IEEE History Center
Timeline of major events
- 1981: First exhibit: “Lines and Waves”
- 1985: First Milestone: Landing of the transatlantic cable
- 1991: First conference: “Technological Competitiveness”
- 1995: 250th oral history
- 2002: IEEE Virtual Museum
- 2011: First History Center Press book: Bell Labs Memoirs
- 2015: Engineering & Technology History Wiki
- 2016: IEEE REACH program launches
Creation: The First Decade of the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, 1980-1989
Since the formation of IEEE in 1963, there has been a standing History Committee responsible for promoting the preservation, collection, publication, and dissemination of historical information in the fields covered by IEEE members, as well as about IEEE and its predecessor organizations.
In 1979, the IEEE Board of Directors endorsed the concept of a professionally staffed history center to support the work of the IEEE History Committee and allocated funds to that end. A year later, the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering was established in IEEE's New York offices. For most of the first decade, the center staff consisted of a director, an archivist or curator, and a part-time research assistant. The first director was Dr. Robert Friedel, and Dr. Ronald Kline succeeded him in 1984. These individuals and their staffs laid the groundwork for the Center, establishing it as a leading resource for electrically related history.
The center undertook many projects during its first decade. Most notable, perhaps, were three exhibits that circulated nationally: the first on Faraday and Maxwell, the second on the IEEE Centennial, and the third on Edison and the electric light. In addition, the center collaborated on exhibits with the Smithsonian and other institutions. Perhaps most importantly, the center established the IEEE Milestones Program, overseen by the History Committee, wherein IEEE Sections could have recognized and publicized engineering achievements within their geographical area.
Moving to Rutgers and Expanding Programs, 1989-1997
At the end of the decade, the History Committee determined that the center should focus on historical research. This decision was heavily influenced by a report prepared for the Committee by historian Terry Reynolds. In order to better carry out research, the center moved in 1990 to the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA. This move was carried out under the leadership of the Center's third director, Dr. William "Bill" Aspray, who succeeded Kline in 1989.
With University resources added to IEEE support, the Center expanded to a staff of three permanent Ph.D. historians, a rotating post-doc, a curator, a research assistant, and four (later six) Rutgers graduate students working part-time as research assistants. Dr. Frederik Nebeker joined the staff in 1990 as Research Historian. He was later promoted to Senior Research Historian.
Center staff carried out and published research projects on the National Science Foundation's role in the development of computing, the impact of the computer on meteorology, the history of the electric trolley, the history of radar, and many other topics. Oral Histories became a major activity; the center's staff conducted more than 200 interviews in this period. The interviews were transcribed, edited, and made available to researchers. The center started a series of conferences on the history of technology in 1991 in New Brunswick on technological competitiveness; in 1995, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA, on the history of electrical engineering; and in 1997, in Williamsburg, Virginia, USA, on the history of computing. Long-term cooperation was begun with sister groups, such as the History Committee of the IEEJ (Japan’s counterpart to the IEEE).
New Director, Emphasis, and Name: IEEE History Center, 1997-2013
In 1997, Dr. Michael Geselowitz became the center's staff director. With the guidance of the History Committee, the center embarked on a new phase, characterized by an increased emphasis on reaching out to engineers, to public policy makers, to public school teachers, and to a fourth, sometimes overlooked group of people concerned with electrical history, amateur historians and collectors. Shortly thereafter, the center acquired a new name, the IEEE History Center, which more accurately described the scope of the center’s activities. In 1998, Geselowitz, Nebeker, and the post-doc were joined in these efforts by Robert Colburn as research coordinator, as well as by an archivist/web manager. Projects carried out by this team included a major overhaul of the center’s web site; several IEEE Society histories; teaching and participating in the intellectual activity at Rutgers University; a workshop with the IEEJ in 2000; the Going Digital web history project sponsored by the Sloan Foundation; and two more conferences: in 1999 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, on women and technology; and in 2001 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, on the history of telecommunications.
