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From IEEE Communications Magazine April 2017

Communications History: The Past as a Guide to the Future

Harvey Freeman
Harvey Freeman
Steve Weinstein
Steve Weinstein

The IEEE Communications Society, or ComSoc, is currently the third largest Society (32,000) within the 425,000 member IEEE. The IEEE was formed on January 1, 1963 from the combination of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (founded in 1884) and the Institute of Radio Engineers (founded in 1912). From an IEEE Group on Communications Technology, ComSoc was approved for elevation to Society status in the fall of 1971, and officially began operations on January 1, 1972 (65 years ago). As we celebrate our 65th Anniversary this year, it is fitting to revisit our past and learn from it as we move forward in the ever expanding age of communications technology. And the ComSoc person leading this effort is Stephen B. Weinstein (Steve), Chair of our Communications History Committee. Steve received his Ph.D. degree in electrical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and began a career with Bell Laboratories, American Express, Bellcore (Telcordia), and NEC Research Labs America. Now mostly retired, he lives in New York City and consults part time for patent law firms and the communications industry. He is a Life Fellow of the IEEE, a past ComSoc President (1996–97), and was an early founding Editor-in-Chief of IEEE Communications Magazine. He received the IEEE’s 2016 Richard M.Emberson Award for “contributions to IEEE Publications, Awards, and Globalization.” Steve is best known for early research and development on data-driven echo cancellation and generation of OFDM signals using the fast Fourier transform. He received the 2006 Eduard Rhein Foundation (Germany) basic research prize for his fundamental OFDM work.

ComSoc’s Communications History Activities

The past 150 years of discovery, invention, and deployment of communications technology have profoundly changed society and enhanced the quality of life. Electronic communication made possible the web of information exchanges that now define our lives. The history of electronic communication, including the history of our own IEEE Communications Society, is not only a fascinating story but also a guide to the social and economic processes by which ideas become research, research and commercial interests stimulate development, and development, when the time is right, leads to wide use of devices and services. Knowing this past enriches our understanding of how we came to where we are, and this understanding helps uncover opportunities for each of us to influence the future.

The IEEE has a history committee ( about/history_center/history_committee.html) with a paid staff that operates a major electrical engineering history center. In addition to maintaining extensive archives on both technologies and the history of the IEEE itself, including recorded oral histories from noted IEEE members, the IEEE History Center sponsors celebrations of historic “milestones” across IEEE’s fields of interest. A book currently in preparation describes the origins of the IEEE in its two predecessor societies, the older AIEE and the younger IRE, that merged in 1963, as noted above.

ComSoc is one of several IEEE societies that sponsor their own, more specialized history activities, in our case the ComSoc Communications History Committee currently chaired by me. I originally joined the IRE and, having reached the age when I might be considered historical, work with a very few additional Committee members to generate history articles for IEEE Communications Magazine and IEEE Wireless Communications Magazine, sponsor history sessions at major ComSoc conferences, and produce other materials on appropriate occasions. The most recent article and session were, respectively, “History of Radio Propagation” by Jorgen Andersen in the February 2017 issue of Communications Magazine, and the “History of Sensor Networks” panel session at Globecom 2016.

A substantial number of past History articles, most published in Communications Magazine, are available on the Communication History Committee’s web page ( about/communications-history). My predecessor as Chair of the Communications History Committee, Mischa Schwartz, published two on “Improving the Noise Performance of Communication Systems,” recalling first the initial breakthroughs of the 1920s, and then the major advances of the 1930s and early 1940s. The prolific Mischa also wrote “Carrier-Wave Telephony over Power Lines: Early History,” “Armstrong’s Invention of Noise-Suppressing FM,” a story of technical brilliance and legal conflicts, and “The Origins of Carrier Multiplexing: Major George Owen Squier and AT&T.”

Jerry Hayes conveyed the romance of laying undersea cable on stormy seas in “A History of Transatlantic Cables.” Joel Engel brought back “The Early History of Cellular Telephony,” recalling the AMPS days. Leonard Kleinrock wrote “An Early History of the Internet” in which he played a significant part. Fred Andrews described “Early T-Carrier History,” the introduction of digital access into the telephone network before everyone understood the great advantages of digital communication, and John Cioffi published “Lighting Up Copper,” about very high speed Digital Subscriber Line. Dave Falconer provided an authoritative overview of critical improvements in data communication in his “History of Equalization 1860- 1980.” Norm Abramson contributed “The AlohaNet-Surfing for Wireless Data,” telling the story of that very innovative experiment that preceded the Ethernet and numerous wireless services. Hans Peek wrote “The Emergence of the Compact Disc,” explaining the international cooperation and advanced optical recording techniques that went into that successful consumer product. The significant role of a Russian scientist in early radio communication, not so well known in most of the world because his Russian Navy client classified the work, was described by Orest Vendik in “Significant Contribution to the Development of Wireless Communication by Professor Alexander Popov.” There have been other history papers as well describing significant advances made in various regions of the world, and in particular in Europe’s GSM cellular mobile system, TRANSPAC in France, and computer networking in Korea.

I wrote “The History of Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing,” noting the early deployments in military VHF radios in the 1960s, and even the contribution to the Fast Fourier Transform made by Carl Friedrich Gauss in 1805. Several other articles are in preparation, including “History of SDN,” “History of Echo Cancellation,” “History of Deep Space Communication,” “History of MIMO,” and “History of Coding,” all by prominent members of our community. Readers of this column are encouraged to submit proposals for topics and authors, not excluding themselves.

The most significant examples of “special occasion” materials were A Brief History of Communications, a concise book that had two editions, the first in 2002 for ComSoc’s 50th anniversary and the second in 2012 for our 60th anniversary, and a video described below. The book, available for free downloading on the Communications History Committee’s web page, reviews communications technology from “the beginning” up to 2012. It then describes the development of the IEEE Communications Society from its founding as the IRE Professional Group on Communications Systems in 1952 through its six decades up to 2012. It further includes transcripts of interviews, “oral histories” made by the IEEE History Center with many prominent contributors to communications technologies and to ComSoc.

A 23-minute video, released in 2012, of past ComSoc Presidents offering very brief reminiscences about the important events they lived through during their professional and Com- Soc careers is also available on the web page. It is fascinating to hear these first-person accounts illuminating past trends, breakthroughs and failures, and the feelings of our Past Presidents about membership in a global communications engineering community.

The Communications History Committee is an example of many ComSoc volunteer activities that cost next to nothing but add meaningfully to our shared cultural heritage. Busy with our obligations and careers, it can be difficult to find the time and energy to write an article about the past, but these articles are a great service to our fellow ComSoc members. We encourage you to explore the history of our fields of interest and the Communications Society itself.