First-Hand:IEEE Award Recipient Series:Ingo Wolff
What Award did you receive from IEEE?
James Clerk Maxwell Medal
Place of Birth
Koeslin, Germany, since 1945 Poland
Where did you grow up
I was born in Koeslin in the far eastern part of Germany which was called Hinter-Pommern and which belongs to Poland today. My life began one year before the start of the Second World War. I lived in Koeslin with my parents, two brothers and two sisters until the end of 1944. When the Russian armed forces approached our place of residence, we left Koeslin and fled to western Germany over several weeks . My mother and the five of us children found temporary accommodation on a farm near Osnabrück in Lower Saxony region. My father was separated from us while fleeing and died in early 1945 when the Allied forces invaded Germany. From that point on, my mother had to take care of her five small children (age: 7, 6, 5, 3, 2 years) on her own. We lived in the village for about three years. My older brother and I, we tried to collect food for the family by begging on other farms of the area. My mother helped with work on the farm where we lived and received housing (one room for six persons) and part of our food in return. In 1948 we got the chance to move into a house in Solingen in North Rhine-Westphalia that belonged to my grandfather. There, too, we initially only got two rooms for our big family because the house was full of refugees. Over time, however, we were able to take over more rooms, so that I spent my youth there until 1958. My mother got a job as a kindergarten teacher, and at the age of 12 I took on side jobs such as delivering newspapers and journals. I later became a professional pin-setter in skittles clubs while attending school, working until midnight almost every day to help support the family. I went to elementary school and later to grammar school, and in 1958 I graduated from high school in Solingen.
Family Background: Parents and their education level & Siblings and their education/profession
My father was a high school teacher, my mother a housewife, later a kindergarten teacher. All my siblings, like me, graduated from a high school, despite the poor financial situation of the family. My mother had declared this to be the most important goal in her life. My older brother was also a high school teacher. Both of my sisters are medical doctors and teachers at an elementary school and my youngest brother was a seaman for ten years before studying information technology with a specialization in banking software.
What did you want to do when you grew up?
It sounds hard to believe, but even as a small child I was enthusiastic about radio technology. When I was five, my father gave me a crystal detector and hung a wire antenna fifty meters long from our house in Koeslin to a tree. I sat for hours trying to place the metal tip on the crystal to get the best possible reception.
After the war, when I was about ten years old, an acquaintance gave me an old ""people's receiver"", which was the standard radio in Germany during the war years. It was a tube feedback receiver I still have that receiver in my office today.
I obtained literature to learn how such a device works. At the age of twelve I built my first electronic devices, e.g. a tube amplifier with speakers for a school friend who played guitar in a school band. I also still have this device today after the school friend brought it back to me four years ago with a big thank you.
At the age of fourteen I had my own shortwave receiver and transmitter station that I built myself. I was a shortwave radio amateur and was looking for connections worldwide.
At the age of sixteen I became a technical consultant in the Solingen branch of the German Amateur Radio Club (DARC) and explained to the OM's how radio technology works.
At the age of eighteen I began studying electrical engineering with a specialization in high-frequency technology at the Technical University of Aachen.
What was your upbringing like? Did you have a large family?
As already described above, I had four siblings. My mother knew that education was the most important asset for her children to be successful in life. She explained this to us almost every day. But since she also was not at home during the day as a kindergarten teacher, we children also learned to organize ourselves and our household. This was a successful method of making us independent thinkers.
Did you have any hobbies (eg. Some people talk about learning trade skills from a family member.)
The only hobby I had besides all the many activities outside of school (see above) was that I did a lot of sports. 800m and 1000m running was my specialty. I was very fortunate to be a member of the Solingen Athletics Club. The world-famous 10,000m runners Emil Zatopek (gold and silver medal in the 10,000m and 5,000m run at the 1948 Olympic Games in London and three gold medals at the Olympic Games 1952 in Helsinki) and Herbert Schade (bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Helsinki) also trained in this club. Herbert Schade was from Solingen and had invited Emil Zatopek from Czechoslovakia to Solingen for training. We quickly became friends. A friendship that I have benefited from throughout my life because it taught me what change in perseverance and speed (interval training) means in sports and in life.
