History of the History Center

Since the formation of IEEE in 1963 there has been a standing History Committee responsible for promoting the collection, writing and dissemination of historical information in the fields covered by IEEE technical and professional activities, and historical information about IEEE and its predecessor organizations.

In 1979, the IEEE Board of Directors endorsed the concept of a professionally staffed history center to support the work of the IEEE History Committee and allocated funds, and in 1980, the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering was established in the New York IEEE offices. For most of the first decade, the Center staff consisted of a director, an archivist or curator, and a part-time research assistant. The first director was Dr. Robert Friedel, and Dr. Ronald Kline succeeded him in 1984. These individuals and their staffs laid the groundwork for the Center, establishing it as a leading resource for electrical history.

The Center undertook many projects during its first decade. Most notable, perhaps, were three exhibits that circulated nationally: the first on Faraday and Maxwell, the second on the IEEE Centennial, and the third on Edison and the electric light. In addition, the Center collaborated on exhibits with the Smithsonian and other institutions. Perhaps most importantly, the Center staff carried out and published research projects on the National Science Foundation's role in the development of computing, the impact of the computer on meteorology, the history of the electric trolley, the history of radar, and many other topics. Oral history became a major activity; the Center conducted more than 200 interviews in this period. The interviews were transcribed, edited, and made available to researchers. The Center started a series of international conferences on the history of technology with conferences in 1991 in New Jersey on Technological Competitiveness, 1995 in Williamstown, MA, USA, on the history of Electrical Engineering, and 1997 in Williamsburg, VA, USA, on the history of computing. Long-term cooperation was begun with sister groups, such as the History Committee of the IEEJ (Japan’s counterpart to IEEE).

In 1997, Dr. Michael Geselowitz became the Center's Staff Director. With the guidance of the History Committee, the Center embarked on a new phase in its own history, characterized by an increased emphasis on reaching out to engineers, to public-policy makers, to public-school teachers, and to a fourth, sometimes overlooked group of people concerned with electrical history: amateur historians and collectors. Shortly thereafter, the Center acquired a new name, the IEEE History Center. It more accurately described the scope of the Center’s activities. In 1998 Geselowitz, Nebeker, and the post-doc were joined in these efforts by Rob Colburn as Research Coordinator, as well as by an archivist/Web manager. Projects carried out by this team include a major overhaul of the Center’s Web site, several IEEE Society histories, teaching and participating in the intellectual activity at Rutgers University, a workshop with the IEEJ in 2000, the Going Digital Web history project sponsored by the Sloan Foundation, and two more of the international conferences (1999 in New Brunswick, NJ, USA, on women and technology; 2001 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, on the history of telecommunications).

The Center also began a more concerted effort to get the word on history out to IEEE membership beginning with features in many IEEE publications, including a series of special millennium articles in Proceedings of the IEEE, a regular column in The Institute, occasional special articles for IEEE Spectrum, and regular e-features for Spectrum and Today’s Engineer. In 2000, the History Center also increased its move in the direction of public outreach with the introduction of an entirely new Web-based program, the IEEE Virtual Museum. This program was discontinued in 2008, and most of its articles were migrated to the newer IEEE Global History Network.

In 2003, the History Center staff was responsible for Philosophy Hall at Columbia University in New York, USA being named a U.S. National Historic Landmark (this is the building where Edwin Armstrong, winner of the first IEEE Medal of Honor in 1919, when it was the IRE, did most of his pioneering radio work). The Center also worked on a special project to copy to DVD and make accessible some very important privately held video interviews with computer pioneers. In 2004, the Center held its next conference at Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, England on the history of electronics.

Perhaps most importantly, the Milestones Program passed its own Milestone in 2004, as the 50th Milestone was dedicated and IEEE Region 9 — the last Region without a Milestone — received two recognitions. By 2010, the number of milestones had passed 100. In 2004, the Center also hosted the next of its international conferences, on the history of electronics, held in June at Bletchley Park in the UK. In addition, we conducted institutional history research projects with Eta Kappa Nu and with the Marconi Fellowship Foundation at Columbia University.

