Remembering The Early Days

Members share memories of IEEE's beginnings

6 March 2009

No one is left, of course, to reminisce about the days when IEEE’s predecessor society, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, was formed 125 years ago in 1884. But quite a few members recall when IEEE was formed in January 1963, by the merger of the AIEE with the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE).

In anticipation of the anniversary, we e-mailed members a few months back, asking them to tell us about a parent or grandparent who had belonged to the AIEE. Parents and grandparents proved to be the wrong targets, for we received dozens of responses from former AIEE and IRE members, like C.B. Young, who told us, “Believe it or not, some of us are still around.” All the better for the rest of us that they’re available to provide perspectives on the changes that have taken place in the engineering profession. Here are three of their stories.

C.B. Young,
Life Senior Member, 82

At the time of the merger, Young worked for Western Union on a team putting in a transcontinental microwave system with relay towers every 30 to 60 kilometers, depending on geography. Microwave relay was needed because Western Union still offered telegram service, plus leased voice and data facilities, and the line dramatically increased the company’s transmission capacity. Young recalls that practically every bit of electronics still had vacuum tubes, though there were a few transistors in auxiliary communications equipment used by maintenance people. He can’t recall how much data was typically sent over the link, but he says it transferred data on 600 two-way channels, each with a transmission speed of 2400 baud. Western Union’s first microwave link, installed in 1947, had only 16 channels. Some of those microwave systems were still operating in the late 1980s, Young says.

He recalls how he dealt with the transition to the computer age. “As far back as 1948, I had been developing microwave components such as waveguides and magnetrons,” he says. When computers began to replace electromechanical telecommunications equipment, he suddenly found himself responsible for a group developing a computer-controlled message-switching system—“and I didn’t know one end of a computer from the other,” he says.

How did he learn about the new technology so as to avoid being seen as a dinosaur? His wife had just started graduate school at Rutgers University on a fellowship from the Ford Foundation, which was encouraging women to go into math. “I got her to sign up for a couple of computer courses, and I helped her with her homework and went with her at night to the computer lab,” Young says. “That’s how I learned the basics of computers and programming.”

To learn what was going on at Western Union, he would go to the company’s development lab on Friday nights. “I got to know the guys running the lab, and they’d let me play with the hardware,” he says. “That’s how I got hands-on experience.” Eventually, he did earn his own computer credentials, graduating from Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., in 1980 with a master’s degree in computer science.

aiee Joint meeting of the AIEE and IRE on 18 September 1915, at the Panama-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco.

 

Robert N. Beatie, Member, 75

In 1963 Beatie was working for Develco, a small aerospace outfit, doing satellite instrumentation research for the U.S. Navy. “We were researching radio propagation, looking to improve two-way communication links between satellites and the ground and one-way links from satellites to submarines,” he recalls. Because some of those projects are still classified, Beatie won’t go into details. But he notes that there was no two-way link between satellites and submarines because it’s hard to transmit from under the water. In that cold-war era, there was a danger that breaking the surface with something even as small as an antenna could give away the position of a nuclear sub. The sub could receive low-frequency signals “in the 10- to 20-kilocycle range” while still a few meters underwater, Beatie says. (Asked whether he meant kilohertz, he pointed out that cycles per second wasn’t replaced in common usage by the SI unit hertz until the 1970s.)

Beatie notes that he and his colleagues were all surprised by “the ever increasing rate of change in terms of going from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits and then to microprocessors, and the fast development of software, which is more prominent today than the hardware.” Beatie went to work for Hewlett-Packard as a lab technician and recalls that at HP the chief engineer once told him, “Bob, those 7- and 9-pin miniature tubes will never replace octal tubes.”

But not everything has changed, Beatie notes. The engineering profession “is still what it always was—a disciplined approach to solving problems,” he says. But the development of products and services has become more of a team effort, he adds.

Richard M. Smith, Member, 68

When IEEE was formed, Smith was in the U.S. Army on active duty in Korea. “I was working with missile systems using peanut-type vacuum tubes—which means triodes and pentodes—more from an operational standpoint than as a developer,” he says. He didn’t start developing electronics for the military until 10 or 12 years later. “I remember building a stereo receiver in 1963 using large piece-part transistors, capacitors, inductors, and so forth,” he says. It wasn’t at all related to his job, but it was a good way to pass the time: “I was 22 years old, and it was just something to do in Korea. We didn’t have television; the only thing we had was the Armed Forces Network Radio.”

He says he was constantly in learning mode: “Back then, engineers had to know more about how everything worked, rather than, ‘Oh, yeah. Let’s just plug in this board; it will do everything we need to do.’”

He recalls participating in what was called the Cadet Engineering Program: “The power company took its young engineering graduates—mechanical and electrical—and put us out in the plant. Over a few months, we spent time dealing with every aspect of the company. That provided a solid basis for doing the job you would eventually work into.”

Asked how engineering has changed since the 1960s, Smith noted that many of today’s computer engineers “just use a plug-and-play approach to designing something.” He acknowledges that the change is part of the normal progression of a technical field. But he cautions, “You still need to have some people who probably can’t hook up a device and make it work but can tell you in great detail how one aspect of the device is designed and how it works—if only so the skill is not lost.”

 

Learn More