Did you partake in after school activities? Did you play sports?
Yes, see above.
Did you have a part-time job (after school, summer)? What was your most surprising job assignment?
Yes, see above.
Did you take vacations and/or go on day trips? Favorite holiday/family gathering?
I never took vacations when I was at school and when studying. There was neither the time nor the money for this. Later, after my first professional steps, around 1968, I often went on vacation with my family and friends to Spain or southern France. In 1990 I bought a holiday home on the Atlantic coast of France near Bordeaux which has become a focal point for family holidays.
EDUCATION: Favorite subject in school (K-12, university). Why?
My favorite subjects at school were math and physics. I especially enjoyed mathematics. I had a lot of fun puzzling and solving tasks. I learned very quickly that it takes a lot of training to solve math problems. I also quickly recognized the fact that math problems are best learned when you are forced to explain them to others. So, it was not surprising that I always had two classmates who I had parallel to school lessons to explain the daily math problems to them. It was similar later in the first four semesters at university. I loved math. From the second semester on I was an assistant at the mathematics department to support the younger students in solving the exercises. In the fifth and sixth semester I had to learn Maxell's theory of electromagnetic fields. That was really difficult for me at first. When I saw the exams in this subject coming up, I remembered learning by teaching. Without further ado, I founded a refresher course for electromagnetic field theory and immediately had 100 students who wanted to take part in this refresher course. On the first day I explained to them that I wasn't the great expert in this field either, but that I would try to answer any question I couldn't answer the next day. These repetitions became a great success. Already in the second year I had up to 300 students in the courses, because this subject is one of the most difficult in the study of electrical engineering. After completing my studies, I worked part-time as a repeater besides my job at the university for several years and ended this job in 1968 when, after my habilitation, I became a lecturer in high-frequency technology at the Technical University in Aachen. In 1968 and 1969 I wrote down my experiences and knowledge from this refresher courses in two books entitled "Fundamentals and Applications of Maxwell's Theory". These two books deal with the solving of exercises in the field. Meanwhile more than one hundred thousand copies of the book are sold. They are still on the market today after more than fifty years (of course after several revisions) and are a great help to students
Did you have a least favorite subject in school (K-12, university. Why?
Basically "no". Technical mechanics was not a particularly exciting subject. But that was probably more due to the material than to the professor, who wasn't a good teacher.
Why did you select the university (universities) you attended? What was your major and why did you select it?
I only studied at the Technical University at Aachen. I received my diploma degree in Electrical Engineering, my doctoral degree and my habilitation degree from this university. The Technical University of Aachen (RWTH Aachen) was and is one of the best-known technical universities in Europe. It was and is characterized by an excellent teaching program and many large and future oriented research projects. It was also close (about 120 km) to Solingen, where my family lived, so I could return there at the weekend.
Employment and career: First job - Current position - Favorite job
My professional life is long (58 years) and very varied. And I'm still working as a freelance scientist and book author at the age of 83. In this respect, I hope that this section will not be too long.
When I chose my job, I started from the idea that I should be very free in my job when it comes to making decisions and acting. As a result of these considerations, I decided to aspire to become a university professor.
I studied electrical engineering, completed my exams in 1964, received my doctoral degree as a Dr.-Ing. in 1967 and after another three years in 1970 I completed my habilitation process, which gave me the right to freely hold lectures at the Technical University of Aachen in the subject of high-frequency technology.
I initially worked as a lecturer in high-frequency technology and was appointed adjunct professor in 1973. In this time after the success of my first two books, I very wrote a book in new 1973 entitled "Fields and Waves in Gyrotropic Microwave Structures", which was published by Verlag Friedrich Vieweg + Sohn (today Springer-Vieweg Verlag) and which summarized my habilitation thesis. A year later, I published the book "Introduction to Microstrip Line Technology", which was the first book worldwide on this subject, unfortunately written only in German. To publish this book (and later textbooks for my lectures) I founded my own publishing house, today's Verlagsbuchhandlung Dr. Wolff GmbH in Aachen which after 50 years is still working well.
