Remembering Sputnik: Charles A. Fowler (Part 2)

Yesterday, we introduced you to one of our online guest columnists, Bert Fowler. Today, we share some thoughts on the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik from this eminent IEEE Fellow.

In an e-mail post this morning, Fowler alerted us to the fact that he first met Sir Arthur C. Clarke in 1943, when the two of them were young men working on Britain's top-secret radar program. On "loan" from the MIT Radiation Lab, Fowler participated in Europe in the effort to guide Allied pilots to their targets and get them safely home again. He notes that Clarke years later introduced him to Frederick C. Durant. So, it seems, the early days of radar and space flight were a time when the engineers and scientists who launched a revolution were a close-knit society of kindred thinkers and doers.

As mentioned yesterday, Fowler has pursued a lifelong interest in electronics, with a particular emphasis in military applications. In a well-honored career, he has served variously as an advisor to (in part): the Military Aircraft Panel of Presidents Science Advisory Committee (1962-66); the Journal of Defense Research (1969-86); the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (1971-77); the Defense Intelligence Agency Science and Technology Advisory Board (Member 1971-2000, Chairman 1976-1982); the Defense Science Board (Member 1972-1998, Chairman 1984-1988); the Strategic Defense Initiative Advisory Committee (Member Ex Officio 1985-88); the Journal of Electronics Defense (1982-92); the DARPA Ultra Wideband Technology Study Panel (Chairman 1990); and the DARPA Airborne Radar Study Senior Review Group (Chairman 1997).

He is not only an IEEE Fellow, but holds the same distinction from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

About a month ago, we asked Fowler to comment on the impact of Sputnik, and his answers were quite thought provoking, even surprising. We share them with you today, fifty years to the day after the first satellite orbited our planet.

SPECTRUM: What are your thoughts on the big anniversary of the launch of Sputnik?

FOWLER: I well remember its sudden appearance and my mixed feelings of being tremendously impressed by the Soviets' accomplishment and of anger/outrage about our, the U.S., allowing them to be first. The latter was amplified by a strong belief by many of us that the administration had been seriously under-funding science and technology. There was also national concern about the small number of U.S. students entering science, engineering, and math careers.

The Presidentâ''s responses, however, were impressive. The creation of the position of Science Advisor, filled so ably by MITâ''s Dr. Killian; the Presidentâ''s Science Advisory Committee; and ARPA [the Advanced Research Projects Agency]. I'm not sure of the chronology, but somewhere in there was the establishment of the office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, an important change in the Defense Department.

SPECTRUM: So you were concerned that the U.S. was falling behind the Soviets in the development of its intellectual capital in the areas of science and engineering, that we were not investing in it sufficiently, which all turned around after Sputnik?

FOWLER: I was, but I was also very pleased by the impact on education with its great emphasis on science, math, and foreign languages. I was a member of a three-person school board in a small, very education-oriented community on Long Island, N.Y. This new thrust was eagerly received by us and many other school boards. Emphasizing this aspect, the banquet speaker at that yearâ''s [1958] New York school board convention was Prof. Ernst Webber, a widely known and respected electrical engineer and president of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, who spoke on the importance of science education in the public schools.

Since those days defense and space R&D has been reasonably well funded as has, with the exception of recent years, the national science budget. However, with its grossly inefficient acquisition system compounded by a near total absence of cost control during recent years, the Defense Department has been getting few new capabilities for its sizeable R&D budgets.

SPECTRUM: How do you feel about the job the U.S. has been doing recently in terms of keeping itself at the forefront of science and engineering?

FOWLER: "What goes around comes around." The recent Augustine Report for the National Academies, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm", once again notes the serious limitations in our K-12 school programs in science and mathematics and the dwindling number of U.S. students entering the fields of science, engineering, and math in our colleges. National attention to the problem is urged. It is fervently hoped that the U.S. will get behind the recommendations of this report.

SPECTRUM: What do you think it will take to get the [U.S.] public to come around to that way of thinking?

FOWLER: Perhaps another Sputnik would help?

[Editor's Note: For a recent article on the report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," please see "Power Up" by Sarah Adee in our September issue.]

Related Stories

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Advertisement