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Oral-History:Frederik Nebeker

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(Laughter) It was a conference on technological competitiveness. The idea that very often the competition in the business world is really competition in technologies. Bill Aspray was the main organizer. He had invited some very distinguished people and I think we had a very good conference and it did result in a book.
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(Laughter) It was a conference on technological competitiveness. The idea that very often the competition in the business world is really competition in technologies. Bill Aspray was the main organizer. He had invited some very distinguished people and I think we had a very good conference and it did result in a book.
  
 
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Revision as of 01:28, 1 August 2011

Contents

About Frederik Nebeker

Frederik Nebeker was a long-time Senior Research Historian at the IEEE History Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. A native of Pasadena, CA, Nebeker earned his Masters degree in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin in 1974, and a Ph.D. in the History of Science and Technology from Princeton University, where he researched the influence of the computer on meteorology. Nebeker's dissertation research formed the basis of his first book, Calculating the Weather: Meteorology in the 20th Century, which was published in 1995. Other books include From 0 to 1: An Authoritative History of Modern Computing (2002) and Dawn of the Electronic Age: Electrical Technologies in the Shaping of the Modern World, 1914 to 1945 (2009).

Nebeker joined the IEEE History Center as a staff historian in 1990. Over more than two decades at the Center, he was a frequent contributor to IEEE publications like Spectrum and the History Center Newsletter and was instrumental in organizing the History Center's conference on technological competitiveness in the electronics industry in at Rutgers University in 1991 and the 2004 Conference on the History of Electronics at Bletchley Park, the historic site of the Allies' secret cryptography during World War Two. Nebeker retired in the Spring of 2011.

In this interview, Nebeker discusses his career as a historian of science and technology, the growth of the IEEE History Center since 1990, and the theory and practice of oral history.

About the Interview

Frederik Nebeker: An Interview Conducted by Sheldon Hochheiser, IEEE History Center , April 7, 2011

Interview #564 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center. Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user. It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows: Frederik Nebeker, an oral history conducted in 2011 by Sheldon Hochheiser, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, US.

Interview

Interview: Frederik Nebeker Interviewer: Sheldon Hochheiser Place: New Brunswick, NJ Date: 7 April 2011

Early Life and Education

Hochheiser:

This is Sheldon Hochheiser at the IEEE History Center. It is the 7th of April, 2011. I'm here at the IEEE History Center with long-time IEEE History Center staff member Rik Nebeker. Good morning.

Nebeker:

Good morning.

Hochheiser:

If we could start with just a little bit of background. Where were you born and raised?

Nebeker:

I was born in Pasadena, California. And my father was in the Air Force so growing up we lived in many different places because his assignment was changing. So we lived in California, in Massachusetts, three years in Japan, three years in France, four years in Mississippi, and then back to California which my parents had always regarded as their home. And that's where I went to the last three years of high school and to college, Pomona College.

Hochheiser:

Were you interested in math, science, technology, things like that growing up?

Nebeker:

Yes. I was interested in technology. I thought I'd be an astronomer when I was a kid.

Hochheiser:

What led you to Pomona College from among the thousands of colleges in the United States?

Nebeker:

I was first set on Stanford but my brother who's a year older went to Stanford and I didn't want to be following in his footsteps. But I was also always interested in Pomona College. I was very much interested in the humanities as well as the sciences and Pomona is a very good liberal arts college, so it was attractive to me.

Hochheiser:

Did you go there with a major in mind?

Nebeker:

I majored in mathematics but I will say that the principal reason for doing that was that you could be a math major, especially coming in with some credits as I did, and fulfill all the requirements with one course a semester basically. And so I had a wonderful time taking philosophy, art history, most of the sciences, taking the introductory courses even some advanced course in some of the other sciences so I really enjoyed those four years and took a lot of different classes.

Hochheiser:

When did you decide that you wanted to go to graduate school in mathematics?

Nebeker:

So I went to graduate school in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin. That was interrupted by my military service. I had joined the Army reserves on graduation because my deferment ended on my graduation. It turned out to be seven months of active duty, which began in the middle of my first year as a math graduate student. I completed that and then actually passed the PhD qualifying exams at Wisconsin but was disillusioned with mathematics as a career for me.

Hochheiser:

Right.

Nebeker:

I passed the qualifying exams with no problem and on that basis was awarded a Master's degree but had decided that this pure mathematics was not something I wanted to be doing the rest of my life. I had taken a History of Math course at Wisconsin, they have a very good History of Science Department, there as you know very well [laughing]--

Hochheiser:

[Laughing] Well that's where my PhD is from.

Nebeker:

--and I happened to take the course from [Prof. David] Lindberg, a very good teacher. I got very interested in History of Math and History of Science more generally. So in my last two years there while I was still formally in the Math Department, I took History of Math as an area. You had three areas, a major and two minor areas. And they allowed History of Math as a minor area. So I did that but then continued to take quite a few History of Science courses and got a Master's degree, wrote a Master's thesis there purely out of interest. It was just very interesting to me. I didn't think at that time that I would carry on in that field.

Hochheiser:

What years were you in Madison?

Nebeker:

So I was in Madison from '70 to '74. Then I was invited to be a sabbatical replacement in the Math Department at Pomona College and went from that to teaching mathematics at Polytechnic School, the very good prep school in Pasadena which I did for a couple of years.

Hochheiser:

You had decided that you did not want to proceed to a PhD in math. What led you to decide then to go and teach math first?

Nebeker:

Well because while I figured out what I did want to do. I was invited to be the sabbatical replacement. I loved Pomona College. I had a great time teaching there. I also loved and have been back a number of times, Polytechnic School in Pasadena. I have always enjoyed teaching.

Hochheiser:

Now did you go to Polytechnic?

Nebeker:

No. I went to a public high school in Riverside, California. But I didn't want to continue doing that. I thought that there were other things I was interested in. Being a writer was my dream. And I was married just before I started teaching at Polytechnic to a Danish woman. I decided I didn't want to continue doing the teaching at Polytechnic though I liked it very much. We saved up and so after two years at Polytechnic we moved to Denmark. We thought we were taking a year's sabbatical to live off our savings. We both got part-time work there and that one year stretched into five years in which our two children were born and in that time I decided History of Science, History of Technology, that's what really interests me. So it was in those years that I applied and was accepted to a graduate program in History of Science and Technology.

Hochheiser:

So what were you working on? Were you teaching math again then?

Nebeker:

No. I had various odd jobs. [laughing] Shall we leave it at that?

Hochheiser:

So you decided that you wanted to come back to the States and enroll in a doctoral program.

Hochheiser:

So when is this now?

Nebeker:

This is in '83 is when I came back to Princeton.

Hochheiser:

And what led you to decide to do your doctoral studies at Princeton?

Graduate Studies in the History of Science

Nebeker:

I applied to Wisconsin, which I loved, I applied to Harvard and Princeton, and I think one more. I was accepted at all of them but Princeton appealed to me for its setting and also the people. I'd talked to David Lindberg, and he gave me advice about these programs and so that's how I ended up at Princeton.

Hochheiser:

Did you go there with a particular program of study in mind within the field of History of Science?

