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Scanning Our Past

President's Page - David Michelson

David Michelson


Communications History Standing Committee

Seeking to understand the past, where we came from and why things are the way they are, is a universal human drive. It shapes our values and nurtures personal and collective identity within a diverse world. It also helps us become more critical in our decision making, and become more resilient. When the IEEE was formed in 1963, an IEEE History Committee was established to directly advise the IEEE Board of Directors about the heritage and legacy of IEEE, its members and their related professions and fields of interest, while carrying out promotional and outreach activities in these areas. The IEEE Communications Society (ComSoc) also formed its own history committee with a similar responsibility and mandate as the IEEE History Committee.

This month, we introduce the Communications History Committee and our ambitious plan to greatly broaden the scope and impact of ComSoc’s history activities during the next few years. In this report, David Michelson describes the governance of the Committee, the essential aspects of historical scholarship, the goals of the Strategic Plan for 2018-19, and seven recent initiatives that are helping to meet these goals.

Committee Governance: Within the IEEE Communications Society, the Communications History Committee (CHC) is responsible for identifying, placing in electronic archives, and raising public awareness of the most important facts, persons, and achievements of communications history. The Committee reports to the Technical and Educational Activities Council and meets four times per year at IEEE ICC, IEEE Globecom, and at the spring and fall meetings of the IEEE History Committee.

The 2018-19 CHC chair is Prof. David Michelson of the University of British Columbia. A wireless communications researcher with a strong interest in engineering history, he served as a member of the IEEE History Committee from 2012-14 and is the originator of four IEEE Milestones in Electrical Engineering and Computing. These represent over one-quarter of the IEEE Milestones in Canada approved by the IEEE Board of Directors to date. As a member of the IEEE History Committee, Prof. Michelson also designed the set of four IEEE Milestone plaques used to recognize the many accomplishments of Bell Labs from 1925-1984 and which are installed in the Nokia Bell Labs headquarters building in Murray Hill, NJ.

The 2018-19 CHC members include David Bart, Treasurer of the IEEE History Committee and member of the Board of Directors of the Antique Wireless Association; Dr. Alexander Magoun, Outreach Historian, IEEE History Center; and Dr. Stephen Weinstein, immediate past chair. Special advisors to the CHC include Dr. Michael Geselowitz, Director, IEEE History Center and winner of the 2018 IEEE Herz Award, and Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center, Milestone Coordinator. Adam Greenberg provides staff support. In 2019, the CHC intends to expand significantly by adding non-voting ex officio members from the ComSoc leadership and non-voting associate members from the ComSoc technical and chapters communities.

Historiography and Historical Scholarship: For as long as culture and civilization have existed, there have been historians charged with preserving, documenting and interpreting the challenges, accomplishments and wonders of the past and present. Historiography refers to the process and methods by which history is documented and studied [1]-[3]. As within any other field, these processes and methods evolve over time, and directions and emphasis change.

Although many large engineering organizations employ professional archivists to preserve documents and artifacts, individuals often maintain their own collections of items that reflect their own areas of work and personal interests and which employers have released or declared surplus. Many of these items eventually find their way into the hands of private collectors and both small and large museums. Large engineering organizations and professional associations are increasingly collecting first-hand accounts and oral histories from key innovators and contributors among their current and former employees and members, respectively. Such collections of primary source material are critically important resources for historical research.

The outcomes of historical research in engineering may include detailed accounts of specific events, biographies of key individuals, histories of particular projects, or summaries of progress in a particular field. Technical historians tend to focus on aggregating details while professional historians tend to focus on revealing underlying trends, patterns and connections. Both may address the social, political, economic, cultural, or technical contexts for the causes, processes, or consequences of technological change. Because there can be considerable overlap between the activities of technical and professional historians, it is ultimately to our advantage to create opportunities for them to interact and collaborate.

Strategic Plan: In recent years, the CHC has focused on organizing history sessions at ComSoc conferences and soliciting articles on communications history for publication in either IEEE Communications Magazine or IEEE Wireless Communications Magazine. The 2018-19 CHC is building on these efforts to broaden the scope and impact of the CHC’s activities. Our specific objectives are: 1) to encourage more scholarly participation and effort in the study and development of communications history and historiography; 2) to engage other IEEE and ComSoc organizational units and committees in our efforts to promote awareness of communications history and historiography; and 3) to promote greater awareness of communications history among the general public. We have made outstanding progress toward reaching these goals during the past year, and share some of our accomplishments and plans below.

