Sunday, September 16, 2012

Initial Confusion

Several years ago I quit using my IBM email address in favor of “” It was actually an alias that forwarded email to the IBM address, but it helped me make the transition to “civilian life” when I lost my IBM email account. None of my correspondents realized that I had changed the destination of my email alias to, so they could continue to use my original email address and it was forwarded to my new account. Neat trick.

But there are a couple of problems with that email address. First is that it is @ieee.ORG. Most people expect .COM or maybe .NET in an email address.

What may be worse though is when I give my email address out on the phone or when speaking to someone and I tell them it is "eye-triple-E." A set of initials that is very familiar to people in the technical trades, but not so much to people not into the acronyms of engineering. I usually pronounce it with the triple-E, and then spell out “i…e…e…e.”

IEEE stands for the “Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.” IEEE is the world’s largest technical professional society. IEEE’s history goes back to 1884 when electricity was just beginning to become a major force in society. There was one major established electrical industry, the telegraph, which — beginning in the 1840s — had come to connect the world with a communications system faster than the speed of transportation. A second major area had only barely gotten underway — electric power and light, originating in Thomas Edison’s inventions and his pioneering Pearl Street Station in New York.

IEEE's membership has long been composed of engineers, scientists, and allied professionals. These include computer scientists, software developers, information technology professionals, physicists, medical doctors, and many others in addition to an electrical and electronics engineering core. For this reason the organization no longer goes by the full name, except on legal business documents, and is referred to simply as IEEE.

The start was in the spring of 1884 when a small group of individuals in the electrical professions met in New York. They formed a new organization to support professionals in their nascent field and to aid them in their efforts to apply innovation for the betterment of humanity — the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, or AIEE for short. That October the AIEE held its first technical meeting in Philadelphia, Pa.

Many early leaders, such as founding President Norvin Green of Western Union, came from telegraphy. Others, such as Thomas Edison, came from power, while Alexander Graham Bell represented the newer telephone industry.

As electric power spread rapidly across the land — enhanced by innovations such as Nikola Tesla’s AC Induction Motor, long distance AC transmission and large-scale power plants, and commercialized by industries such as Westinghouse and General Electric — the AIEE became increasingly focused on electrical power and its ability to change people’s lives through the unprecedented products and services it could deliver. There was a secondary focus on wired communication, both the telegraph and the telephone. Through technical meetings, publications, and promotion of standards, the AIEE led the growth of the electrical engineering profession, while through local sections and student branches, it brought its benefits to engineers in widespread places.

As the twentieth century dawned, a new industry arose beginning with Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless telegraphy experiments at the turn of the century. What was originally called “wireless” became radio with the electrical amplification possibilities inherent in the vacuum tubes which evolved from John Fleming’s diode and Lee de Forest’s triode. With the new industry came a new society in 1912, the Institute of Radio Engineers.

The IRE was modeled on the AIEE, but was devoted to radio, and then increasingly to electronics. It, too, furthered its profession by linking its members through publications, standards and conferences, and encouraging them to advance their industries by promoting innovation and excellence in the emerging new products and services.

The term “Radioman” was coined to describe these early practitioners. I have a small collection of “antique” engineering textbooks published before WWII. One of my favorites is Cooke’s “Mathematics for Radiomen and Electricians.” I have a first edition of the famous textbook by Lieutenant, United States Navy, Radio Materiel School (sic). He was a senior member of the Institute of Radio Engineers.

With the advent of RADAR near the end of the war and then the development of digital computers, television, etc., the “radio” term was replaced by “electronics.”  To this day it is likely that a student’s degree with be in “Electrical Engineering,” even if he or she never studied electrical power and focused entirely on radio, or computers, micro-chips, or analog amplifiers.

Through the help of leadership from the two societies, and with the applications of its members’ innovations to industry, electricity wove its way — decade by decade — more deeply into every corner of life — television, radar, transistors, computers. Increasingly, the interests of the societies overlapped.

Membership in both societies grew, but beginning in the 1940s, the IRE grew faster and in 1957 became the larger group. On January 1, 1963, the AIEE and the IRE merged to form the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE. At its formation, the IEEE had 150,000 members, 140,000 of whom were in the United States.

By 2010, IEEE had over 395,000 members in 160 countries. Through its worldwide network of geographical units, publications, web services, and conferences, IEEE remains the world's largest technical professional association.

Most don’t realize just how important the IEEE’s work is. They set the standards that allow cell phones to work, as well as blue tooth, Ethernet, Wi-Fi, … the list is nearly endless. IEEE members meet and work out standards that all companies follow producing devices that can inter-connect and inter-operate. Without these standards, you would have to buy all your technology from one company in order to assure it would all work together. But here I am typing on my apple computer, connected with wi-fi to my Linksys router to my Arris modem to the Cisco routers to FB’s Linux computers to AT&T long lines to your Samsung monitor. They can all communicate and “inter-operate” thanks to the standards set by the IEEE.

So now you know where “ieee” in my email address originates. The IEEE is one of several professional organizations I’ve belonged to over the last forty or more years. At this point in my life, I’ve only maintained membership in two, IEEE and ACM. We will save a decoding of “ACM” for another time. So I’ll be signing off now.

Over and out. (And remember, it is

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