Nebeker:

Well I was still thinking History of Math with Michael Mahoney at Princeton. I soon found out that History of Math is a very special thing and not usually represented in History of Science Departments. Michael Mahoney was also very interested in History of Technology. In fact he had moved to History of Computing. And I was also fascinated by technology, History of Technology and History of Computing. So that's how one goes from History of Math to History of Technology. [Chuckling]

Hochheiser:

So Mike was your?

Nebeker:

[Interposing] He was my advisor at Princeton.

Hochheiser:

Now was the work from your Master's in History of Science in Wisconsin useful or did you basically need to start over?

Nebeker:

It was useful in that it was on the 16th Century English practitioners of mathematics.

Hochheiser:

That was your--

Nebeker:

[Interposing] My Master's thesis. And Wisconsin has a very good rare books collection. They happened to have the important texts of Robert Recorde, John Dee and so on and so I had the resources there to do this kind of research. It was very valuable for the kind of general background in scientific revolution and so on, but it didn't relate to what I ended up going into, History of Computing.

Hochheiser:

What was your dissertation topic?

Nebeker:

I thought initially that I would look at the influence of the computer on the geophysical sciences. That turned out to be too large a topic. And meteorology was an important subset of the geophysical sciences, especially in the History of Computing because John Von Neumann saw meteorology as this test case of where the computer could show that it really made a difference to science. So that was then the topic. My first idea was okay, I will tell the impact of the computer on this particular science of meteorology. As you and anyone else who's done this kind of work knows, you very often end up narrowing the topic. So I carried the story into the 60's when the computer was completely established as a part of daily forecasting and research. And so the story that my dissertation tells is how quantification became more and more important in meteorology, calculation became more important, how the computer augmented that quantitative calculation type of science and how it quite rapidly in a couple of decades changed meteorology, changed the practice of meteorology, changed the forecasting, changed the way people did research and changed the data gathering or I should say improved the data gathering enormously. I mean climatology is always this data-intense field. And the computers were wonderful for that. So I think it was a good field to look at for the impact of the computer.

Hochheiser:

I take it Mike Mahoney was your advisor through this?

Nebeker:

Yes. So I completed that at the end of '88. The dissertation was published in early '89. The first work I had was a post-doc at the American Philosophical Society that was looking at their manuscripts. They have a huge and important archive in History of Science and Technology. And In meteorology and the geophysical tradition is the phrase. I published a bibliographic monograph on their collection in the roughly seven months that I worked for them. It was a year post-doc but another possibility came along in the meantime.

Hochheiser:

While you were in grad school did you think you would end up with a conventional academic career?

Nebeker:

[Interposing] Yes I did.

Hochheiser:

Is that what you were looking for?

Nebeker:

That's what I was imagining, yes.

Hochheiser:

You said you finished your post-doc work at the APS in seven months, but you had another opportunity and that was?

Nebeker:'

That was the American Institute of Physics History Center in New York City. It's since moved to College Park, Maryland. They were looking for someone, a historian, for a project that was looking at the history of multi-institutional collaborations, these huge experiments carried out at the High Energy Labs, like Fermi Labs, CERN, Brookhaven. And that was very interesting to me. I had always been interested in the History of Physics. And this is also very much History of Technology, all the instrumentation and computerization of that work. So for just a year. And that was also a longer appointment but something even more attractive came along. For a year I was working on that project on the history of multi-institutional collaborations in physics, high-energy physics. And that was a very exciting project in part because we did a lot of oral history interviewing. We located physicists and engineers who worked on some very important, large experiments in the 60's and 70's. And I just had done more than 100 oral history interviews in that year. And it involved travel to Europe and around the United States. So it was very interesting work.

Hochheiser:

Now, you were there for one year?

Nebeker:

One year.

Hochheiser:

Was this set up as a longer term appointment?

Nebeker:

That was a term appointment for this multi-institutional collaborations project which turned out to be something like an 8-year project. And I continued to work on it. The IEEE History Center, also located in New York City, very close to the AIP History Center had a subcontract with the AIP History Center specifically to look at the engineering work on these. Bill Aspray was Director of the IEEE History Center. I had known Bill before that.

Hochheiser:

Did it go back to Madison days?

The IEEE History Center

Nebeker:

Not quite but to my Princeton days when he was there on visits. He was the main person behind an oral history project at Princeton on the Princeton mathematics community in the 1930's. He directed that and I worked on that as editor of this collection of some 40 or 50 oral history interviews of people who were in the mathematics community, that includes physicists, in the 1930's at Princeton. So I knew Bill well. His Center had this subcontract with the AIP History Center. And so we had reason to collaborate on that. And then Bill, at that time, had just achieved his dream of moving the IEEE History Center from corporate offices in New York City to an academic setting. He had just achieved that with a contract with Rutgers. That brought with it a couple of new positions for historians. And I was offered one of those positions. And so after just a year at the AIP History Center I came here to Rutgers. And I have to check the date on that but 1990 I think.

Hochheiser:

Yes. 1990. I did check the date.

Nebeker:

Good.

Hochheiser:

I can't give you the exact date.

Nebeker:

[Laughing]. It was actually in August or September. Early September, I think.

Hochheiser:

Do you recall what your expectations where when you arrived and started here?

Nebeker:

Bill had, of course, told me about his vision of this History Center that would be somewhat an academic research center, so that the idea was that the historians on staff here, first of all, would teach as academics typically do. The teaching load was roughly one course per historian per year, here. And we would do scholarly research for historical journals and so on. So that that was part of the job as described by Bill. He assured me that there'd be time to do research articles and indeed I did several, one or two a year in the first years. So those were articles that came out of some activities here but then I was given the time to continue to research on, for example, test and measurement in radio in the early years; and turn that into a refereed article. So that was for me a valuable thing.

Hochheiser:

I believe when you first arrived here, the Center had not yet moved into this building?

Nebeker:

That's correct. The first semester we were in offices in Van Dyck Hall where the History Department was and is located. And people on sabbatical had kindly allowed us to use a set of offices. That was clearly temporary, waiting for a facility to open up here on the College Avenue campus. Bill did want us to be associated with the History Department and to be here rather than on the engineering campus on the other side of the river, the Busch Campus. And this building became available. It's possible it was known from the start that it would be available after the first semester.

Hochheiser:

Who was at the Center besides you and Bill when you started?

Nebeker:

Joe Tatarewicz was the more senior historian who was hired at that time. And we had a post-doc also. That was part of it. There were three PhD historians on staff, a post-doc PhD historian and an administrative person. That may have been it. Part of the agreement was this shared support of graduate students in history so the first year we had only one of these graduate assistants working here. and that grew to four for many years and even more now.

Hochheiser:

Was Andy Goldstein here when you started?

Nebeker:

Yes, he was. I believe he must have been at the New York Center but I'm not quite sure now. Andy was in a high level administrative position. And he was indeed involved in some of the research projects, editor of a book we did. We also had a more clerical administrative position.

Hochheiser:

Right. So after about six months you all picked up and moved here?

Nebeker:

That's right.

Hochheiser:

And did you move into this office from the beginning--?

Nebeker:

[Interposing] No I moved into the office you have. And Joe Tatarewicz was in here. And Bill said that he was interested in this office. He liked the three windows and the fact that you're a little bit set apart. But he felt as Director he should have the most impressive room in the building, [laughing] even if it was by the main entrance. So that was the choice. And then Joe left after just about a year here. At that point I moved in here.

Hochheiser:

Was Joe replaced?

