History on the Move

The IEEE History Center relocates to Stevens Institute of Technology

15 April 2014

Photo: IEEE History Center

On 1 July, the IEEE History Center will be relocating to Stevens Institute of Technology, based in Hoboken, N.J.

It was almost exactly 17 years ago (5 May 1997, to be precise) that I walked into a ramshackle house-turned-office on Rutgers University’s so-called “Frat Row,” on College Avenue in New Brunswick, N.J., to assume my new role as director of the IEEE History Center. Although I was a social scientist interested in the history of engineering and technology, I was aware of IEEE but not its History Center. After all, I had grown up with IEEE. It was my father, an IEEE Life Fellow and active volunteer, who had spotted the position advertised in IEEE Spectrum and brought it to my attention. As the center relocates on 1 July to Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., I’d like to share a bit of history about the center and its future.

achieveChowdhery Senior director of the IEEE History Center, Michael Geselowitz, stands in front of the center's office at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J. Photo: IEEE History Center

Many IEEE members were not aware (and despite my best efforts, many still remain unaware) that IEEE has a history operation. Since the formation in 1963 of IEEE out of a merger of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, founded 1884, and the Institute of Radio Engineers, founded 1912, there has been a standing History Committee responsible for promoting the collection, writing, and dissemination of historical information about IEEE, its members, their professions, and the related technologies. In 1980, with the IEEE—that is, AIEE’s—centennial just four years away, IEEE created a professionally staffed history unit to support the work of the IEEE History Committee and established what was then called the center for the History of Electrical Engineering, located in IEEE’s New York office.

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. Its staff organized the IEEE corporate archive, designed exhibits, collected oral history interviews, and, under the guidance of the History Committee, established the IEEE Milestones Program so that IEEE sections could have recognized and publicized engineering achievements within their geographical area. In this way, members were engaged, pride was instilled in the organization, and IEEE—growing ever larger and more complex—could find unity in its shared history.

In 1988, with the successful centennial behind it, IEEE commissioned an external report to determine how best to continue its historical activities. The report confirmed the obligation of the largest engineering association in the world to continue to promote preserving and making known engineering and technology history. In fact, it argued that focusing on broader technological history could raise the profile of IEEE, help interest young people in engineering careers, enhance technological literacy, and serve as a critical link among engineers, the public, and professional historians. With its main foci elsewhere, IEEE lacked certain capabilities in the history arena: Contacts with academic and public historians, depth in educational activities (especially outside of science, technology, engineering, and math, or the so-called STEM fields), developmental opportunities for professional historians, and brand recognition outside of engineering and scientific circles. The report recommended the center for the History of Electrical Engineering should relocate to the campus of a university that would assume the role of a strategic partner in historical activities, and that might become a center for engineering history worldwide. At the same time, the IEEE Foundation would work to raise additional philanthropic funds for these historical activities, which were not part of IEEE’s main business thrust but which were part of IEEE’s mandate to serve the public.

In 1989 my immediate predecessor, William Aspray, was hired to direct the center and, after much effort, in July of 1990 he moved it to that converted house. Partnering with Rutgers, and employing Rutgers graduate assistants, the center focused on research and publications. The oral history program was increased, and the center started a series of international conferences that brought together engineers with historians of engineering—an unusual pairing at the time.

However, the idea that Rutgers would become a global center for the academic study of electrical engineering never materialized for a variety of reasons. In 1997, I was hired and, under the guidance of the History Committee, the center embarked on a new phase in its own history, characterized by an increased emphasis on public history—reaching out to engineers, to public-policy makers, to public-school teachers, and to a 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, to reflect this new emphasis and the tremendous growth of IEEE membership among professions outside of traditional electrical engineering.

Over the past 17 years, there have been a number of exciting developments. We developed an outreach website, the IEEE Virtual Museum, which in 2008 was replaced by the more technically advanced, wiki-based IEEE Global History Network (GHN).  STARS, an online compendium of invited, peer-reviewed articles on the history of major developments was added. In 2013 we received a grant from the United Engineering Foundation to bring the other founder societies with less-developed history operations—including the American Society of Mechanical Engineers—into a single site about the history of engineering. The IEEE Milestones program was re-energized, and there are now more than 140 milestones representing every IEEE region. Our preuniversity outreach was expanded with lectures and workshops for teachers. Regular columns about technology history in a variety of IEEE publications were introduced. A new book series about historical achievements was launched. We enhanced our social media presence on Twitter and Tumblr (where we now have more than 100 000 followers).

While we were evolving in new exciting directions, so was Rutgers, but not necessarily in ways that were convergent. In 2012 a strategic review was conducted to see what strategic partnerships might best enhance IEEE’s historical activities. What resulted was that when the current agreement with Rutgers expires on 1 July, the IEEE History Center will be moving to Stevens Institute of Technology, which will assume the role of strategic partner. Stevens, a private university, founded in 1870 as the first U.S. school to use a science-based engineering curriculum, is focused on IEEE fields of interest.  Last year it was ranked the “fastest-rising” college by U.S. News & World Report of the best national universities. There are a number of synergies with IEEE, most notably that Stevens’ College of Arts & Letters, currently in an expansion mode, focuses on the history and social study of science and technology as does the IEEE History Center.  Steven’s Center for Innovation in Engineering & Science Education is a major preuniversity program already with an IEEE partnership that will enhance our preuniversity capability. Its Center for Science Writings, directed by former IEEE Spectrum associate editor John Horgan is focused on public outreach. Stevens’ WebCampus is a leader in online education, an area of interest for us. We will be housed in Steven’s state-of-the-art S. C. Williams Library, which contains relevant special collections with an interest in public outreach, and has areas for display. The synergies between the two are many.

As I gaze out my window at the Rutgers fraternity houses, it is with some nostalgia and mixed feelings that I begin to pack up for the move into the next phase of my own career and into the evolution of the IEEE History Center. Please trace our progress in the pages of The Institute, on our website, and in our newsletters.

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