IEEE History Center Is Busy Publishing

New books focus on telecommunications

20 April 2012

Some of the most interesting moments in the innovation and development of telecommunications technology are captured in three new books from the IEEE History Center.

Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation, U.S. Federal Government and Innovation: A Brief History, and Telecommunications: History Highlights are the first volumes from the History Center’s new publishing initiative, which fits into its broader mission of capturing and disseminating technology history.

“A book is an ideal medium for sharing information about technology,” says Rob Colburn, research coordinator for the History Center. “These first three books are a tangible representation of IEEE’s place in its professions.”

Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation
is a collection of first-person accounts of the innovative spirit and creative energy at Bell Labs during the tenure of William O. Baker, the company’s vice president of research from 1955 until he was named president in 1973, serving until 1979. Edited jointly by A. Michael Noll, a former Bell Labs engineer, an early computer animation pioneer, and professor emeritus at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, and Michael Geselowitz, staff director of the IEEE History Center, the book includes excerpts from oral histories presented by Alan Chynoweth, Manfred Schroeder, Mohan Sondhi, and other technology pioneers who worked at Bell Labs, as well as from Baker himself. Chynoweth is known for the development of low-loss optical glass fibers, Schroeder for acoustics and computer graphics, and Sondhi for inventing the adaptive echo canceler.

“The book captures a very important segment of Bell Labs’ history,” Colburn says. “It shows some of the interesting aspects of what creates an innovative culture.” Bell Laboratories, now known as Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, is located in New Providence, N.J., and is now part of Alcent-Lucent, a telecommunications company based in Paris.

As current Bell Labs President Jeong H. Kim writes in the book’s introduction, Baker “led the research division of Bell Labs and in many respects was responsible for the qualities that made it great. The institution and the man thrived on each other, grew together, and maintained bonds that transcended life itself. Dr. Baker died in 2005 at the age of 90, but his impact on our work is very much alive."

The initial manuscript for the book came to the History Center from Bell Labs itself, where Noll had been collecting and editing personal reflections on life at the laboratory for several years. The company covered the costs of editing and indexing the volume.

Many of the oral history contributors have since died. “We’ve lost many of them,” Colburn notes. “That’s part of the reason why it was so important to collect their accounts. History is a very fragile thing. It does disappear.”

The book was released in November and although the History Center hasn’t really promoted it yet, “it’s attracting its own audience,” Colburn reports. “People are finding it and buying it.”

The paperback lists for US $15.95; the Kindle edition is $9.95.

At the same time the Bell Labs book was in development, the editors of IEEE-USA’sToday’s Engineer came up with the idea of compiling into e-books some of the monthly articles the History Center has written for that publication during the past 10 years.

“We had just written a three-part article, at their request, on the history of U.S. federal support of research and development,” Colburn says. “We thought it would be interesting to outline for engineers and policy makers the history of government involvement in technology innovation—which turns out to be quite long and deep.”

U.S. Federal Government and Innovation: A Brief History comes at a time when there is much debate regarding government’s role in funding scientific research. As the book shows, the country’s leaders have made a point of promoting science since the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Technologies fostered by the U.S. government include the Morse telegraph, Hollerith’s punched-card machines, the ENIAC computer, and lithium batteries. More examples through 1987 are included in keeping with the History Center’s focus on historical analysis rather than current events.

The member price is $4.79, and the non-member price is $5.99.

Telecommunications: History Highlights
expands on several Today’s Engineer articles that cover the field’s achievements. Although the e-book contains information you might expect, such as Alexander Graham Bell’s development of the telephone, it also includes several surprises, Colburn says: “We tried to write about people who were off the mainstream, who don’t often get as much attention as they should. For example, we have two articles about Aleksandr Popov, the Russian physicist whose early work in telegraphy and radio is often overlooked.” Popov is said to have transmitted spoken-word radio transmissions while working for the Russian Navy in 1896.

Other stories recounted in the book include the history of public telephones and how the Telstar satellite earned an Emmy Award for its role in the development of broadcast television.

The resulting book is by no means exhaustive, Colburn says, but it represents a sampling of the events and people the IEEE History Center staff finds seminal and interesting.

The price for members is $4.79, and it’s $5.99 for non-members.

The History Center is still working out what types of books it will publish in the future, Colburn says, but “the reaction so far has been very positive.”

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