to holding a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Campbell earned a master’s degree in physics from the University of Washington and a doctorate in physics from UC Berkeley.

He has no survivors.

Chamberlin said a memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. next Saturday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 770 Sierra Madre Villa Ave., Pasadena.