On 20 June, nearly 350 guests packed one of New York City’s most famous hotels, the Waldorf Astoria, to celebrate the achievements of the brightest minds in engineering at the annual IEEE Honors Ceremony. Although the event’s theme was “Forward,” the celebration felt more like acknowledging how far the field has come.
Guests were greeted by IEEE’s favorite robot RoboThespian as they walked the red carpet, and the evening’s ceremonies opened with a performance that brought the room back to 1902. That was the year when one of the organization’s predecessor societies, the American Institute of Electrical Engineering, held a ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria with Guglielmo Marconi as the guest of honor. In the skit, RoboThespian tells Thomas Edison’s colleague that the year is now 2015, informing him that all those “lit up” devices at the tables were cellphones, adding, “I better not tell you about social media.”
The evening continued with more jokes from the awards’ recipients. IEEE Life Fellow Paul G. Kaminski, who received the IEEE Simon Ramo Medal for leading the development of advanced low-observable airborne systems, widely acknowledged as the most important U.S. military technical program, started his acceptance speech by sharing some advice from his spouse. “My wife tells me I don’t know very many engineers who couldn’t benefit from some humility, and some humor.” While she covered her face in embarrassment, Kaminski continued to make the audience laugh by explaining the five stages of a successful engineering career. (To watch the speech, fast forward to 1:44:00 in the Honors Ceremony video on IEEE.tv.)
Life Fellow Fumio Harashima also instilled humility and humor in his acceptance speech as the recipient of the IEEE Haraden Pratt Award for his leadership in globalization and diversity of IEEE communities. He shared that the day after he retired as president from Tokyo Metropolitan University, he enrolled in an archeology program. “This is the first time IEEE has presented a major award to an undergraduate student,” he joked, adding that his professor told him it would take 25 years to earn a Ph.D. Now 75, “I will be a Ph.D. at 100.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Recipients of course thanked their families for their support. Life Fellow Harry L. Van Trees, who received the IEEE Jack S. Kilby Signal Processing Medal for fundamental contributions to detection, estimation, and modulation theory acknowledged his wife of 62 years as well as his 7 children, 19 grandchildren, and 3 great grandchildren, many of whom stood up as the attendees applauded. After also recognizing his mentors and students, he added “Thanks also to the Soviet Union for launching Sputnik while I was a graduate student. We got an enormous grant at MIT, which meant I never had to write a proposal.” Instead, Van Trees wrote books and research papers, which he said led to this award. He is considered one of the founders of detection and estimation theory, and many of the current military radar, sonar, and missile defense systems rely on the concepts from his books.
Life Fellow Ray Larsen, recipient of the IEEE Richard M. Emberson Award for inspiring small businesses to provide sustainable humanitarian benefits in underprivileged communities, said he has two families: IEEE being one of them. “My grandchildren discovered that the only way they’re going to see their granddad is if they join IEEE,” he said. Larsen added that IEEE is a family trying to do some good in the world, and that he would like to see someone from the developing world receive this award in the future.
Sharing his personal story, Life Fellow James J. Spilker, Jr., recipient of the IEEE Edison Medal for contributions to the technology and implementation of civilian GPS navigation systems that many of us use today, thanked his mother. “You wouldn’t expect a sickly kid with extremely poor vision from a family that was very poor to amount to anything, but I had a wonderful mom who got up at 5 a.m. every morning to catch a bus to get to work,” he shared. His mother enrolled him in chemistry labs in grammar school, and Spilker noted it was with the help of his teachers along the way that led him to receive a scholarship to Stanford, where he had access to the tools he needed to carry out his dreams. Two billion users around the world use his invention today.
And James A. Gosling, the “Father of Java,” apologized to his daughters because the program he created is part of their computer science advanced placement exam. Gosling received the IEEE John van Neumann Medal for the Java programming language, Java Virtual Machine, and other contributions to programming languages and environments. Java was the first widely deployed programming language in 1995 and today has more than 10 million users.
THE GOOD OL’ DAYS
The best part of the Honors Ceremony for me was meeting the people at my table. I sat with Fellow Marshall Greenspan, the IEEE Dennis J. Picard Medal for Radar Technologies and Applications recipient. He received the recognition for his contributions to the development of multiple phase-center airborne surface surveillance and targeting radars, which allows for, among other applications, the detection of slow-moving ground targets.
One of his guests was his first supervisor, Leo Botwin, who shared with me that he hired Greenspan because “I asked him a question, and I liked how he answered it.” The two reminisced about the days when engineers were involved in every aspect of a project from ideation to its launch, and when small companies could beat out the big ones based on their ideas. One time their company, which changed hands nine times, was asked to launch a product in nine months. “I was a young engineer. I didn’t know that was impossible,” Greenspan said.
Botwin, now 93, was just 22 years old when he was at the Waldorf Astoria to present his first engineering paper at a conference being held there. He was the youngest one in the room. During our dinner he showed off his cuff links made of circuit boards. And toward the end of the evening, he asked politely if I was finished with my dessert and then preceded to take a bite of my red velvet cake. By the end of the night, it felt less like an awards ceremony and more like dinner among family and friends.
Congratulations to all of this year’s IEEE Honors Award recipients for their hard work and dedication to IEEE’s mission of advancing technology for the benefit of humanity. You can watch the 2015 IEEE Honors Ceremony in its entirety on IEEE.tv.