Networking the History of Technology

The IEEE History Committee wants to make IEEE the go-to resource for technology history

5 September 2008

The IEEE History Committee has a bold ambition—to make IEEE the go-to resource for technology history. It hopes to become the place where the public can learn about engineering's contributions to society, the source for engineers’ recollections about their breakthrough work, and the site where historians will find documents unavailable anywhere else.

The History Center will make a leap in this direction later this month, during the IEEE Sections Congress, with the beta version launch of the IEEE Global History Network website. In addition to articles covering the history of technology, the Global History Network will feature the firsthand experiences of IEEE members and others who were, or still are, involved with the innovation process that would otherwise be lost to history. Michael Geselowitz, staff director of the History Center, notes that though members’ recollections of using, say, the iPhone may not seem worthy of archiving, it is the sort of information that years from now historians will look to for contemporary opinion.

What also makes the GHN noteworthy is that it marks the IEEE’s first use of wiki technology. Wikis make it simple for anyone to create and edit content on a Web page with any Web browser by relying on a so-called simplified markup language. Like Wikipedia, the GHN wiki will allow writers to support their assertions by including hyperlinks to other Web sites and crosslinks between an article and other pages on a site.

Why have an IEEE wiki if there’s already Wikipedia?

“Good as that site is as a jumping-off point for learning a little something about just about anything,” says Geselowitz, “it is an unlikely resource for much detail on topics such as the institutional history of the IEEE.”

The GHN will also be far superior to Wikipedia in terms of accuracy and credibility, Geselowitz notes. Though anyone will be able to read the material, only IEEE members and professional historians approved by the History Center will be able to edit its articles on general topics. As an article takes shape, the site will track changes, making everyone aware of who revised it. The site will also allow users to access earlier versions of an article if the latest version seems specious. To further allay concerns over the veracity of information, discussion threads for each article will provide the opportunity to question a writer’s claims or conclusions. Even stricter controls will be placed on articles recounting a single author’s experiences or a group’s history.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNTS At its unveiling, the network will present a history by a group of former Boeing engineers of an electronic cockpit they developed for commercial aircraft that made it possible to fly with a two-person crew instead of three. The cockpit was used for the first time in 1983 aboard the Boeing 757 jet. For this and other group histories, only members of the group will be able to revise text. The same will be true for histories of IEEE organizational units. The GHN will determine whether a person is affiliated with a group contributing an article and therefore has the right to add to or modify it. And historians will be given IEEE Web accounts with access privileges on an article-by-article basis, according to John Vardalas, a historian at the History Center and manager of the team preparing the GHN launch. For a first-person historical account, only the author will be able to change what he or she has written.

At the rollout, other histories besides Boeing’s will also be available. The IEEE East Carolina Section is expected to upload documents and images from its historical archives to the site, and the Electromagnetic Compatibility Society, Region 3, and the Standards group are contributing histories of their respective groups.

“We’re hoping that other IEEE organizations, seeing what is possible on the site, will be eager to contribute articles and upload their archives,” says Geselowitz.

MORE TO COME Visitors to the site will soon be able to click on a map seeded with clickable links to information detailing contributions to technology made by people from various spots on the globe.

“We truly want the GHN to reflect a global perspective on the history of IEEE-related technologies and the engineering profession,” says Vardalas.

The site will also have a timeline bar. Moving a cursor over a date will open a text box containing a brief description of a technological achievement and a link to a full article on the subject. Because it’s expected eventually to hold thousands of entries, the timeline will have a zoom function that will present small blocks of time. Users will be able to view events over a century, a decade, or even a year.

While Geselowitz and his colleagues want nothing less than to capture the interest of technologists, historians, and the public, he notes that “if IEEE members use it and enjoy the experience, we’ve succeeded.”

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