In 1974 I was offered the position of full professor for general and theoretical electrical engineering at the newly founded university in Duisburg.
Since the university was newly founded, all facilities such as laboratories and all lectures had to be rebuilt. The lecture program was extensive: 4 semesters of lectures in the basics of electrical engineering with around 400 students in each semester and two semesters of electromagnetic field theory with around 200 students.
Since I was also the first newly appointed professor at the university, I was quickly confronted with administrative tasks: in 1976 I was appointed dean of the newly founded faculty. Later, I was assigned tasks in the university senate and in the rectorate as vice rector for research.
Nevertheless, I was able to set up my chair quickly, after four years I already had 20 scientific research assistants and the research laboratories were equipped with modern research equipment.
The chair quickly developed into an internationally recognized research center in microwaves through a wide range of publications in the field of electromagnetic field theory and integrated microwave circuits in IEEE journals and on IEEE conferences.
In 1982 I received a call to the chair for high-frequency technology at the University of Vienna, Austria, which I turned down because I felt very comfortable at the newly founded university in Duisburg.
In 1987, together with colleagues from the electrical engineering and physics faculties, I founded a special research area for "High-Frequency and High-Speed Circuits of III-V Semiconductors" with the help of the German Research Association, which generously supported the project with several million Deutschmarks. I was the speaker of this research group with about 120 coworkers for five years.
In addition to my work at the university, I worked together with the city administration of the city of Duisburg on restructuring the industry in the area around the city. The industry was an old coal and steel industry with an urgent need of renewal. We established a technology center in the field of electronic industries near the university of which I was a shareholder. I myself founded a company in this technology center that dealt with microwave measurement technology and the development of microwave circuits.
In 1991 I received a call to Berlin to take over a large research institute of the former German Democratic Republic in the field of III-V semiconductors. I also worked here for about 7 months as a director, but then returned to my chair in Duisburg because the state of North Rhine-Westphalia promised to help me set up a private Institute for Mobile and Satellite Radio Technology (IMST GmbH) in the vicinity of the university. The Institute was founded in September 1992.
Parallel to my university job, I became director (CEO) of this research institute, which we expanded over the years into a highly specialized and internationally known company for the development of high-quality hardware in the mobile and satellite communications sector with 170 employees (approx. 130 highly qualified engineers). The motto of this company is: hardware development based on precise knowledge of electromagnetic field theory. To verify this motto, the company has developed one of the most accurate and fastest electromagnetic field simulation programs. IMST GmbH works in the field of semiconductor circuit development, antenna technology, radar technology and communication systems development.
Finally, in 1999, the University of Duisburg elected me as its rector for a period of four years. As rector, I was responsible for research and teaching issues and for representing the university to the outside world. Special activities will be addressed in one of the questions below.
In 2003 I retired from the university. I remained CEO until 2018 and Research Director until 2020 of IMST GmbH. I am currently still a shareholder of IMST GmbH. Otherwise, I am engaged in private research on electromagnetic fields in spherical resonators. I have written a book about this, which should go to press by the end of this year. Starting my career in 1964, I look back on a working time of 58 years which fulfilled all my whishes which I had as I was young.
I spent the bulk of my career as a Research Staff Member at IBM's TJ Watson Research Center - which gave me just a wonderful environment full of bright and enthusiastic tech professionals. What a great job that was. At various times, I worked on signal processing, image processing, color reproduction, digital libraries, image watermarking, and supercomputing. But, my favorite times were the era when we pioneered on-line image collections of the collections of museums and libraries - with impressive quality. The topics (image quality, color management and image security) were new and ripe for innovation. We worked with painter Andrew Wyeth's staff, the National Gallery of Art (USA), the Vatican Library, the Hermitage Museum (in Russia) and the Egyptian Museum (in Cairo). People who didn't know us, or know of us, say and admired our work (as they viewed it on the museum and library web sites).
Has your career turned out as you expected?
Yes, starting my career in 1964, I look back on a working time of 58 years which fulfilled all my whishes which I had as I was young.