Nebeker:

He was. Well it was more like though there weren't formal titles as I understand it, that I moved into the more senior in history position and then another historian was hired, David Morton, although I'm not quite sure of the chronology of how fast all of this happened.

Hochheiser:

Right. So it usually takes a while.

Nebeker:

Yes.

Hochheiser:

Did you start, as was the plan, teaching a course a year almost immediately?

Nebeker:

Let me try to remember. I think I didn't teach the first year but I did teach the second year. That would be my recollection. And one of the things that we did here was introduce a course on the History of Electrical Technologies. I was given responsibility for that from the beginning. It was called The Electric Century. And it was mainly 20th Century, all electrical technologies. And pretty much I taught that every year, once a year, there were one or two times when I taught it twice, until the present. It changed its name a couple of times. It's now called The Electronic Century. But it was a new course on the history of electrical technologies in the last 100 years or so.

Hochheiser:

As long as we're on the subject of the course, in what ways did the course evolve? You're teaching the same topic.

Nebeker:

Right.

Hochheiser:

Basically for 20 years. In what ways, if any, has it evolved over those many years?

Nebeker:

I started out teaching it a little bit more as internal History of Technology, trying to explain these new technologies that came along like radar and FM radio. Never, of course, isolated from the social setting but it was more on the technology itself and the steps in the improvement of the technology. Over the years, partly because we got fewer engineering students than we imagined we might for such a course; it was in the History Department but we did get some engineering students who were very happy to have a course that dealt with technology. But the majority of students were always liberal arts students. And they had trouble with the details of the technology. So it moved to a course more about the context of the technology which is also the general evolution of History of Technology as an academic field over the last 30, 40 years. And I think what may be not so usual is that in my course I found because of student response, that I was moving more and more to technology in popular culture. That the things the kids were really interested in were movies and music and, television. So many of these technologies relate to popular culture that I have ended up in the last five or six years dealing a lot with popular culture, even when it's not directly related to technological change. But it always is, of course, very much related to that.

Hochheiser:

Have you noticed any changes in the character of the students in your course over the two decades?

Nebeker:

Well I have the feeling, as I know other teachers at Rutgers do, that students don't do as much reading and one can't assign as much reading as one could 20 years ago. So that, I would say, is one difference. I also have noticed over this 20-year period, among young people a changed attitude towards technology. Especially in the late 80's most college students had shared this negative view towards technology, whereas in the last 10 years, these young people have embraced technology. They are pioneering in the use of so many of these things. And they're, I think, more interested in the precursors of their iPod and MP3 players and smart phones.

Hochheiser:

Let's switch subjects now. I know one of the IEEE leaders you got very much involved with in the early years here was Ernst Weber.

Nebeker:

That’s right.

Hochheiser:

Can you tell me a little bit about your relation and work with him?

Early Projects at the History Center

Nebeker:

Yes. Ernst Weber was the first IEEE President. He had actually been President of the Institute of Radio Engineers and President of the AIEE before that. He was a very distinguished person with two PhDs, knew several languages, a very cultured person, respected widely. He came from Austria but had come to this country before World War II. He was a very good choice for the first President of IEEE because he brought together these two communities, the AIEE and the IRE. And I was very lucky and was happy when a plan or a project started here to do in-depth oral history interviews with a handful of people. The interviews would be over a couple of days and Ernst Weber was one of these people chosen for an in-depth interview. He had retired at that point. He was in North Carolina. I visited him there and spent several days there talking with him beforehand then two days of interviewing and turned into an article, and then a chapter in a book. We got along very well. He had gotten very interested in the history of electrical technology and had written a manuscript of that subject that needed a lot of work. We came up with a plan for using Ernst Weber's life as a way to preset this history, situating the story in his personal history, the way he was trained in Austria , sort of framing the more general story with his personal story. And then I added the personal story that was the frame for this story of EE evolution and then did a good deal of rewriting of the manuscript that he wrote. So it was called Evolution of Electrical Engineering. It was Ernst Weber with Frederik Nebeker. Yeah. But I was very lucky to work on that with Ernst Weber. And I went down to his home once more, maybe even twice more to collaborate with him on the book.

Hochheiser:

Another thing that happened not terribly long after you arrived was the History Center held its first conference.

Nebeker:

[Interposing] Yes and you were involved in that.

Hochheiser:

Yes I was. You were much more involved than I was; I showed up and I chaired a session.

Nebeker:

(Laughter) It was a conference on technological competitiveness. The idea that very often the competition in the business world is really competition in technologies. Bill Aspray was the main organizer. He had invited some very distinguished people and I think we had a very good conference and it did result in a book.

Hochheiser:

what was your role?

Nebeker:

My role was chairing a session, not a large role.

Hochheiser:

Another project in your early years that I know you participated in was the Rad Lab Project.

Nebeker:

The MIT's Radiation Laboratory, which was the main center for development of radar in World War II, was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the closing of Rad Lab. It closed in 1945 after the war. And a large reunion of Rad Lab people was taking place in Boston. we saw that as an opportunity to collect oral history interviews. And I've forgotten now the number, but 30 or 40 maybe, oral history interviews were conducted there. And these were a little bit special in that we were not doing career interviews of these people. We were interested in the Rad Lab. So we wanted to know how they got recruited to the Rad Lab, the nature of their work there, what their work there meant to engineering after the war but especially about how the Rad Lab functioned, what kind of a place that was. And we interviewed not only these top scientists and engineers but also some support staff including, I did interview the secretary of the director, Edith Baker. So I think we succeeded in getting a fairly full picture of that. The book that we then published of these transcripts. which were carefully edited as our transcripts are here, sold out immediately.

Hochheiser:

But unlike some of the other work, the publication was the edited transcripts, rather than using the oral histories as a basis

Nebeker:

Exactly.

Hochheiser:

I wonder if you could tell me a little about another one of the in-depth oral histories that I know you did in the early years which was with Charles Townes.

Nebeker:

Well Charles Townes actually functioned as an engineer in World War II at Bell Labs as you know.

Hochheiser:

Yes.

Nebeker:

We wanted to take advantage of the fact that he was well known. He had a very favorable attitude toward the IEEE, toward engineering in general, was willing to give time to us. And although he had been interviewed many times as a Nobel Prize winner and a very successful academic after leaving Bell Labs, nobody had looked at Townes as an engineer. And that's what we wanted to do. As you know I visited you at the AT&T Archives and looked at his lab notebooks and photocopied a good deal of it. It was fun to have him look at these materials with me and remember things he hadn't thought about for 50 years. I think we did succeed in getting him to express how important engineering was to him, how closely related path-breaking engineering is to physics, how important engineering is to physics research. In addition to an extensive oral history, I wrote up some of this material as a separate article and then as a chapter in a book.

Hochheiser:

In these early years did you have much if any interaction with the History Committee or the Chair of the History Committee?

Nebeker:

I did go to maybe half of the History Committee meetings in my first four or five years here. So it wasn't something that most of the staff did. If there was some project that was going to be discussed at the History Committee meeting and it was important for one of the others of us here, of course then one or more of us would attend. Bill was always at the History Committee meetings. And I do remember that Milestones was something that took up more of the History Committee meeting in those years. Another thing that was different from recent practice is that these meetings were held in different places, typically on the East Coast here, but in different places so that people traveling there could visit at that time the Westinghouse Electronics Museum or some of the museums in Boston where we held the meeting one time.

