Letters to the Editor: September 2009

Feedback from our members

4 September 2009

Thanks for the History Lesson

I just finished reading “Looking Back 125 Years” [June, p. 5]. It was a well-written capsule of IEEE history and a very good article.

William E. Thelen
Garland, Texas


Thanks for the interesting articles in your June issue. I particularly enjoyed “Looking Back 125 Years” and “Tracking Tech History” [p. 7]. I wish The Institute were available in IEEE Xplore so I could read back issues.

John Brauer
Fish Creek, Wis.


You can read past issues of The Institute in our archive —Ed.


I found “Looking Back 125 Years” to be somewhat shy on the historical basis for the merger to form IEEE in 1963. Although the inconvenience for electrical engineering students of dealing with two societies—the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) and the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE)—certainly was an important consideration, the merger was the inevitable result of the changing times. In terms of electrical technology, IRE and AIEE were on opposite sides of the spectrum—pun intended.

True, the term electronic appeared early on, but there was no electronic engineering degree. The IRE and AIEE represented the two extremes of the profession. What existed in the 1930s is best exemplified by William G. Dow’s textbook Fundamentals of Engineering Electronics [Wiley, 1937]. It dealt with the behavior of vacuum tubes and of electrons in at least partial vacuum devices in electric and magnetic fields.

But it became necessary to unify the treatment of the vacuum tube and the solid-state transistor. The new complex frequency or s-domain concept, root locus applied to feedback analysis, and the Laplace transform all had to be tied to the old steady state before electronic engineering became a profession. World War II vastly accelerated the transition.

During the 20 years before the merger, there were many unhappy members who found that AIEE or IRE provided inadequate coverage of that middle ground or that they duplicated fields of technology. That dissatisfaction, coupled with the slow recognition of the broad range that electronics covered, was the basic reason for the merger into IEEE.

Clayton A. Washburn
Monroe, Utah


A Great Debate

“Looking Back 125 Years” wrongly credits Guglielmo Marconi as the inventor of radio. The undisputed fact, even by admission of IEEE circa 1998, is that Jagadish Chandra Bose successfully demonstrated the wireless transmission of electromagnetic waves—which eventually led to the development of radio in 1895. IEEE quite rightly recognized Bose by inducting him into its Wireless Hall of Fame. [Editor’s note: IEEE does not have a Wireless Hall of Fame.] In 1899, Bose presented a paper at the Royal Society, in London, titled “On a Self-Recovering Coherer and the Study of the Cohering Action of Different Metals,” which was well received. More than two years later, Marconi used Bose’s coherer—the key equipment for transmission of radio waves—without mentioning Bose, of course.

The fact that Bose was a professor of physics of international repute when Marconi was just a technician just adds to Bose’s credibility. Hence, the Nobel Prize committee should have recognized Bose, not Marconi, for the honor of inventing radio. Even now, in the 150th year since the birth of that great Indian scientist, the least the scientific community could do is set the record straight.

The above is somewhat similar to the case of Nikola Tesla being credited with the invention of the induction motor. But in 1888 Galileo Ferraris actually demonstrated the rotating magnetic field, which is the basis of an induction motor.

One could say the history of electrical engineering is replete with instances of scientists who invent without an interest in publicity only to have another steal their idea and take the credit.

Suresh C. Bhargava
Secunderabad, India


“Looking Back 125 Years” was interesting, but I find it appalling that an IEEE article cited Marconi with the invention of wireless, or radio, without any mention of Tesla’s work. This particular issue of Tesla versus Marconi in regard to radio development and usage was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943. I would think IEEE could at least get this right.

Wesley Noel
Encinitas, Calif.


The IEEE History Center responds:

There was an article in Proceedings of the IEEE, “Sir J.C. Bose’s Diode Detector Received Marconi’s First Transatlantic Wireless Signal of December 1901 (The ‘Italian Navy Coherer’ Scandal Revisited),” by P.K. Bondyopadhyay [January 1998, pp. 259–285].

The article presents a suggestion that Marconi knew he was using an idea of Bose’s, but it might also have been a chance reinvention of the same device, which Marconi came across independently. It was well known that Marconi rarely read scientific literature. The original Bose 1899 paper described a piece of laboratory equipment. The novel aspect was that it included a small quantity of mercury with the particles in the coherer. Bose’s paper appeared between topics that were not within the physical sciences, so it might not have been obvious to the reader that the device would be relevant to wireless communication.

Various forms of the detector (the iron-mercury coherer) were described in the literature. Marconi obtained a patent for his version, the idea for which he acknowledged he got from his friend, L. Solari. The unknown historical fact is how Solari formed his idea—which literature had he read, how had he adapted it, what experiments of his own had he done. In hindsight, was the device he and Marconi made sufficiently different from that in pre-existing literature to warrant a patent?

Another article in the same issue of Proceedings, “The ‘Italian Navy Coherer’ Affair: A Turn of the Century Scandal,” [pp. 248–258], by V.J. Phillips, argues that Solari innocently borrowed from another Italian, T. Tommasina, and that Marconi then intentionally expropriated Solari’s work on his own.

The IEEE History Center was not consulted on either article in Proceedings, and IEEE has no official opinion on the matter. The articles represent the views of the authors.

It is sometimes said that Bose’s primacy was acknowledged at an international IEEE conference in June 1997 in Denver. Although it is true the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society’s International Microwave Symposium (MTT-S) organized a historical exhibition and special session on Bose in honor of his centennial, the symposium did not take a position on Bose’s primacy.

Marconi and Tesla were both important figures in the history of radio (and Tesla in many other fields of electrical engineering). Tesla did indeed have an early patent (No. 539,138) for a high-frequency transformer that, Tesla pointed out, could be used “to transmit intelligible messages to great distances.” But Tesla thought of this mainly as a “system of transmission of electric energy” (for transmitting power on an industrial scale), and he played almost no role in the technical development of wireless communications.

On the other hand, he played a huge role in the development of the electric power industry. There is ongoing debate among historians of technology as to the relative roles of Tesla and Marconi, as well as those of Bose, William Crookes, Oliver Lodge, Reginald Fessenden, Alexander Stepanovich Popov, and Nathan Stubblefield. The usual distinction between Tesla and Marconi is that, although Tesla’s patents had priority over Marconi’s, it was Marconi who made the practical demonstrations of wireless, while Tesla’s work was primarily in his laboratories.

IEEE recognizes Tesla’s achievements by means of the Tesla Award, and the AIEE was instrumental in having the Tesla adopted as an international unit of measurement. Tesla was awarded the Edison Medal, the AIEE’s highest award, in 1916. In 2002, a memorial plaque was placed at the New Yorker Hotel, where Tesla spent the last years of his life. And achievements in wireless by Marconi and Popov have been recognized as IEEE Milestones. IEEE Sections that would like to recognize other achievements are encouraged to submit an IEEE Milestone proposal.

There is often debate as to the distinction between laboratory discoveries and demonstrations versus those who build the practical working devices and bring the technological systems to reality. Both types of inventors are important to technological innovation and progress, and both deserve credit for their part in the achievements.

For more information, see Sungook Hong’s Wireless: From Marconi’s Black-Box to the Audion [MIT Press, 2001].

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