The center also began a more concerted effort to promote awareness of history to the IEEE membership. It launched features in many IEEE publications, including a series of special millennium articles in Proceedings of the IEEE, a regular column in The Institute, occasional special articles for IEEE Spectrum, and regular e-features for Spectrum and IEEE-USA's Today’s Engineer, later retitled InSight. In 2000, the History Center also increased its public outreach with the introduction of an entirely new web-based program, the IEEE Virtual Museum. This program was discontinued in 2008, and most of its articles were migrated to Richard Gowen's initiative, the IEEE Global History Network website, and then to the Engineering Technology and History Wiki, a joint venture with the United Engineering Foundation's Founder Societies.
In 2003, the History Center staff was responsible for Philosophy Hall at Columbia University in New York being named a U.S. National Historic Landmark. In this building Edwin Armstrong, recipient of the first IEEE (then IRE) Medal of Honor in 1919, did most of his pioneering radio research. The center also worked on a special project to copy to DVD and make accessible some unique, privately held, video interviews with computer pioneers. In 2004, the center held a conference at Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, England, on the history of electronics.
Perhaps most importantly, the Milestones Program passed its own milestone in 2004, as the 50th Milestone was dedicated and IEEE Region 9—the last region without one—dedicated two Milestones. By 2010, the number of Milestones surpassed 100, and 200 nine years later. In addition, the center conducted institutional history research projects with Eta Kappa Nu and with the Marconi Fellowship Foundation at Columbia University.
In 2006 and 2007, the History Center was involved in numerous special projects, including Society anniversaries and lectures. The oral history program began video recording interviews. In 2007, the center held its biennial history conference at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, New Jersey, U.S.A, on the history of electric power. In 2008, John Vardalas, who had started at the center as a post-doctoral fellow, was promoted to outreach historian, and Dr. Sheldon Hochheiser joined the center as institutional historian and archivist.
Beginning in 2008, a major focus of the center’s activity became building a new wiki-based website for bringing the history of IEEE’s fields of interests to both IEEE Members and the public, the IEEE Global History Network (GHN). The GHN went live late in 2008. While anyone could access the website, only IEEE members, staff, and other registered users could add and edit material. To oversee the GHN, Nathan Brewer joined the History Center in 2009 as web content administrator. By 2010, the site had grown to include thousands of entries, including first hand histories by IEEE members, more than 450 oral histories, articles on the history of technology, selected documents from the IEEE Archives, and articles on the history of IEEE and its organizational units.
In 2009, as part of IEEE’s celebration of its 125th anniversary, the History Center undertook two projects. Its conference, held at both Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA, USA, had the theme of the history of professional technical societies. The center conducted oral histories with twenty-three IEEE Past-Presidents. The Center began a new program, STARS, an online compendium of invited, peer-reviewed articles on the history of major developments in electrical and computer science and technology. STARS articles appeared on the GHN before being reprinted in Proceedings of the IEEE. Later they were transferred to the Engineering and Technology History Wiki, the GHN's expanded successor. The STARS program was designed to provide recognition to the most important technological trajectories, and thus to complement the Milestone program’s emphasis on specific achievements in specific places. The center also undertook a pilot program with the Hillsborough, New Jersey, USA, school district on bringing the history of technology into a high school social studies curriculum.
In 2010, the History Center processed the Washington DC Section Archives scrapbook, a collection of documents from the fiftieth anniversary of the section, covering 1903 to 1953. The Merger Collection, a comprehensive collection of documents related to the merger of AIEE and IRE in 1963 to form IEEE, was also digitized and added to the GHN. In addition, the center collected institutional history pertaining to the IEEE History Center and conducted oral histories with Geselowitz's predecessors as directors of the center.
The IEEE History Center Book Publishing program began in 2011 with the publication of Michael Geselowitz and Michael Noll's Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation and the three-part A Brief History of the U.S. Federal Government and Innovation. The IEEE History Center hosted a screening of LeAnn Erickson's Top Secret Rosies, a documentary film on the women who worked on the ENIAC, at Rutgers University. Outreach historian John Vardalas began teaching classes at the University of California at Merced, and Senior Historian Rik Nebeker retired after twenty-two years of service to IEEE's history. Outreach Historian Alexander Magoun was hired to succeed him in 2012.