Hochheiser:

That's interesting that, in those days it wasn't the practice that the whole staff would attend.

Nebeker:

Right. Well maybe the fact that we weren't local was a factor there.

Reaching Out to Engineers

Hochheiser:

That could well be. One of the interesting things I noticed that you did a few years in was organizing a history session for Wescon, the enormous conference cum trade show that the West Coast IEEE people ran.

Nebeker:

That's right. It used to be that some of these large conferences that were multidisciplinary did very well in IEEE. I understand that they have since declined in size anyway.

Hochheiser:

Yes

Nebeker:

And the idea was that we would take advantage of that to present a session of history papers. I would say that we didn't really succeed in drawing much of an audience.

Hochheiser:

That's what I was wondering.

Nebeker:

Engineers are quite understandably most interested in attending sessions on their technology. And it would be like, if we asked one of them why they were there, oh, there was nothing else on the program at this time [laughing] so I think that was an outreach effort to IEEE members, that didn't really succeed that well. We just didn't get much attendance. We tried that a couple of times.

Hochheiser:

Yeah. You know--

Nebeker:

[Interposing]

Hochheiser:

I know that you tried it once on the West Coast at Wescon, once on the East Coast at Electro.

Nebeker:

Exactly. Yes

Hochheiser:

Were there other outreach efforts to IEEE members during this period?

Nebeker:

There were certainly occasional talks at IEEE sections if we got invited. We did have something called the Speaker's Bureau, it may have been called that. where we advertised in our newsletter four or five people who were willing to give talks in history of electrical technologies. And there was a little description of what they would be willing to talk about, their areas of interest. And the idea was that IEEE sections or other bodies who wanted a speaker could draw on these people and these people had all agreed to give talks without honoraria, just their expenses paid. Well that also was an outreach effort that never had that much success. We stopped it because it was a little bit embarrassing to invite somebody to serve on that and then he wouldn't be invited to give a talk the whole year. Now it did occasionally work. I was one year one of those speakers, I was invited to give the banquet talk at the IEEE Rochester annual big meeting. And I think that that went well. Again as with the history sessions at the big conferences, there was some success but we felt it wasn't really working.

Sparks of Genius

Hochheiser:

Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis and the writing of the book Sparks of Genius?

Nebeker:

That came out of those in-depth oral history interviews where we had interviewed a person over two days typically. And this again was this idea that we would be able to do traditional historical research in addition to the projects. So that you might say that the oral history projects, that was the immediate funded project of the Center. And then we would work with those transcripts and read as much as we could in the primary and secondary literature about the subject of the interview and then write an article that drew to a great extent on the oral history but also drew on all the traditional sources, the person's papers when we had access to them. So that we ended up producing eight of these longer articles that draw on the oral histories but are not by any means transcripts. They may have some citations in them and they footnote them but drawn on many other sources to present the careers of these eight people. And then that was assembled as a book. I wrote five of the eight chapters and served as editor of the book and that was the book Sparks of Genius.

Hochheiser:

I notice in 1994 you took a rather long trip to Europe and did quite a lot of oral histories. How did that come about and how were the subjects chosen?

Nebeker:

The subjects were chosen with the advice of the local sections. So most European countries have a section for the country. So IEEE--

Hochheiser:

[Interposing] That's interesting. So here you were definitely working with the IEEE people--

Nebeker:

[Interposing] That's right. So we wrote to them. They don't have to be IEEE members but who in your section, which was typically your country, is a very distinguished person, well on in his or her career who might be willing to be interviewed. This was a conscious effort to extend the geographic boundaries of the oral history interviewing we'd been doing which had been largely in the United States and to some extent Canada. And I think it was successful. We had people in, of course, a wide range of technical areas. It was more challenging to prepare for these interviews for that reason and also the language reasons. That very often the literature was not English if you were looking at the literature of that person. But I think it was a successful effort.

Hochheiser:

. Now in some cases, you, like in the Sparks of Genius, the oral history served as the basis for the book and in other cases, the MIT project, the oral histories' transcripts were the book. And the Engineers as Executives is another. I wasn't very much involved in that but that was exactly that type where the book consists mainly of edited transcripts of interviews with short introductions to each. So there was a good deal more than the transcript itself but again it was basically the transcript.

Hochheiser:

How did you, in that era, get the word out that you had these oral histories?

Nebeker:

There were some guides to oral histories. And we also, of course, advertised it in the newsletter. And we would get inquiries here from time to time. Have you interviewed a particular person or is there somebody in the history of sonar that you have an oral history interview of? And then we would photocopy the transcript and send it to that person or rarely the person would visit. So it was a very cumbersome process of disseminating these products.

Hochheiser:

If I can ask you about whatever recollections you might have a number of people who worked in the center through these years. Lauren Butler?

Nebeker:

She was our post-doc here for a few years and a very energetic person. I didn't work with her that much and I guess I don't have strong memories of her or of her work.

Hochheiser:

Hugh Slotted ?

Nebeker:

Hugh became interested in the role of government in the history of technologies. And he was very much focused on his research as was appropriate for a post-doc in those years. And he worked very diligently and well I think at his research but was not involved with the History Center projects otherwise

Hochheiser:

Janet Abbate?

Nebeker:

Janet again, a post-doc here, and she's well known for her work on the History of the Internet.

Hochheiser:

She's great.

Nebeker:

And again I think it was not that much involvement with Center projects..

Hochheiser:

David Morton?

Nebeker:

David Morton was a historian here. He moved into the office that I moved out of when I moved here. And David was interested particularly in the history of sound recording, magnetic recording. And he did, of course, as his position would indicate, get involved in many of the Center projects. He did a good deal on oral history interviewing and worked on a monograph or two for the Center which he did complete. Did very good work here.

Hochheiser:

And Bill Aspray was the Director during the first bunch of years here.

Nebeker:

Bill, I think, was an excellent Director. He had a vision of the IEEE History Center. At that time it was called Center for the History of Electrical Engineering. I think Bill saw this principally as an academic center in a way similar to the Charles Babbage Institute, that its principal identification would be either its own identification or its identification with the university rather than a professional society. So we didn't have IEEE in the title. But Bill managed things very well. I think that there were no crises of support by IEEE or by Rutgers. I think he fostered a very congenial atmosphere here. I think it was a pleasure for me and the others to work here.

The History of Signal Processing

Hochheiser:

Another project I know you were involved with in the 90's was the 50th anniversary of the Signal Processing Society. I know two books came out of that. Can you talk a bit about this project?

Nebeker:

That was an all-consuming project for more than a year. And it was exciting for me. I don't think anybody had done a historical review of this relatively new field of engineering. The Society was celebrating its 50th anniversary but that was the 50th anniversary of what was founded as the Professional Group on Audio. So it was audio engineering. It evolved into digital signal processing, the Signal Processing Society. That branch of engineering didn't really get established until the 60's. So it's not 50 years old but as I say, in the late 90',s when this anniversary was coming up, nobody, certainly no historian and I don't think any practitioners in that field had given a real review of the history of that field. So again a lot of oral history interviewing, a lot of going through journals, going through and acquiring the newsletters of the professional group that evolved into the society. And that was a challenge. What we decided to do, this was my main work, almost exclusive work for more than a year, was to write a short history of the Society itself with all the usual information about officers and conferences and publications. That would be a separate thing from a historical account of the field: how digital signal processing arose out of this type of audio engineering; bringing in other types of engineering; and again, drawing on a large number of oral histories; and a great deal of searching in the literature; and reading of the literature, primary, and the very little bit of secondary literature in the Society's magazines. There had been a couple of retrospectives that engineers had written. And so I wrote two monographs, one on the history of the Society, one on the history of the field. We did a long article for their magazine. We did a poster. And we helped organize history sessions at a couple of their big conferences. I think a very successful project.

