In 1936, Pierce joined Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey and helped develop the traveling wave tube, an amplifier that facilitates satellite communication. He then began advocating the use of unmanned passive and active communication satellites, eventually convincing NASA to build a satellite based on his design.
Pierce received his Bachelor of Science, Masters of Science and doctoral degrees from the California Institute of Technology, as well as honorary degrees from several other schools including Northwestern University, Yale University, Columbia University and Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. Pierce's awards include the National Medal of Science in 1963, the Edison Medal and the Medal of Honor from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1963 and 1975 respectively, and the Charles Stark Draper Prize in 1995.
After 35 years with Bell Labs, Pierce retired and joined his alma mater, the California Institute of Technology, from 1979 to 1982 as professor of engineering. While at CalTech, Pierce focused on acoustics, speech and computer music. He later became chief technologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system and managed by CalTech. He joined Stanford University in 1983 as an emeritus visiting professor of music.
An accomplished inventor, Pierce earned over 90 patents during his lifetime including the Pierce Gun, a vacuum tube used in satellites. He also coined the term "transistor," which was invented at Bell Labs. In addition, Pierce was an avid writer, publishing several scientific books and papers and science fiction stories under the pseudonym J.J. Coupling.