In 2006 and 2007, the History Center was involved in numerous special projects, including Society Anniversaries and Lectures. The oral history program began videotaping interviews. The IEEE Milestones Program — now with more than 80 Milestones continued to grow at a record pace. In 2007, the Center held its biannual conference, at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, N.J., U.S.A, on the history of electric power. In 2008, John Vardalas, who had started at the Center as a post-doctoral fellow was promoted to Outreach Historian, and Dr. Sheldon Hochheiser joined the center as Institutional Historian and Archivist.

Beginning in 2008, a major focus of the Center’s activity became building a new wiki-based Web site for bringing the history of IEEE’s fields of interests to both IEEE Members and the public, The IEEE Global History Network (GHN). The GHN went live late in 2008. While anyone can access the GHN, only IEEE members and staff, and other registered users can add and edit material. To oversee the GHN, Nathan Brewer joined the History Center staff in 2009 as Web Content Administrator. By 2010, the GHN had grown to include thousands of entries, including firsthand accounts by IEEE Members, over 450 oral histories, articles on the history of technology, selected documents from the IEEE Archives, and articles on the history of IEEE and its organizational units.

In 2009, as part of IEEE's celebration of its 125th anniversary, the History Center undertook two projects. The Center’s conference, held at both Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia had the theme of the history of professional technical societies. And the Center conducted oral histories with 23 IEEE Past-Presidents. The Center began a new program, STARS an online compendium of invited, peer-reviewed articles on the history of major developments in electrical and computer science and technology. STARS articles appear on the GHN. The program was designed to provide recognition to the most important technological trajectories, and thus to complement the Milestone program’s emphasis on specific achievements in specific places. The Center also undertook a pilot program with the Hillsborough, NJ, USA school district on bringing the history of technology into high school social studies curricula.

In 2010, the History Center processed the Washington DC, USA Section Archives scrapbook, a collection of documents from the fiftieth anniversary of the section, covering 1903 to 1953. The Merger Collection, a comprehensive collection of documents related to the merger of AIEE and IRE in 1963 to form IEEE, was also digitized and added to the GHN. Collecting institutional history pertaining to the IEEE History Center, oral histories were conducted with the previous History Center staff directors.

The IEEE History Center Book Publishing program began in 2011 with the publishing of Bell Labs: Voices of Innovation and an e-book of "US Federal Government and Innovation." The IEEE History Center hosted a screening of LeAnn Erickson's "Top Secret Rosies," a documentary film on the women who worked on the ENIAC, at Rutgers University. Outreach historian John Vardalas began teaching classes at the University of California at Merced, and Senior Historian Rik Nebeker retired after 22 years at the History Center.

Outreach historian Alexander Magoun was hired in 2012, and the History Center staff wrote a series of articles detailing the history of Proceedings of the IEEE. 2012 was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the IRE, and 10 articles, one for each decade of the journal being active, appeared in Proceedings. The History Center held its ninth Historical Conference in conjunction with HISTELCON 2012 in Pavia, Italy. In preparation for her book "Recoding Gender", Janet Abbate conducted 52 oral histories with American and British women in the computing industries and made them available on the Global History Network.

In 2013 the IEEE History Center expanded its book publishing program with the publishing of New York Power, and The Birth of Electric Traction. In an attempt to explore social media, the History Center launched a blog on Tumblr and a Twitter feed. Beginning in 2011 with U-matic tapes, and continuing with 1/4" reel tapes in 2012, the History Center finished digitizing its audiovisual content with two 16mm films produced by Eta Kappa Nu. In conjunction with Rutgers University, the History Center co-sponsored three lectures: Janet Abbate described her research on women’s experiences in programming and computer science from the dawn of the digital age in the 1940s to the late 20th century; Liz Bruton spoke on "Blurred Lines: Interception and secrecy in World War One Telecommunications," and Bernard Carlson lectured on "Method in His Madness: Nikola Tesla and Disruptive Technologies."

In 2014, after a re-evaluation of the best location for the IEEE History Center, the IEEE History Center relocated to Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, USA, and in 2020 relocated to the IEEE Operations Center in Piscataway, NJ.