Hochheiser:

Were the history sessions there better attended?

Nebeker:

They were because, [chuckling], if I may give this explanation of it, it was mainly the pioneers of the field who were presenting talks rather than historians talking about the engineering field. So these people knew those names. In some cases they were attached to algorithms in the field and here is a talk by one of those pioneers. So they were well attended.

Hochheiser:

What was your involvement with 1995 conference in at Williams College?

Nebeker:

I assisted on that but Bill was the main organizer of that and I think, did a good job. It maybe set the style for what we continued to do which was to hold a conference of maybe 40, 50, 60 people: half of whom roughly were historians or museum people, that is people trained in history with advanced degrees, PhDs, typically in history; and roughly half engineers who had a strong interest in many cases a good deal of work in doing history. So unlike the IEEE occasional efforts to do history and unlike Society of History Technology, we had good representation of both communities and then the museum community also. That continued. We developed a following and we had very good repeat attendance at our conferences.

Hochheiser:

What are your recollections of Bill Aspray's moving on from the Center to other activities?

Nebeker:

I wasn't privy to what issues there were. I really just don't know. I was not involved in that. I mean I was asked to be acting program Director when Bill left.

Hochheiser:

Asked by whom?

Nebeker:

It must have been Bill's boss. I may remember his name. And Andy Goldstein was asked to be acting administrative Director. So he took care of the budget and staffing issues and I took care of the program issues. It turned out to be a year before Mike Geselowitz was hired.

Hochheiser:

How did it work during the year?

Nebeker:

I think we had a lot of continuity. A lot of things were going on and I think it worked out well. It did make clear to me that I didn't want to try become Director myself, that is too much stress in being responsible for the overall running of a center.

Hochheiser:

As I well know. Did this, then for that year, substantially change what you did?

Nebeker:

I don't think so. I think that I had to give some more attention to organizing some of these projects. There was some oral history going on and we had some other involvement with some societies but I continued mainly with what I was doing before.

Hochheiser:

I noted also in the summer of '96 you took another European trip to do more oral histories among other things.

Nebeker:

We had the expectation that when we traveled, we have always had, this was a policy that Bill instituted and that has continued, that as professional historians here attending one annual conference of our choice is something that should be regarded as part of the job. But we did try always to tack on typically oral histories. Sometimes there would be something else that needed to be done with the British IEE History Center for example. So we would try to combine things. But so there were very often some individual oral history interviews put onto a trip.

Hochheiser:

So the order was, SHOT met in London in '96, this would be the conference you'd go to and the question became what other useful things you could you do for the Center's work as long as you're going to be there, rather than the other way around.

Nebeker:

That's right. 

Hochheiser:

Did you have any involvement at all in the process that led to Mike becoming the next Director?

Nebeker:

The Search Committee talked to all of us here at the Center to some considerable extent. So I do remember discussions with the Search Committee members. And we did meet Mike and the other candidates when they were here. Each of them gave a seminar, a colloquium paper, here at Rutgers. And so we got to know the candidates. The Search Committee was very much interested in our impressions of the candidates and how well they would work at the IEEE History Center.

Hochheiser:

Do you recall who was on the Search Committee?

Nebeker:

I recall Ruth Schwartz Cowen was on the Search Committee and Barney Finn. And I can't remember now. I think there were three on the Search Committee. I think they all had had either been on the History Committee or were much involved with the History Committee.

Hochheiser:

Do you recall what your initial impressions were of Mike when he came here and started in '97?

Nebeker:

I was relieved that there was a Director [laughing].

Hochheiser:

[Laughing].

Nebeker:

I was very pleased and I think he took on the job rapidly. I don't remember any difficulties in the initial period.

Hochheiser:

I know one of the things that happened in 1997 was that another conference was held. The Computer Conference at William and Mary. First question, originally a conference on the History of Computing had been announced for '96 in Calgary. Do you recall that? That's one of the things I found in going through the old newsletters.

Nebeker:

Okay. I had forgotten that. It sort of awakened some dormant neurons in my brain. And that must have been Mike Williams as being at Calgary.

Hochheiser:

Yes.

Nebeker:

A number of times our conferences have gotten pushed back a year. We aim at every other year and then it becomes more difficult to organize than we imagined. And as I said I had forgotten that. t I think that the William and Mary conference where I was, for the first time, the main organizer did come off very well and we had a good attendance of the people most active in History of Computing.

Hochheiser:

So when Mike arrived, were you able to basically go back to..?

Nebeker:

It meant that I didn't have to take care of the oversight and my slight involvement in the other things that the Center was doing.

Changing of the Guard

Hochheiser:

In what ways did Mike's arrival change the Center's activities?

Nebeker:

I think that there was a movement toward greater involvement with IEEE. More and more of the staff time was given to specific projects that the Center undertook, typically for IEEE entities. Earlier the idea had been that the staff could work on some of their own research and maybe pursue a grant. I did have success. I applied for two or three grants in the early years. I was successful with one of them so in that sense, had earned the right to do some research on my own project.

Hochheiser:

Which was?

Nebeker:

It was on instrumentation in sciences. But I think that we moved in the direction of more and more direct involvement with IEEE entities and for IEEE members. We continued at the same level I would say, our teaching activity here at Rutgers. We scaled back a bit. All the time that Bill was here, we put on a symposium typically once a month with a speaker, either One of us or more often somebody was invited to come and give a talk. But this was always a struggle. we'd be getting our GAs to come and begging people that we knew in the area to come, just to get a respectable audience. And that declined.

Hochheiser:

So you were talking about some of the ways things changed

Nebeker:

Yes. I think that the whole attitude, I might say, of the staff was that--well, on the one hand we didn't change very much our relationship to Rutgers. We taught the same number of classes. We still tried to reach out to the Rutgers community, more with occasional lectures rather than a regular symposium. We devoted more and more and almost in fact all of staff time to particular projects or continuing Center projects rather than this idea that the historians on staff would have their own research agendas. It did not bother me because I have always been somebody who liked moving on to new territory and this gave me that opportunity. I mean it was a real pleasure and great satisfaction to do that work on signal processing which didn't come out of me, it came out of the fact that they had an anniversary and I was put on the project. Then we have subsequent projects with the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society and later with the—well, I'm talking about my own projects that I was part of— the Electromagnetic Compatibility Society so that it's still doing historical research but on a time table and with a predefined subject.

Hochheiser:

Around this period there was a joint meeting was held with our Japanese colleagues in Hawaii.

