Like Talking About History? Post Away on the Global History Network

IEEE History Center's website offers engineers the chance to share their stories

8 January 2009

Morris Tanenbaum remembers a bet he made with one of his coinventors of the superconducting magnet, now a common element of MRI machines and electrical energy storage devices. Their magnet at Bell Telephone Laboratories, in Murray Hill, N.J., had produced a robust field of 15 000 gauss, but Tanenbaum, now an IEEE Life Fellow and then the associate director of the Metallurgical Department, wanted more. He offered his colleague a bottle of scotch for every additional 2000 gauss he could tease out of the magnet.

The man got to work and soon the magnetic field climbed to 88 000 gauss, and Tanenbaum knew he was in for a big liquor bill. “He settled for two cases, and we had a grand party,” writes Tanenbaum of those days in the early sixties.

Tanenbaum was writing for the IEEE Global History Network, and you can, too. Live on the Web since last September, the GHN is trying to do several things at once [see “Networking the History of Technology,” September 2008]. It wants to be the site where the public can learn about engineering’s contributions to society and the history of IEEE, and where engineers can write about their direct experiences in the innovation process, IEEE members can document the histories of their societies, regions, and sections, and historians can find documents unavailable anywhere else and also contribute to our understanding of the history of electrical, electronic, and computer technologies. Now new features have been added that give members more ways of contributing and new things to check out

Tanenbaum’s story went up in December. It is the most recent of more than 20 firsthand accounts written by IEEE members who were involved in inventing or in setting up IEEE organizational units. Other firsthand histories cover the development of the first two-person electronic cockpit for over-ocean commercial aircraft and the beginning of the silicon age.

More histories are wanted. “We invite members to share their stories, which often cannot be found anywhere else,” says John Vardalas, manager of the GHN project.

The network uses wiki technology, which allows IEEE members and professional historians approved by the IEEE History Center to write, edit, and collaborate on a whole range of technical topics. By the end of 2008, the network had a store of 21 topics. They begin with Automation; go through Bioengineering; Culture and Society; Defense and Security; Engineered Materials & Dielectrics; IEEE; and finish up with Signals; Standardization; and Transportation. These topics are further divided into 2 more layers of sub-topics.

COMMENT AWAY And what you see on the GHN site is not necessarily the final word. Thanks to the GHN’s threaded discussion feature, you can weigh in with your opinion on any piece you see, including articles on technology history, IEEE Milestones, and those firsthand historic accounts. Simply click on the Discussion tab at the top of any article’s page and start a discussion or join in an ongoing exchange. Visitors also have the opportunity to rate the articles they read. In any case, the IEEE History Center wants to hear from you.

You can also use the discussion feature to comment on transcripts of oral histories, the audio-taped interviews the IEEE History Center has been conducting for more than 30 years. For example, you can find an oral history interview with Russian scientist Vladimir Zworykin that was conducted in 1975. Zworykin’s work contributed to the development of television. He discusses the impact of television broadcasting on society and reminisces about his work in the broadcast technology field.

Transcripts and audio files of hundreds of histories are posted on the network. More than 100 transcripts have been indexed and can be searched by keyword. They also have links that take you to other articles on the GHN. The History Center also plans to embed MP3 audio extracts of the actual interviews.

IEEE HISTORY Technology history isn’t the only thing you can contribute. You can chronicle the history of your IEEE section, student branch, standards working group, or other IEEE organizational unit at the History Center's wiki page for IEEE sections and societies. Histories should include the date the unit was formed, of course, as well as the names of the founding members and how the group has evolved over the years. Histories recently added include those of the IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society and the New South Wales Section.

To help visitors understand and use the GHN’s features, the History Center has also included a “New Users” link on the home page as well as a more detailed help section.

There’s also a wiki-article that documents the evolution of IEEE standards, starting in the days of one of IEEE’s predecessor societies—the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. The first standards the AIEE developed were for switches, circuit breakers, transmission and distribution equipment, protective relays, rotating machinery, and lightning protection of equipment. The author of this article, who himself has participated in the standards setting process, asks his fellow IEEE members to collaborate on this article. If you know something about the history of IEEE standards, share your knowledge at the History of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Web page.

For more information, check out the Global History Network website.