Has IEEE played a role in your career? How? What does IEEE mean to you?
The IEEE played a very important role in my professional life, but ultimately also in my private life. I published my first scientific paper in IEEE journals (here: Transactions on Microwave Theory and Techniques) in 1972; previously I published mostly in German-language magazines. 1972 was also the first year that I attended the IEEE International Microwave Symposium and found my first friends there. In the later 50 years I have attended this conference almost every year. I quickly became part of this large engineering community, becoming a member and chairing various technical committees for many years, working in the editorial board of the transactions and in the technical program committee of the International Microwave Symposium. I received the MTT Society's Microwave Career Award in 2002, which made me very happy and a little proud. The essential thing, however, was that I was able to get, to know so many outstanding international scientists from my field that I quickly felt that the IEEE was my professional home. I don't think there is any other scientific association that is as active around the world as the IEEE and where you can make international friends. Not to mention the many professional discussions and information made available through this outstanding association of scientists.
You have been awarded one of IEEE's highest-level awards. What does this award mean to you?
The fact that I was awarded the IEEE/RSE James Clerk Maxwell Medal makes me really proud, as James Clerk Maxwell was the father of the electromagnetic field theory as we still use it today; it was and is the basis for all my activities in my job. This theory is an excellent scientific basis for our work, which is still of undiminished importance for electrical engineering today, 150 years after its publication. On the front page of a book on the theory of electromagnetic fields I read the sentence: "Was it a god who wrote these equations?" and I believe this is a true and fair description of the quality of the work of the great scientist James Clerk Maxwell.
I have received high-ranking scientific prizes in the past, such as the Heinrich Hertz Award from the EnBW Foundation and the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, the aforementioned Microwave Career Award from the MTT Society of the IEEE and the Outstanding Career Award from the European Microwave Association. The IEEE/RSE James Clerk Maxwell Medal however is the highest honor a field theorist can think of as a reward for his work. I am happy and proud to have been honored with this award.
What other associations have helped you in your career?
In addition to my membership in the IEEE, I have also been a member of the Association for Electrical Engineering, Electronics and Information Technology, VDE, in Germany for over sixty years. I was a member of the Microwave Systems Technical Committee for several decades and am now a lifetime honorary member of that committee. From 2009 to 2015 I was chairman of the Information Technology Society (ITG) for six years and a member of the Executive Committee of the VDE. In this capacity, I have been able to establish many connections with German and European scientists and companies. These six years were a great fulfillment and a good time for me.
Career Advice: What advice would you give to young professionals entering your field today?
Information and communication technology will continue to be a steadily growing field of science in the coming years and decades, with many new topics and developments, and thus an area in which there are always new and interesting tasks to be solved for intelligent engineers. The development of mobile communications technology e.g. is fast-moving and far from over. We haven't installed the new 5G mobile radio system yet, so we are already thinking about a 6G system that will work in a completely new frequency range with working frequencies of over 100 GHz which thus has completely new requirements for circuit and antenna technologies. New technologies are also emerging in satellite radio technology with the mega systems of small, low earth orbit satellites. The combination of mobile radio technology and satellite radio technology, in which the low earth orbit satellites will work as carriers of base stations, is just around the corner. All these new systems will be controlled more and more by artificial intelligence. New, exciting and humanity-serving technologies must be conceived and developed. There is a broad field here for young, committed engineers in the future.
But, although computers have already learned to solve Maxwell's equations and design complex circuits and systems in recent years and are very helpful in the development of new technologies, as a young student you must not forget the basis of all these technologies: the electromagnetic field theory. I recommend anyone who decides to study communications and information technology to study electromagnetic field theory intensively, no matter how difficult it may be. And that means you need a solid basis in mathematics before. Only with a solid feeling for what electromagnetic fields are physically and what they are able to do, can you create a secure basis for your applications; also for checking whether a simulation program always offers the right solution.
Reflection: What would you have done differently or tell your younger self now?