That year, the History Center staff wrote a ten-part series of articles, one for each decade, for Proceedings of the IEEE. The occasion was the journal's centenary as, first, the flagship publication for the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE), and then, after 1963, of the IEEE. The staff's articles detailed the evolution of the journal in the contexts of global, technological, and institutional trends and events. The History Center also held its ninth historical conference in conjunction with HISTELCON 2012 in Pavia, Italy. In preparation for her book, Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing, Janet Abbate a former post-doctoral fellow at the center, conducted 52 oral histories with American and British women in the computing industries and arranged with the center to make them available on the Engineering and Technology History Wiki (ETHW).
In 2013, the IEEE History Center expanded its book publishing program with the publication of Joseph Cunningham's New York Power and Frank Rowsome's The Birth of Electric Traction: the Extraordinary Life and Times of Inventor Frank Julian Sprague. In efforts to promote its resources on social media, the History Center launched a blog on Tumblr and a Twitter feed. Beginning in 2011 with the center's collection of U-matic videotapes, and continuing with its quarter-inch audio tapes in 2012, archivist Nathan Brewer finished digitizing the center's audiovisual content with two 16 mm films produced by Eta Kappa Nu. In conjunction with Rutgers University, the History Center co-sponsored three lectures. Janet Abbate described her research on women’s experiences in programming and computer science from the 1940s to the late 20th century; Elizabeth Bruton spoke on "Blurred Lines: Interception and Secrecy in World War One Telecommunications," and Bernard Carlson lectured on "Method in his Madness: Nikola Tesla and Disruptive Technologies."
A New Location: Affiliation with Stevens Institute of Technology, 2014-2020
In July 2014, after a re-evaluation of the IEEE History Center's location, its staff moved with its library, files, artifacts, and office equipment to Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, USA. The expectation was that affiliation with a leading technical university would be a better fit for the Center's interests than Rutgers University's turn to cultural history, and lead to increased opportunities for collaboration and influence.
Over six years, from its offices in Samuel C. Williams Library, this proved to be the case as center staff worked with Stevens librarians and archivists on the one hand, and the College of Arts and Letters (CAL) on the other. Newly appointed Industry Associate Professors Michael Geselowitz, John Vardalas, Sheldon Hochheiser, Alexander Magoun, Mary Ann Hellrigel, and Lisa Nocks developed and taught upper and lower level courses on the histories of engineering, engineers, and technology. Research Coordinator Robert Colburn connected with the student IEEE section annually, displaying historic artifacts from the center's small collection at IEEE Day celebrations, and oversaw a series of productive undergraduate work-study students, who formatted oral histories and other files for the ETHW and assisted with research projects. Archivist and website administrator Nathan Brewer scanned and posted over 350 glass lantern slides from Stevens Archives' Frederick Winslow Taylor Collection, including photos of Henry Gantt of the eponymous chart and Taylor himself reviewing a worker's procedure.
Magoun also mounted exhibits at the Library on RCA's 45-rpm phonograph record system and the memorabilia of the popular craze for radio from the 1910s to the 1930s, borrowing unique collections from members of the New Jersey Antique Radio Club, and Nocks exhibited the medical and scientific origins of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This was in conjunction with her, Michael Geselowitz, and Robert Colburn's collaboration with College of Arts and Letters' faculty on Technologies of Frankenstein, 1818-2018, a symposium on the 200th anniversary of Shelley's publication, to which Magoun contributed a paper. The IEEE History Center also assisted with the organization of CAL's Taylor's World conference in 2015, and Magoun documented major construction projects on campus photographically during his commutes to and from the library.
All of this activity took place in addition to other projects. These included continuing historical member services like the Milestones program; oral histories; researching, writing, or editing original articles for IEEE publications, notably Proceedings of the IEEE's Scanning our Past section; speaking engagements and impromptu exhibits; and the IEEE Archives, now installed in an expanded, purpose-built facility at the Operations Center in Piscataway, NJ, USA. Staff were also busy with new initiatives like REACH (Raising Educational Awareness for the Conduit of History), library expansion, and the Global Museum initiative. Geselowitz conceived this as an IEEE Foundation Signature Program, to introduce high school teachers and students to the history of technology. To start, build, develop, and market REACH, Kelly McKenna joined the staff in 2015. In five years, she has overseen the historians' production of nine inquiry units and lesson plans, and contractors' production of videos and a website, while touring the U.S. to promote these free resources to school districts.
