Two World Travelers Are Named IEEE Fellows

A magazine editor and high school graduate make the grade

18 February 2013

Magazine editors and college dropouts are not typical candidates for IEEE Fellow, but two recent honorees have carved unusual paths to this achievement.

IEEE Fellow Glenn Zorpette, executive editor of IEEE Spectrum, was elevated for “contributions to professional communication in electrical and electronics technology.” As an award-winning technology journalist, he has learned that traveling to the edges of the earth to conduct face-to-face interviews is the best way to get the whole story. And while Alex McEachern holds no college degree, the successful entrepreneur several times over now extols the benefits of IEEE standards to power engineers around the world. He was cited for “contributions to power quality measurement and immunity.”

zorpette Photo: Glenn Zorpette

Zorpette landed his first professional journalism job as a staff writer at IEEE Spectrum in 1984, after writing a freelance article for the publication. It was a history of aluminum house wiring. He was not formally trained as a journalist. While pursuing his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Brown University, in Providence, R.I., Zorpette worked at the school’s radio station and excelled in classes that demanded a lot of writing. By his junior year, he realized that a career in technology journalism would suit him better than a traditional one in electrical engineering.

“When I applied at Spectrum, I had nothing to show except article assignments I’d written in college,” he remembers. “If I didn’t have a degree in electrical engineering, I probably wouldn’t have even been considered for the job.” 

But after reading that first article, Don Christiansen, an IEEE Fellow and the magazine’s editor in chief at the time, took a chance on him.

Less than two years later, Zorpette was on assignment in Kwajalein Atoll, a ring of tiny islands 3900 kilometers southwest of Honolulu, formed along the rim of a long-extinct underwater volcano. It was 1986, and the U.S. Army* was busy converting the atoll into an area from which it could launch missiles and test missile-defense technology.

“I wanted to cover this project in the worst way,” Zorpette says. “I’d read a lot about Kwajalein, and I thought it a fascinating place.” He became one of the few journalists to visit and report on the military technology being used there.

This experience would set the stage for many globe-trotting trips and investigative reports to come. “When I got to travel and report from the ground, it was plain to me that those were some of the best stories I worked on,” he says. “As a journalist, nothing can really compare to seeing things with your own eyes, hearing things, smelling things—just being there. I like meeting people, seeing where they work, and also seeing the pride in their eyes when they describe what they’re doing.”

After almost 11 years, Zorpette left to join Scientific American as a staff editor. Six years later, after a brief stint at Red Herring, a now-defunct technology business magazine, he returned to IEEE Spectrum in 2001. Hired back as a senior editor, he was promoted within a year to executive editor, a position in which he’s in charge of feature stories for the magazine.

In his managerial role, Zorpette says it’s still important for him to get out in the field. He takes at least one trip a year—not only to tackle topics of interest to his readers, but also to understand what it’s like to be a reporter in the digital age. That means producing multimedia in addition to writing stories for print.

“Multimedia did not exist when I first started,” he says. “But for the interactive content that IEEE Spectrum now produces, like blogs, videos, and podcasts, it’s important to know what I’m asking the staff to do.”

Particularly notable among his trips was a weeklong expedition in 2010 to Antarctica to do a series of podcasts about scientific research there, including work at the South Pole. He also ventured to Iraq [shown in photo] in 2005 and 2008 to investigate the rebuilding of the electric grid and efforts to detect and destroy improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Zorpette’s trips took months of preparation—he had to research the most worthwhile sites to visit and how best to get there, and he had to find a military unit to transport and protect him, among other tasks. Outfitted in full body armor, wearing a helmet, and escorted by U.S. soldiers, Zorpette interviewed contractor personnel and Iraqi engineers—including IEEE members—at several power stations and found errors being made that hindered the reconstruction and prevented electricity from being distributed reliably.

Although some might fear criticizing the work of large U.S. military contractors, Zorpette never hesitated to report his findings. “When you have really satisfied yourself that things are the way they are and you work hard to establish this beyond a reasonable doubt, you cannot hold back,” he says. “You have to go at it with everything you’ve got.”

Zorpette received three of the biggest business journalism awards the following year for his coverage of the efforts to rebuild Iraq’s grid: the McAllister Editorial Fellowship Award, a Jesse H. Neal Prize, and the Grand Neal Award.

McEachern Photo: Alex McEachern

Alex McEachern’s passion for tinkering began early in childhood. “My dad gave me a set of lights, batteries, and wires to play with when I was 3 and had me using power tools by the time I was 9,” he recalls.

At just 16, McEachern was attending the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied English literature and electrical engineering. Two years later, he dropped out to start his own company, MAC Systems in San Rafael, Calif., which developed accounting software for Data General minicomputers. Minicomputers in the 1960s—although quite large compared with today’s computers—cost much less than mainframe computers and could run programs in languages such as Fortran and Basic. “I learned a lot about accounting, sales, and customer service, but ultimately the company was before its time, and the software just wasn’t economically feasible for most clients,” he says. The company disbanded quietly, but McEachern went on to apply his lessons there to more successful startups.

In 1973, he developed an instrument to diagnose electric power problems that affected minicomputers. He co-launched his next company, Panamax-Xencon, in San Rafael, Calif., to market the instrument. In 1980, McEachern and a colleague, Bob Billings, founded Billings McEachern (later Basic Measuring Instruments), an instrument design and manufacturing firm in the electric power field, in Foster City, Calif. He was president and chief technologist there for 15 years. And from 1995 through 2000, McEachern served as president or chairman of three other technology companies—Infrastructure Instruments, Electrotek, and Dranetz—before founding his current company, Power Standards Lab, in Alameda, Calif. It specializes in power quality sensors and monitors.

“I’ve become a fairly competent instrumentation engineer, mostly because I remember most of the mistakes I’ve made over the last 40 years and also thanks to the advice I’ve received from engineering friends all over the world,” says McEachern [shown in photo at the Great Wall of China]. He’s also become proficient enough to teach graduate-level courses in power quality and measurement at universities in 27 countries, including Austria, Brazil, China, Croatia, Holland, Japan, and Singapore.

Now he’s giving back, by traveling the globe to speak about power quality standards and new power quality technologies at various IEEE power engineering conferences.

“It’s a great pleasure in my life to see new things,” he says. “I love to travel and talk with engineers who have cultural perspectives different from mine.”


*This article has been corrected from its original version. 

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