IEEE History Center: In 1979, the IEEE Board of Directors approved the formation of a history center staffed by professional historians to support the work of the IEEE History Committee. Since 2014, the Center has been located at Stevens Institute of Technology. The IEEE History Center has generously offered to provide the CHC with essential support as we execute our 2018-19 strategic plan.

IEEE Milestones: The IEEE Milestones program was launched during the lead up to the IEEE Centennial in 1984 in order to recognize significant technical achievements that occurred at least 25 years ago in an IEEE field of interest and having at least regional impact. Since then, more than 192 IEEE Milestones have been dedicated around the world. Milestone proposals undergo a rigorous review by the IEEE History Committee before they are submitted to the IEEE Board of Directors for approval. The dedication ceremony for each milestone includes the mounting of a bronze plaque at or near the site where the achievement occurred. Many IEEE Milestones concern industry accomplishments and generate considerable response from the companies involved. Communications history is currently underrepresented, so the CHC is working with the IEEE History Center to encourage ComSoc technical committees and chapters to propose suitable Milestones for consideration.

Proceedings of the IEEE – Scanning Our Past: IEEE’s flagship technical journal, Proceedings of the IEEE, has a section entitled “Scanning Our Past” that publishes peer-reviewed papers that explore the history of relevant technologies and the people associated with them. Historians and others with a serious interest in the history of technology are invited to submit manuscripts of between 4000 and 8000 words (including references and acknowledgments) and between three and six illustrations. Because communications history is currently underrepresented, the CHC is working with the IEEE History Center and Proceedings of the IEEE to encourage both ComSoc members and professional historians of communications technology to propose and submit manuscripts for consideration.

Book Series: Many historical contributions are published as books. Two notable book series that are relevant to the communications history include the IEEE History Center Book Publishing program and the IET History of Technology series. The CHC is working with the IEEE History Center to encourage both ComSoc members and professional historians of communications technology to propose and submit manuscripts for consideration.

The Engineering and Technology History Wiki: IEEE has contributed thousands of entries to ETHW, including first-hand accounts by IEEE members, more than 800 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. Communications history is currently underrepresented, so the CHC is working with the IEEE History Center to encourage ComSoc technical committees and chapters to propose and provide suitable content. The IEEE History Center has offered to provide ComSoc conference organizers, technical committees and chapters with training in the preparation of first-hand accounts and conducting oral history interviews.

The Society for the History of Technology: The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) was formed in 1958 to encourage the study of the development of technology and its relationship with society and culture. SHOT members represent a wide range of disciplines and professions, from history and the humanities to engineering and science, and come from some 35 countries throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Two of its special interest groups have a particular interest in communications technology and have expressed strong support for joint SHOT-CHC initiatives that bring the technical and professional history communities closer together.

Directory of Communications Museums: Museums are important repositories of documents and artifacts relevant to communications history. Some museums with relevant collections have been started by companies, e.g., the National Electronics Museum near Baltimore was initially developed by Westinghouse, while others were started by private collectors interested in sharing their collections and love of this history with the public. The number of museums with relevant collections is quite large. The CHC is creating a directory of such museums for the benefit of both ComSoc members and the public. The possibility of the CHC endorsing museums that meet a certain set of requirements and allowing them to display signage to that effect is also being considered.

Remembering Apollo 11: July 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing. Preserving the history of this program remains a significant issue for historians [4]. The IEEE History Center will take the lead in recognizing key achievements of Apollo through the IEEE Milestones program, collecting oral and first-account histories from IEEE members and preparing a collection of works related to the lunar landing program that were presented at IEEE meetings and conferences at the time. CHC is supporting this effort within ComSoc’s fields of interest.

IEEE History Council: The CHC is a vocal advocate and proponent of the formation of an IEEE History Council that would provide better coordination between the History Committees of individual IEEE Societies and Regions and the IEEE History Committee and Center. Many of the activities that we are conducting under our current strategic plan will play an important role in convincing others of the value of committing resources to realize this vision.

    For more information about the Communications History Committee and any of these activities, please contact David Michelson.


    1. M. Howell and W. Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods, Cornell University Press, 2001.
    2. M. J. Salevouris and C. Furay, The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide, 4th ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
    3. G. G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge, Wesleyan University Press, 1997.
    4. L. Westwood, B. O’Leary, and M. W. Donaldson, The Final Mission: Preserving NASA’s Apollo Sites, University Press of Florida, 2017.