IEEE History Center


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IEEE History Center

Creation and First Decade of the Center for the History of Electrical Engineerng 1980-1989

Since the formation of IEEE in 1963 there has been a standing History Committee responsible for promoting the collection, writing and dissemination of historical information in the fields covered by IEEE technical and professional activities, as well as historical information about the 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, and in 1980, the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering was established in the New York offices of the IEEE. 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 electrical 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.

Move to Rutgers and Program Expansion 1989-1997

At the end of the decade, the History Committee determined that the Center should become a place where considerable historical research would be carried out. 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. This move was carried out under the leadership of the Center's third director, Dr. Bill Aspray, who had been hired in 1989.

With University support added to IEEE support, the Center was able to expand 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. Rik Nebeker joined the staff in 1990 as Research Historian. He has since been 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 history became a major activity; the Center conducted more than 200 interviews in this period. The interviews were transcribed, edited, and made available to researchers. The Center started a series of international conferences on the history of technology with conferences in 1991 in New Jersey on Technological Competitiveness, 1995 in Williamstown, Massachusetts on the history of Electrical Engineering, and 1997 in Williamsburg, VA 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 1997-2010

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 in its own history, 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. It more accurately described the scope of the Center’s activities. In 1998 Geselowitz, Nebeker, and the post-doc were joined in these efforts by Rob Colburn as Research Coordinator, as well as by an archivist/web manager. Projects carried out by this team include 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, two more of the international conferences (1999 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, on women and technology; 2001 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, on the history of telecommunications).

The Center also began a more concerted effort to get word on history out to the IEEE membership beginning 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 Today’s Engineer. In 2000, the History Center also increased its move in the direction of 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 the newer IEEE Global History Network.

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 (this is the building where Edwin Armstrong, winner of the first IEEE Medal of Honor in 1919, when it was the IRE, did most of his pioneering radio work). The Center also worked on a special project to copy to DVD and make accessible some very important privately held video interviews with computer pioneers. In 2004, the Center held its next 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 a Milestone—received two recognitions. By 2010, the number of milestones had passed 100. In 2004, the Center also hosted the next of its international conferences, on the history of electronics, held in June at Bletchley Park in the UK. In addition, we 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 videotaping interviews. The IEEE Milestones Program -- now with more than 80 Milestones continued to grow at a record pace. In 2007, the Center held its biannual conference, at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, N.J., 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 can access the GHN, only IEEE members and staff, and other registered users can add and edit material. To oversee the GHN, Nathan Brewer joined the History Center staff in 2009 as Web Content Administrator. By 2010, the GHN had grown to include thousands of entries, including firsthand accounts by IEEE Members, over 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. The Center’s conference, held at both Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia had the theme of the history of professional technical societies. And the Center conducted oral histories with 23 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 appear on the GHN. The 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, NJ school district on bringing the history of technology into high school social studies curricula.