Meanwhile, Hochheiser resigned as institutional historian and archivist to return to AT&T's archives in 2016, and Mary Ann Hellrigel succeeded him to take up a series of IEEE society oral history projects and arrange for substantial donations to the center's library, of textbooks and other publications related to electrical engineering. Lisa Nocks joined the center in 2017 after Senior Historian John Vardalas retired, and, among other commitments, began leading the development of new exhibits at the IEEE offices at 3 Park Avenue in New York City, NY, USA, as a precursor to the IEEE Global Museum Project.
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The IEEE Electromagnetic Compatibility Society (EMC-S) celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2007. Dan Hoolihan headed the EMC-S anniversary committee. The IEEE History Center worked with the Society to research, document, and publicize the histories of the Society and its technical field. Ten oral history interviews, of pioneers in electromagnetic compatibility, were conducted. These interviews were transcribed, edited, and made available on the IEEE Global History Network. Using these interviews, as well as published articles and unpublished materials, staff of the History Center wrote the text of an anniversary booklet. Center staff also prepared a small exhibit on the history of the Society and the field; displayed at the IEEE conference center in New Jersey and at the Society's annual meeting in 2007. History Center staff conducted a series of additional oral history interviews with additional IEEE EMC leaders in 2013.
The IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society and the IEEE History Center collaborated on a historical project to support the OE Society's 25th Anniversary celebrations leading up to 2008. The IEEE History Center provided a historical article which was a sequel to Ivan Coggeshall's 1985 article in the IEEE Journal of Oceanic Engineering, to bring the history of the OE society and its technologies up to the present.
The History Center conducted a pilot program of a series of three lectures at a local New Jersey high school on the role and importance of science and technology in history. The Center's historians presented ninth grade students with audio-visually rich presentations in PowerPoint™ format as well as materials that emphasized the role of technology and engineering in the global history that the students study during the school year.
The first lecture--on the role of the magnetic compass and other navigational technologies--was presented in November 2005 by Center postdoc Dr. John Vardalas to great acclaim. Subsequent lectures in March and May 2006 on the Industrial Revolution and on the telecommunications revolution of the late nineteenth century were given by Dr. Michael Geselowitz and Dr. Rik Nebeker. In addition to the PowerPoint™ presentations, the Center left behind instructional materials such as glossaries and further references, including tie-ins to the IEEE Global History Network.
The International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) sponsors frequent events in computing history. "Perspectives on Soviet and Russian Computing," held 3-7 July 2006 in Petrozavodsk, Russia, was the first of these events. This conference had two phases, the first consisting of a discussion on the history of Soviet and Russian computing, and the second focusing on the future of computing in the region as seen by computing pioneers and by industry and commercial innovators.
Computing in the Soviet Union faced significant challenges such as rapidly evolving technologies, globalization, changing demographics, and different opportunities associated with schooling and higher education. This conference investigated the transitions that had taken place in the Soviet Union between 1950 and 1990, particularly before the pervasive use of the internet. Information and communication technology played a significant role not only within the Soviet Union, but throughout the world. The conference attempted to view introspectively the current transitions of ICT in the region and explore how these changes might affect the region in the future.
The IEEE History Center was a technical co-sponsor of the Petrozavodsk conference, and Dr. Frederick Nebeker, Senior Research Historian, presented a paper entitled "The Importance of Oral History in Researching the Development of Computers." In addition, IFIP held two other conferences on computing history, "History of Computing in Education" (Santiago, Chile, 20-25 August 2006), and "Pioneering Software in the 1960s in the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium" (Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2-4 November 2006).
In 2020, the IEEE History Center celebrated its 40th anniversary and produced the following video on its activities:
A Toast to the IEEE History Center's 40th Anniversary:
The IEEE History Center is a non-profit organization which relies on your support to preserve, research, and promote the legacy of electrical engineering and computing. To support the Center’s projects such as the Engineering and Technology History Wiki, exhibits, publications, or Oral History Collection, please click the "Donate Online" tab at http://www.ieee.org/donate