Meeting and Greeting the Giants

IEEE President Moshe Kam highlights ways in which IEEE honors innovators in technology

9 September 2011

One of the important (and complex) functions of IEEE is to recognize excellence in our fields of interest. We do so in three principal ways. We recognize high quality work in progress by giving awards to authors of exceptional papers presented at our conferences or in our publications. We honor living inventors by presenting them with IEEE’s technical field awards, IEEE-wide awards, and IEEE medals. We honor discoverers and thinkers from the past (as well as many who are still with us) by conferring on their work the status of an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing. 

Recognizing excellence is seldom straightforward. Inventions often are developed in parallel by more than one group or person. Sometimes there are conflicting claims about the date of an invention; for example, a discovery may have been prevented from being announced to the public due to government security restrictions.

Photo: Kelly & Massa Photography

Did Alexander Graham Bell really invent the telephone? Is Guglielmo Marconi truly the father of wireless telegraphy? Is Thomas A. Edison the designer of the lightbulb? Although those three individuals are certainly celebrated inventors, there was no lack of controversy surrounding their original claims to new discoveries. The disputes sometimes led to years of litigation over patents and intellectual property rights.

While the competition for the ultimate honor for an invention is often quite passionate, we know that almost every new invention results from the work of many. Each player builds on the findings and discoveries of predecessors; ideas and designs are copied, adapted, and adopted. Entrepreneurial prowess is often as important as scientific prowess. I was reminded of these observations in April, when I participated in the unveiling of an IEEE Milestone at Villa Griffone, outside Bologna, Italy. The Milestone commemorates Marconi’s early experiments in wireless telegraphy. 

marconi President Kam next to a statue of radio and telegraphy giant Guglielmo Marconi at Villa Griffone, outside Bologna, Italy Photo: Marko Delimar

The genius of Marconi is unassailable. Time after time, he was the first to build working telegraphy devices and demonstrate their successful operation over increasingly long distances. Yet his work was rooted, and in some cases borrowed from, the efforts of at least half a dozen other inventors. That Marconi used some of their work does not diminish his greatness—often he was the only person able to integrate into practical, functioning devices the pieces that others had discovered in isolation. In fact, IEEE has recognized in other Milestones some of the work of those from whom Marconi borrowed. The aim of our recognition programs is not to determine the “winner.” Rather, we wish to highlight and promote the many contributors whose intellect, hypotheses, approaches, and experiments gave rise to the ultimate outcome. In our profession, success almost always has many fathers and mothers.

Throughout the year, we dedicate new IEEE Milestones at the places where discoveries were made and present technical field awards to thinkers and developers at major conferences. Once a year, we gather for the IEEE Honors Ceremony, where we introduce the most recent recipients of IEEE’s major recognitions. This year’s ceremony was held in August in San Francisco (it is available to view on I am always awed by the caliber of the individuals and groups we recognize, and I hope that more members, especially student members, will have the opportunity to attend or watch the event.

Through those ceremonies, I had the opportunity to meet the true leaders of our profession, including Andrew Viterbi, Amar Bose, Ray Dolby, Ingrid Daubechies, Marcian Hoff, and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. For me, each of the annual gatherings is a thousand times more important, more meaningful, and more emotionally moving than all the Oscars and Emmys bundled together. I and other attendees get to meet and greet the giants.

How can you become part of our awards activities? If you are an instructor or professor in one of IEEE’s fields of interest, try to find some time in one of your classes to speak about the annual IEEE Honors Ceremony and the award recipients. Perhaps show a clip or two from the ceremony. I do this regularly with my students at Drexel University, and I find that the show always has a positive impact—especially on undergraduate students still searching for their role in the profession. 

If you have worked with, heard of, or read the work of one of the yet-unrecognized giants, please go to and nominate (and, if necessary, renominate) him or her for an IEEE major recognition. Our awards program is only as strong as the quality of the nominees, and you—our members and patrons—are the ones who submit the nominations.

keller Moshe Kam
IEEE President and CEO


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