Paying Tribute to 1997 IEEE President Charles K. Alexander

The Life Fellow was a professor at Cleveland State University

4 min read
portrait of man smiling against a light background
The Alexander Family

Charles K. Alexander, 1997 IEEE president, died on 17 October at the age of 79.

The active volunteer held many high-level positions throughout the organization, including 1991–1992 IEEE Region 2 director. He was also the 1993 vice president of the IEEE United States Activities Board (now IEEE-USA).

The IEEE Life Fellow worked in academia his entire career. At the time of his death, he was a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cleveland State University and served as dean of its engineering school.

He was a former professor and dean at several schools including Temple University, California State University, Northridge, and Ohio University. He also was a consultant to companies and government agencies, and he was involved in research and development projects in solar energy and software engineering.

Alexander was dedicated to making IEEE more meaningful and helpful to engineering students. He helped found the IEEE Student Professional Awareness program, which offers talks and networking events. Alexander also helped found IEEE’s student publication IEEE Potentials.

He mentored many students.

“My life has been so positively impacted with the significant opportunity to know such a giant in the engineering world,” says Jim Watson, an IEEE senior life member and one of Alexander’s mentees. “While many are very successful engineers and instructors, Dr. Alexander rises far above those who contributed to the success of others.”

Helping engineering students succeed

Alexander was born in Amherst, Ohio, where he became interested in mechanical engineering at a young age. He fixed the cars and machines used on his family’s farm, according to a 2009 oral history conducted by the IEEE History Center.

He switched his interests and then earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1965 from Ohio Normal (now Ohio Northern University), in Ada. As a freshman, he joined the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, one of IEEE’s predecessor societies. While he was an undergraduate, he served as secretary of the school’s AIEE student branch.

Alexander went on to receive master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from Ohio University in Athens, in 1967 and 1971 respectively. As a graduate student, he advised the university’s Eta Kappa Nu chapter, the engineering honor society that is now IEEE’s honor society. He significantly increased meeting attendance, he said in the oral history. Thanks to his efforts, he said, the chapter was ranked one of the top four in the country at the time.

After graduating, he joined Ohio University in 1971 as an assistant professor of electrical engineering. During this time, he also worked as a consultant for the U.S. Air Force and Navy, designing manufacturing processes for their various new systems. Alexander also designed a testing system for solid-state filters, which were used in atomic warheads for missiles on aircraft carriers.

He left a year later to join Youngstown State University, in Ohio, as an associate professor of electrical engineering. He was faculty advisor for the university’s IEEE student branch and helped increase its membership from 20 students to more than 200, according to the oral history. In 1980 he moved to Tennessee and became a professor of electrical engineering at Tennessee Tech University, in Cookeville. He also helped the school’s IEEE student branch boost its membership.

In 1986 he joined Temple University in Philadelphia as a professor and chair of the electrical engineering department. At the time, the university did not have an accredited engineering program, he said in the oral history.

“They brought me on board to help get the undergraduate programs in all three disciplines accredited,” he said. He also created master’s degree and Ph.D. programs for electrical engineering. He served as acting dean of the university’s college of engineering from 1989 to 1994.

After the engineering programs became accredited, Alexander said in the oral history that his job was done there so he left Temple in 1994 to join California State University, Northridge. He was dean of engineering and computer science there.

Alexander returned to Ohio University as a visiting professor of electrical engineering and computer science. From 1998 to 2002, he was interim director of the school’s Institute for Corrosion and Multiphase Technology. The institute’s researchers predict and resolve corrosion in oil and gas production and transportation infrastructure.

But after a few years, Alexander said, he missed creating and growing engineering programs at universities, so when an opportunity opened up at Cleveland State University in 2007, he took it. As dean of the university’s engineering school, he added 12 faculty positions.

Supporting student members’ professional development

Throughout his career, Alexander was an active IEEE volunteer. He served as chair of the IEEE Student Activities Committee, where he helped launch programs and services that are still being offered today. They include the IEEE Student Professional Awareness Program and the WriteTalk program (now ProSkills), which helps students develop their communication skills.

He was editor of the IEEE Transactions on Education. Along with IEEE Senior Member Jon R. McDearman, he helped launch IEEE Potentials.

Potentials was designed to be something of value for the undergraduates, who don’t want to read technical papers,” Alexander said in the oral history. “We styled it after IEEE Spectrum. Jon and I decided to include articles that would help students on topics like career development and how to be successful.”

Alexander continued to rise through the ranks in IEEE and was elected the 1991–1992 Region 2 director. The following year, he became vice president of the IEEE United States Activities Board (now IEEE-USA) and served in that position for two years.

He was elevated to IEEE Fellow in 1994 “for leadership in the field of engineering education and the professional development of engineering students.”

He was elected as the 1997 IEEE president.

“It was an incredible honor,” he said in the oral history. “One of the very special things that has happened to me.”

He received the 1984 IEEE Centennial Medal as well as several awards for his work in education, including a 1998 Distinguished Engineering Education Achievement Award and a 1996 Distinguished Engineering Education Leadership Award, both from the Engineering Council, the United Kingdom’s regulatory body for the profession.

“Dr. Alexander always emphasized the value of developing professional and ethical skills to enhance engineering career success,” Watson says. “He encouraged others to apply Winston Churchill’s famous quote ‘We make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give.’”

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.