I'm not quite sure. Actually, I am quite satisfied with the course of my life and the successes that have been achieved. Maybe it was a bit too stressful at times and you thought about taking things a little easier. But when the results of the work came, you then again were quite satisfied with how things went. Overall, I think I would do it this way again.
Was there a project that you were so passionate about that you continued to pursue it even though there may have been doubts about its success?
Yes. I reported above that I was the elected rector of the University of Duisburg for four years. I also mentioned that the university was newly founded when I started working there. In 1999, at a time when the university had already existed for 27 years, it was in a financial crisis because the state government, which was responsible for funding, was short of money. The university in the neighboring town of Essen, which was only about 15 km away, had a similar experience.
As rector, I had to decide how to resolve this crisis. I therefore discussed a merger of the two universities because I believed that combining capacities and realigning structures could solve the problem.
This proposal, which was received very positively by the state government (which in Germany is responsible for the universities by law) aroused a great deal of resistance in the two cities, in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and even in the circles of friends of the two universities. The resistance went as far as public demonstrations against the rector.
However, since I was firmly convinced that my plan was the only right one to solve the problems, I fought for it for two years until the merger was enacted by law in 2003. Today, the merged university in the two cities is one of the large universities in Germany. It works efficiently and future-oriented and is recognized and praised by the population and the regional institutions.
What career achievement are you most proud of?
I believe that the idea of planning a private research and development institute for mobile and satellite radio technology (IMST GmbH), the implementation of this idea and the operation of the resulting company parallel to and independent of my work at the university was the best achievement in my life career.
IMST GmbH now exists for thirty years. Together with my dedicated staff, I have created a scientific institution that operates at the cutting edge of technology and hardware development between university and industry and has achieved international recognition.
That this institution has also fulfilled my hope that I would not have to stop working at the age of 65 (at this age you are retired from German universities) and that I had the chance to work another 17 years in an excellent scientific institution, independently and according to my wishes, confirms to me today that I took the right initiative thirty years ago.
Personal Life: What do you do for fun? Hobbies?
I didn't have many hobbies outside of work. One thing that I've kept up with for many years has been sport. Ever since I was young, I have run for an hour almost every day. Two years ago, at the age of 81, I changed that: now I walk 1.5 hours, about 8 km a day.
One of my hobbies is writing books. I have written 12 books so far, all about technology. I've been sitting for five years now, writing a new book (see above), which should be finished this year. Further books are in planning, if I still have the time for this.
My hobbies also include going out to dinner with friends or family members and drinking a glass of white wine. That's enough fun for an old man.
What personal achievement are you most proud of?
I am particularly pleased and even proud of that I have always been able to assert my idea of a free, self-determined life.
Do you have a favorite food? Or a family recipe that may have been passed down?
As I said before, I like going out to dinner in the evenings. I don't have a particular favorite dish though. I love very good fish and good meat (beef, lamb, game and poultry). But what is important to me about eating is that you can relax after work at dinner and have good conversations with friends.
Do you have a favorite genre of music? or a favorite song? Or do you play an instrument?
I love to listen to good old classical music from time to time. Unfortunately, I never played an instrument myself. This is definitely a gap in my life.
Do you have a prize possession? If so, please explain.
No, I don't have any valuable possessions. I have a nice house to live in and I have Hannelore who I have been living with for thirty years. This is very nice and good for my life.
What are three things people may not know about you?
I do not know such three things. My life was always very open and visible to everyone. There are no secrets.
Who was your mentor? (eg. family member or professor)
My great mentor was the professor for high-frequency technology at the Technical University in Aachen, Prof. Dr. Herbert Doering. He was in 1993 the first recipient of the IEEE MTT-S Microwave Career Award from Germany. In his youth he was a specialist in the field of microwave tubes. Later at university he was a great leader who could show young students the right path to an academic career and a good employment choice. I elaborated my doctoral thesis under his leadership. I adored him very much and still try to emulate him: he lived to be 92 years old.
What is one thing you cannot live without in your work space?
When I work, I do work. I never needed coffee or cigarette, only from time to time a cool drink, e.g. a Cola
Anything else you would like to share about yourself?
No, I think, I already said too much.