Nebeker:

That's right. That was a meeting in Maui and in fact that geographic designation got attached to what became a short series of meetings called Maui and then Maui 2 and Maui 3. That was initiated by the History Committee of the IEEJ which is the Japanese Electrical Engineering Society. It didn't include the electronics engineers or the computer engineers. But they were a very active History Committee and they wanted to, well, reach out to the IEEE History Center. IEEE had a presence in Japan. They wanted to share with the IEEE History Center what they had been doing, their historical activities, and to learn more about what the IEEE History Center was doing that they might emulate in Japan. There were something like six or eight people from the Japanese IEEJ History Committee and maybe five or six from IEEE History Committee and History Center. It was over a couple of days, presentations of the different activities with both History Committees and the History Center and a discussion of what might we do. How can we collaborate? How can we learn from each other? And there was very good feelings about that which is why it did result in a couple of years later a Maui 2 and a couple of years later that a Maui 3,one of them was in Singapore and one of them in London.

Hochheiser:

It seems strange if you're meeting with the Japanese to meet in London.

Nebeker:

That's true. Hawaii made sense because it's more or less half way. Singapore made sense for us, it's not that long a trip for the Japanese, that there was the annual Power Engineering meeting of IEEE there. We had worked with the Power Engineering Society on some history and we thought, okay, this is a good opportunity to reach out to all the power engineers at this big annual conference and invite the Japanese to come down, the Japanese IEEJ History Committee people. And that was the time that we tried, I would say, without great success, to get other professional societies to send representatives with the idea that the history activities of IEEE and IEEJ might be emulated in other professional societies. A number of them already had. We did have representatives from the British IEE which had a good deal of history activity so it was involving them. And we did have people from Singapore itself, from Hong Kong, from Korea. So we did succeed in getting a number of other professional societies to be part of this.

Hochheiser:

Did you have much contact with the IEE History people over the years?

Nebeker:

I have had continuing contact, I would say not deep involvement in any of their projects but when they would put on a conference someone here, in several cases I, was invited to give a paper to help support that effort. We did meet with them just to learn of their activities. As you know they're much more involved with archives than we are and they run a library. There are a couple of people, but especially Brian Bowers, who was active both on our History Committee but especially the IEE History Committee. We took advantage of that when we put on our Bletchley Park Conference in England and, also on other occasions just to get the word out and to get speakers.

Hochheiser:

I'll get to Bletchley Park but first I'd like to ask you about the conference in Newfoundland. Who were now the main person in charge?

Nebeker:

I was the main person for the program. Now we were very lucky with Newfoundland that we had Wally Read who took on almost all the local arrangements. That was a conference whose theme was History of Communications, and we had an appropriate site for that in Newfoundland, St. Johns and again a good mix of historians and engineers. And Wally Read had arranged for some good activities associated with the conference. And I think it went off very well.

Hochheiser:

What does being in charge of the program involve?

Nebeker:

It is helping with--there's always a conference committee or subcommittee set up of the History Committee that helps decide or does ultimately make the decision what theme of the conference will be; where it's going to be held. The thing that I spent a lot of time at was recruiting people. So I'd write individually to the people that came to our earlier conferences. And I'd write to people I knew about who were doing work, in this case History of Communications, and invite them. We never had money to invite people as one should. We would say [chuckling] we invite you to give a paper, unfortunately we can't help with the costs of this,.

Hochheiser:

[Interposing] Yes, I remember receiving that invitation from you for the Newfoundland conference and thought, hmm, you want me to schlep to a conference I wouldn't otherwise attend to give a paper, and you want me to pay my own way.

Nebeker:

[Interposing] [laughing] Unfortunately that was how we operated. And then pretty much continued [laughing]--

Hochheiser:

[Interposing], I've been here enough to know that, but I did not attend the conference in Newfoundland. My response was I'm sorry but it's not in my budget either [laughing].

Nebeker:

That's right. So it was always a mixed success in inviting people, but we always succeeded in getting a respectable size and I think a very effective interaction between the engineer types if I may call them that and the historian types.

Zero to One

Hochheiser:

Can you tell me a little bit about the /Zero to One/ book that you wrote.

Nebeker:

That came out of the William and Mary conference. The Technological Competitiveness Conference had also resulted in a book but I was not heavily involved with that. The people invited to the conference were very carefully chosen to make a reasonable coverage of a subject. The same was done at the William and Mary conference. We tried to cover History of Computing in the sense of having some software history, some early history, some minicomputer history. And the idea in both conferences was that there would be an edited volume coming out of this. So a person was invited to give a talk at the conference. And we didn't tell everyone that your paper would be part of a book, but we very much solicited that chapter contribution from the ones we did want to be involved in the book. Then there was a great deal, of additional writing, rewriting, editing to turn these conference papers into a coherent book with a uniformity of style and approach and so on. So those are edited volumes that are not by any means conference proceedings. They were commissioned as chapters in a book but we used the conference as a way to get the people to first do a paper that they presented at the conference and then get them to say, okay. now we'd like a chapter on mechanical calculators. You gave a talk on this, now the chapter in the book should have a little bit more coverage than what you presented at the conference and so on. So the Williams and Mary conference resulted in this book that that Atsushi Akiea and I edited called from Zero to One.

Hochheiser:

Now what was Atsushi's role? Was he a post-doc-?

Nebeker:

He was a post-doc, but not here, and had come to our conferences. I've forgotten now, but I think he had other involvement with the History Center and gave a paper at that conference and then was invited to help put the book together.

Hochheiser:

Will you tell me about the Bletchley Park conference? I guess it was the first conference that was outside of North America.

Nebeker:

That's right. And here we tried to make a step up in size. And we did succeed. We had just over 100 attendees.

Hochheiser:

That's interesting. So it was a conscious effort.

Nebeker:

We did decide we wanted it to be larger. We thought that the setting, Bletchley Park, would attract people as it did. I was a site of very important developments of electronic computing and also a scenic place. And it was also this effort that we hoped and indeed we succeeded in getting many more Europeans to come because we're not able to help people with expenses, when we hold a conference in North America we don't get that many people from Europe attending. But that's probably the difference in the size that the additional attendees were Europeans. We did have quite a few number from Asia, a few from South America. So it really was a remarkably international conference.

Hochheiser:

And you feel it was successful?

Nebeker:

Very much so. I think we had lively sessions. There were, I think, at times we even had three sessions going on at the same time because I think we had something like 50 papers presented over the 3 days. and these are longer talks also.

Hochheiser:

Did distance cause additional problems in organizing the conference?

Nebeker:

Yes is the short answer to that. This conference was also a strain on me personally because of local arrangements. I talked on the phone with the people at Bletchley Park. We did have some support over there and Roland Saam was invaluable. He actually made a visit to Bletchley Park before the conference to talk to them in person but it was essentially organizing by the phone. We didn't use email so much in those days but talking on the phone with caterers and the people at Bletchley Park, but it all came off pretty much without a hitch. So. I was relieved when that was over. [Chuckling]

Hochheiser:

One thing that I assume you worked on for many years was the Dawn of the Electronic Age book.

Nebeker:

That's right. That stretched out over many years.

Hochheiser:

I was here when it came out but it certainly looked like a project that you must have been working on for a long time.

