Oral Histories Debut on IEEE.tv

Earl Bakken and Jerry Minter discuss their inventions

8 August 2008

Few know that the engineer credited with inventing the electronic pacemaker turned to technology out of sheer self-preservation. In a June 2007 interview now being broadcast on IEEE.tv, Earl E. Bakken, an IEEE Life Fellow who founded Medtronic Inc., a medical device industry leader based in Minneapolis, recounted what sparked the earliest examples of his inventiveness.

As a young boy, he “made things like a Taser to keep the bullies away because I was a nerd,” he recalls. “It had a Ford spark coil and got 20 000 volts.” Before he reached his mid-teens he had built a robot that wielded a knife and, according to him, smoked cigarettes. Bakken recalls that he received his life’s direction when his childhood minister told him he should use his mastery of electronics to help people.

The Bakken interview and another one featuring Life Fellow Jerry Minter, who holds 26 patents in several disciplines, appear on IEEE.tv, an Internet-based television network that delivers programs about technology and engineering. Both are part of the IEEE History Center’s Oral Histories program. The History Center’s archives contain nearly 500 oral accounts of the history of electrical engineering and computing.

The Bakken and Minter histories were among the first to be videotaped and are the first to be broadcast on IEEE.tv. Both oral histories were recorded on audiotape and transcribed before Minter’s interview, in March 2007. The tapes are stored in the archives of the History Center, which is located on the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Transcripts, in the form of PDF files, can be accessed from the History Center’s Web site at http://www.ieee.org/web/aboutus/history_center/oral_history/oral_history.html.

IEEE.tv and the History Center are readying at least two more video histories for release by the end of the year.


MINTER MUSINGS Minter, an inventor and radio-electronics engineer responsible for advances in color television, medical instrumentation, and aviation—he received a patent for “Relative elevation detection for aircraft pilot warning system” in 2002 at age 89—reminisces about his childhood interest in radio. By the time he was in high school, he was already working part time installing and repairing radio sets.

According to Minter, a signal generator for testing radar equipment produced by Measurements Corp., the Boonton, N.J.–based company he and his colleagues founded in 1939, was at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed by the Japanese. The generator was initially blamed for allowing the attack to proceed undetected. But Minter notes it was later discovered that his generator and the radar it was used to test were, in fact, operational. When soldiers manning the radar saw the telltale blips indicating the presence of Japanese bombers, “the guys to whom they reported just ignored it, saying, ‘Oh, that’s got to be our planes,’ ” Minter says.

The still-active engineer’s recollections also include conversations he had with Thomas A. Edison’s son, former New Jersey Governor Charles Edison. The stories the younger Edison told Minter about his father and Henry Ford provide colorful personal details about these titans of technology and business that might otherwise have been lost to history.

The videos can be viewed in the Public Access section of IEEE.tv at http://www.ieee.org/ieeetv.

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