Nebeker:

There I must give a great deal of credit to Mike Geselowitz. We had a project back in the early 90's called History of IEEE Technologies. And the idea was to cover IEEE technologies. I don't know if we ever thought of doing it in one volume but it soon evolved into three volumes. This was something that David Morton and I know Lauren Butler as post-doc were involved in. And I was to take the middle of the three volumes and cover roughly the first half of the 20th Century. And then we would have an earlier volume that took the story up to the beginning of the 20th Century. And then we'd have a volume that covered the last part of the 20th Century. Well that is a very optimistic thing to try to do. And I remember Jim Brittain, the History Committee thought that it was a bad idea from the beginning. And not that much got written, I will say, in the first and the third volumes there but I continued to work on the second volume. I narrowed the subject a little bit because I thought it had more coherence this way, of all electrical technologies from 1914 to 1945. So you have the enormous impetus that World War I gave to these technologies starting the book, end with this enormous push and proliferation of electronics in World War II and the inter-war period. So I thought it made sense and so I continued to work on that. And Mike Geselowitz pushed me to say look we have a book here. Let's get this out. And so that finally did happen with Dawn of the Electronic Age,

Hochheiser:

So basically that book is something you worked on for most of your time here [laughing].

Nebeker:

It was only in a short period that it was a large part of my work but it was something I continued to work on. It was something I was interested in because, as I say, I liked this moving into a new area so there would be a chapter on technology in science, as there is in that book. And so I was researching how technology changed various sciences in this period from 1914 to 1945. So it was always interesting to me. Outside from the short period where it was a principal part of my work, it was this backburner activity. And as I say I'm grateful for Mike for getting that pushed through to completion.

Hochheiser:

Even though the rest of the project had been totally abandoned.

Nebeker:

[Interposing] That's right. Exactly.

Hochheiser:

You recalled that Jim Brittain on the Committee was opposed to it so therefore…[laughing]

Nebeker:

[laughing] There must have been--

Hochheiser:

[Interposing] There were other people on the Committee who thought it was a good idea.

Nebeker:

That's right. It definitely was the History Committee who thought that this is the kind of thing a IEEE History Center can do. It can give out a presentation to the general public of the development of all of our technologies.

Teaching and the Virtual Museum

Hochheiser:

Yeah. How did you come to teach a course at Columbia with Mischa Schwartz?

Nebeker:

Mischa invited me. Mischa had served on the History Committee and been interested in history for some time, knew about my course here, knew about some of my writings, wanted to introduce a course in history of communications actually at Columbia, but felt that it was too big step for him when he hadn't done any teaching of History of Technology to suddenly offer a whole course in that. So we worked together planning the course and agreed from the beginning that I would give half the lectures and he would give half the lectures so that it was a little bit like what we are doing this semester here . When the Center takes on a new course, we often have two or more people help with preparing all these new lectures. That was a real pleasure working with Mischa on that. And I think the course went off well. He continued to offer that course at Columbia.

Hochheiser:

What was your involvement or what can you tell me more generally about the Virtual Museum Project?

Nebeker:

This was Ken Laker's idea that a wonderful way to reach out to the general public was an online museum. And again it's a little bit like the History of IEEE Technologies Project that here we're going to present the whole range of IEEE technologies, the history of that. And like the earlier project, the daunting task is how do you get that written. All of us pitched in here in writing parts of it and some writing was done by people outside. And Kim Breitfelder was leading that effort here. And I think we, Kim mainly, produced a very attractive and effective website. It got named, sometimes by some of the magazines, website of the week or distinguished website. So it certainly had some measure of success.

Hochheiser:

Any thoughts about why eventually it declined?

Nebeker:

I think there has been repeatedly over-optimism about the Internet as a way of presenting history. There were some other early efforts, a Sloan Project, to get engineers involved in writing their own history that pretty much didn't lead anywhere. To get many people to really use it instead of just like happening on it instead of reading a snippet and going back their Google search. It just didn't seem to make all that much of an impact.

Hochheiser:

Now, let's see, what was the next conference after Bletchley Park?

Nebeker:

Let me try to remember.

Hochheiser:

I know there was one between Bletchley Park and Philadelphia.

Nebeker:

Yes, we had one in Newark on the History of Power. So that must have been that one.

Hochheiser:

Okay that was it. Did you work on this?

Nebeker:

Yes. I was the main organizer there on the history of power engineering. And we had some collaboration with NJIT and I would say it was successful. We probably had something like 60 or 70 people there. And again it was quite an international conference. We had little bit of industry support. Wally Read had also gotten some modest industry support for the Newfoundland conference. We were not very successful in Philadelphia in getting outside support.

Hochheiser:

No. But we were very successful with the conference [laughing].

Nebeker:

Yes I would say so.

Hochheiser:

[Laughing]. I know. That was the only one I've been involved with. Do you care to say something about the Philadelphia conference?

Nebeker:

I think that it probably was a mistake to hold it at two different institutions there. We had close ties with both the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel. We thought that it would be more interesting for the conference attendees to have one day at Penn and two days at Drexel. It just doubled the arrangements issues. It doubled the number of people we had to deal with, doubled the problems of getting appropriate rooms. We had some difficulties with that at Drexel. And so in hindsight, one wonders, what were they thinking? [laughing].

Hochheiser:

Well the question is did the political points that were scored by being in two places, both of which had shall we say powerful volunteers who were involved, was worth the extra complications [laughing].

Nebeker:

It probably would have been better to have some featured excursions or activities at the other campus and have chosen one.

Hochheiser:

Certainly in terms of participation, it's been the largest.

Nebeker:

It was well over 100. So I think it was a success and we got a lot of good papers out of that.

Hochheiser:

I gather that in this decade you became more regular about being at the History Committee than had been were earlier. Was this a conscious decision? What led to that change?

Nebeker:

Well I think it's probably Mike as the new Director who wanted us at the History Committee meeting even when our projects, our activities were not a major subject of discussion. Although the way he would always put is it that it would be good if you could take part in the History Committee and it would only be if the project I was on that was a major topic there then he would say you really need to attend it.

Hochheiser:

Right.

Nebeker:

And I think it does have this very good effect that staff get to know the History Committee members because we interact with them frequently and if you know them as people it just makes things go much better.

IEEE Volunteers

Hochheiser:

That leads to the question of volunteers that you worked with them closely over the years, the first one obviously is Emerson Pugh.

Nebeker:

Yes.

Hochheiser:

Not just your current work with Stars but I know you've done-- a variety of things with Emerson.

Nebeker:

That's right. Emerson is really remarkable in his interest in history and his giving so much time as a volunteer to IEEE history activities. Well, he gave time to IEEE when he was a practicing engineer. He was IEEE President. He is both a very good historian. He's continued to write himself. He's done some very good articles for the current Stars program. And he's somebody who's good at recruiting and motivating other people.

Hochheiser:

What projects did you work with Emerson on before STARS?

Nebeker:

He was always a member of these Maui meetings. He had, himself, some earlier involvement with engineering in Japan----his IBM work brought him to Japan. So he was a very valuable member of the Maui meetings. I'm not remembering now except as a member of the History Committee and giving advice on all the things

Hochheiser:

I know there are pictures in the IEEE Archives of you with Emerson in Japan.

Nebeker:

We made a fairly long trip together to Japan. It was for a couple of reasons. One of them was a big conference at Matsui on the West Coast of Japan where we presented some materials. And it was also to meet with the IEEE Japan. At that time it was a single section, I gave a talk at their meeting. He gave a talk at their National Engineering Academy. We met with museum people. We went to the University of Tsukuba where Emerson's friend of many years, Leo Asaki, a Nobel Prize winner, was President. We were very well received there. And so we were had something like ten days of constant activities at museums and meeting people and giving talks that I thought went very well and it was one of the great trips of my life [chuckling] I would say.

Hochheiser:

Are there are other volunteers you can think of with whom who you had relationships?

Nebeker:

Barney Finn has been just this stabilizing and very, very positive influence on the History Committee and the IEEE History Center over all the time that I've been here and many years before that. Jim Brittain has not been on the History Committee for more than ten years and hasn't been much involved since then but he was a very strong member of the History Committee and was more involved. He was as a historian, but in an engineering school, well positioned to understand and give advice on our projects. He was more involved with the History Center when Bill was Director here.

Mike Williams has been somebody, just the whole time that I've been here, who's been on the History Committee a couple of different times and has continued to have interactions with the History Center. Charlie Wright, for many years, was very active especially in promoting Milestones. I worked with him on a number of occasions. John Meredith, another person who was very generous of his time, was quite active in the Philadelphia conference organizing that. So those are some of the people I think of right off.

Hochheiser:

How much involvement did you have with the Milestone Program over the years?

Nebeker:

I was involved more in the first six or eight years that I was here just because it was a Center thing and different people would be asked to help out on different Milestones. I mean it's always been formally an activity of the History Committee with support from the History Center. But there's always a good deal of staff support required and different people would be--I was never in charge of the Milestones Program but got involved with a number of the different Milestones.

The Global History Network and STARS

Hochheiser:

What can you tell me about the beginnings of the Global History Network? And to what extent were you involved with the process that got us to where we are with it now?

Nebeker:

I was not involved very much. I mean I was there at History Committee meetings where this idea was initially presented. And I have been involved in some discussions here at the Center of how it should be organized. And I've been more involved with how one part of it, the STARS part, has been organized, but not very much.

Hochheiser:

So that's the next question. What can you tell me about the origin and evolution of the STARS Program, because that's the piece you are involved with.

Nebeker:

We thought that, I say we, many members of the History Committee and some of us here at the Center, that something that gains attention is awarding of some distinction. And Milestones have always been, I would say, more successful than other things we do at getting some press attention and getting the attention of IEEE members. It gets out in various publication forms. So the idea was, okay, let's have a kind of award program for IEEE technologies. We would recognize some limited area of technology as having made a great contribution to the world. And we would recognize that by declaring that this particular presentation of that technology was an IEEE STARS. And it had to have a certain form with timeline, with citation, like a Milestone citation that in a short concise way, tells the general public why this is important. It would, in an entirely scholarly way present, but at the same time inviting way, present the history of that technology and provide guidance about primary and secondary sources and be illustrated and of an inviting length, not very short but not too long either. We would have these presentations of initially we were thinking, oh, maybe 100. There might be 100 IEEE STARS that would cover the range of technologies. As the program has evolved,. we would now say certainly hundreds, several hundred STARS, because the tendency is always to be a little bit more narrow when you actually get somebody to try to write up one of these areas of technology.

Working with IEEE

Hochheiser:

What can you say about the relationship between the History Center here at New Brunswick and the rest of the IEEE staff over in Piscataway, both In general and then in particular, your relationship.

Nebeker:

I would say that in my experience it's always very cordial and that I haven't had any conflicts or felt that we're at cross-purposes. But I would say that in my experience there are separate worlds that I haven't had occasion to go over to the offices in Piscataway that often. We have made some efforts, I did this myself, to give a lunch talk to the people over there and I used to give a history part of the initial orientation for employees at IEEE offices. So as I said in my view they have been largely separate worlds. The big exception is, what you are responsible for, the archive there that brings you over there regularly.

Hochheiser:

And of course that's simply because that's where the archives are housed.

Hochheiser:

Were there any times that you needed to do some substantial amount of work with any members of the IEEE staff?

Nebeker:

When I did the Signal Processing Society project, I was over there quite a few times with publications people because we got them to do layout at least for some of that project, but not very often.

Hochheiser:

And of course on the other side is the relationship with Rutgers. So we're here on the Rutgers campus. To what extent were you involved with other activities or other people at Rutgers beyond your teaching your course?

Nebeker:

I did teach a summer course two or three times. So I had an additional course. And there were one or two years where I taught a course each semester.

I have a number of summers given talks in the Discovery Days Program at Rutgers where they invite prospective students to come to campus with their parents and they have them sort of like go through a school day and I gave a more entertaining, I hope, lecture on History of Technology for that group. And it was well received and I was always invited back for the next summer to give Discovery Days talks. And there have been a fair number over the years of talks that we have sponsored or other groups have sponsored on campus that, of course, I've been part of.

Hochheiser:

Has this relationship changed or evolved in any ways over the years?

Nebeker:

It's been more or less the same. We do our teaching. We have increased our employment of graduate assistants. But otherwise pretty much as it's been.

Hochheiser:

Any particular notable graduate students stick in your mind?

Nebeker:

There have been quite a few of them I thought were amazing people who were very effective but I don’t think we've had anybody who really made history of electrical technology his or her subject. And so I think they got valuable exposure to an area of history but then they went off in the realm that they had already chosen.

Hochheiser:

What do you think the Center has gotten out of being here at Rutgers?

Nebeker:

I think the Center has been benefited in a couple of ways. One is the work of these graduate assistants. The teaching of courses has both pluses and minuses. The pluses are that some of us really like teaching and so that's an attraction to being here at the History Center because we, I find it very rewarding to teach. But it is a minus in that teaching can consume a great deal of time and it's not clear that the IEEE History Center with its larger mission is achieving that much when staff is putting a lot of time into a particular Rutgers course. And I've been disappointed that Rutgers hasn't been more appreciative that I put a great deal of effort into my courses and have always gotten very high ratings in the students writing-- best course I've ever taken at Rutgers, often in their evaluations. And it doesn't seem that the History Department or the rest of Rutgers really appreciate the teaching that we do here. As I say, a little bit of a disappointment there and a little bit of how important is this to the overall mission of the IEEE History Center. But another thing is that many of us like being on a university campus and having the use of a research library and other facilities.

Hochheiser:

Thinking over now your career as a whole, in what ways has the Center evolved or changed over your 20-plus years on the staff?

Nebeker:

I mentioned earlier and I think this is the most important change--that we have become less, I don't know that we were ever very much, but less of a place where scholarly research is done for historical journals or historical books and more a place that serves the IEEE by cultivating history of electrical technologies and reaching out to IEEE members and others. But it hasn't changed radically. Roughly it's stayed the same size since it came here. And overall the amount of teaching we do, so no radical change in that time.

Hochheiser:

Again, thinking broadly, how would you characterize your career as a whole?

Nebeker:

I consider myself very, very lucky for a couple of reasons. One is the excitement of working at a place like this, learning about new things all the time, working in new areas, the people that I have encountered over the years, and doing oral history, meeting some fascinating people. And very often it's more than just the two hours of the interview that you have lunch with them, sometimes you spend more time with them and stay in contact with them. So to have probably over the years a couple hundred people that I have gotten to know to some extent and also the range of people that we work together with here at the Center, historians and museum people and so on. As I have said I welcome the kind of work that is typical here, that we're project-oriented.

Hochheiser:

I have asked you everything I could think to ask you. Is there's anything you'd like to add concerning your years with the Center

Nebeker:

Well, as I say, I consider myself very fortunate to have to have been here the last 20 or so years so.

Hochheiser:

Good.

Nebeker:

Thank you.

Hochheiser:

Well, thank you.