IEEE Spectrum: The Greatest Hits

These articles capture what has made Spectrum special

9 min read

IEEE Spectrum: The Greatest Hits
Photo: Randi Klett

Editor’s note: In this 50th anniversary year of IEEE Spectrum, we are using each month’s Spectral Lines column to describe some pivotal moments of the magazine’s history. Here, Executive Editor Glenn Zorpette reminisces about some of his favorite articles.

In the half century of its existence, IEEE Spectrum has published roughly 3,700 feature-length articles. We covered the fall of the vacuum tube and the rise of the integrated circuit, the decline of the mainframe and the ascent of the personal computer. We wrote about robots, the Internet, lasers and LEDs, code-breaking and compound semiconductors, wireless and weapons, transistors and transhumanism.

We documented the moon landing and nuclear mishaps and breakthroughs, as well as the rise of China, India, and Japan as technology titans. And, to be honest, we predicted the imminent success of magnetic-levitation trains way more times than we should have.

It has been a fantastic voyage, and I have been on board for nearly half of it. There were many memorable stops during that trip. I’m referring to outstanding feature articles that were written by friends or colleagues, or ones that were published before my time but that came to my attention because their legends lingered, like the memory of an adolescent kiss. There are of course far too many of these notable articles to acknowledge in a brief column such as this one. So my account will of necessity be deeply personal and seriously abridged, and restricted to articles that were published so long ago that they are not available in the archive on our website.

The prehistory of IEEE Spectrum was the eight years between its first issue, in January 1964, and January 1972, when its first full-time professional editor, Donald Christiansen, took over. It was a rollicking time. The issues were fat and stuffed with ads, but there wasn’t much editorial coherence or direction. Articles rambled and were sometimes larded with equations. But that laxity sometimes produced singular articles—occasional glimpses of what the magazine would become in its full bloom.

A string of offbeat articles in the 1960s staked out an expansive view of the magazine’s purview. For example, the magazine was scarcely two years old when it published “Communication With Extraterrestrial Intelligence” [PDF], based on a panel session at a military conference in 1965. The article noted that “Sir Bernard Lovell, one of the world’s leading radio astronomers, has calculated that…there must be in our own galaxy about 100 million stars that have planets [that can] support organic evolution.” Today, after billions of dollars spent and hundreds of studies completed, the most recent report came to the exact same estimate of 100 million star systems with a planet capable of supporting complex life.

Two of the magazine’s staffers in those days, Gordon D. Friedlander and Nilo Lindgren, regularly pushed the envelope. In 1966, Friedlander wrote a sprawling survey [PDF] of all of the United States’ major ocean-related technology projects. “Man must condition himself…to readapt to the strange, hostile, and silent world of the briny deeps,” Friedlander declared, echoing a widespread belief in those days. Lindgren, in 1969, wrote a 21-page report on art and technology [PDF] at a time when collaborations between engineers and artists were creating entirely new media and other breakthroughs in art.

Donald Christiansen’s first issue, in January 1972, had a remarkable feature (in addition to a tribute to David Sarnoff, who had died shortly before the issue went to press). In an article titled “Toward a New Morality” [PDF], Bernard Oliver, a longtime friend of the magazine, declared that science and engineering had demolished the religious basis of morality. It was therefore incumbent upon engineers and scientists, he argued, to “provide a new and rational basis for…our ethics.” It is hard to imagine an engineer of Oliver’s station—he was head of R&D at Hewlett-Packard—writing so passionately on such a topic today. But back then, the Vietnam war and the counterculture movement had left many young people searching for enlightenment in other quarters, and Oliver wondered where they would find it, if not in science: “Marx? Exotic religions? Drugs?”

Christiansen’s tenure was marked by Spectrum’s embrace of investigative journalism. One of Spectrum’s first investigations was into the problems that plagued the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system shortly after it opened in late in 1972. In a story published in March 1973 titled “Bigger Bugs in BART?” [PDF] Friedlander raised questions about the system’s automatic train-control system, which had been implicated in an incident in which a train overshot a station and caused minor injuries. For the story, Friedlander relied mostly on official reports and testimony, rather than anonymous sources or sensitive company documents. But still, his story and the decision to publish it took some guts. In those days, Spectrum’s main competitors were trade magazines, such as McGraw-Hill’s Electronics, which tended to shy away from hard-hitting stories for fear of alienating advertisers.

Another notable article from the sensational ’70s was about the search for the Loch Ness monster [PDF]. In February 1978, we published an article coauthored by the great photographic pioneer Harold Edgerton, of MIT. Edgerton described his use of sonar, television, and other technologies to try to find evidence of the existence of a huge sea creature that, legend had it, lived in the deep Scottish lake. According to the article, “during a 24-hour period on June 19-20, 1975, a series of seven film-strip frames were taken by the backup camera/strobe system that suggested the presence of a large, moving, underwater creature.” If Nessie’s out there, she’s never been seen since.

We broke a no less sensational story in September 1984, with an article [PDF] by David Kahn, the author of The Codebreakers, a seminal history of codes and cryptography. In his story, which traced the origins of spread-spectrum communications, Kahn disclosed the fact that the actress Hedy Lamarr had collaborated with the composer George Antheil on a frequency-hopping scheme that was eventually awarded a U.S. patent (No. 2,292,387).

During the 1980s, the magazine reached a new level of sustained excellence, with a young, smart, and energetic staff. Fred Guterl, now the executive editor of Scientific American magazine, was a junior editor at Spectrum in the early 1980s. He got wind of a project to build a state-of-the-art but affordable personal computer at a company called Apple Computer and decided to write a case study on the new machine. Guterl described how a young man named Burrell Smith—a liberal-arts-school dropout who had started at Apple as a computer repairman—wound up leading the design of the Macintosh computer, on which Apple’s future fortunes would be built.

The story [PDF] appeared in our December 1984 issue. To help with Fred’s research, Apple was kind enough to send a prerelease version of the original Macintosh. It appeared in our office in the summer of 1984, like a spiffy appliance from the future. Which it basically was.

Spectrum’s third National Magazine Award was won for a special issue that analyzed the effects of the divestiture of AT&T. Published in November 1985, the issue’s lead story [PDF] was written by Trudy E. Bell, a tenacious reporter and a careful writer and editor. Bell had interviewed all of the big names associated with the antitrust case that precipitated the breakup of the Bell system. But the biggest name of all, Judge Harold H. Greene, remained elusive. Greene, the federal district court judge who presided over the antitrust case, had a policy of never speaking to the press.

Bell’s repeated calls to Greene’s office were always politely rebuffed. But she saw her opportunity when a source from the U.S. Department of Justice, Gerald A. Connell, told her that the officials and attorneys from the DOJ and AT&T—bitter adversaries during the trial—had established a tradition of meeting every year in Washington, D.C. for a friendly, stress-relieving softball game. The next game was just a couple weeks away. Connell invited Bell to the game, only to call a few days later to disinvite her. Bell sought advice from Christiansen, who told her to call Connell back the day before the game and to say that she had been assigned to cover the game regardless and could not back out.

It worked. True to his habit, Greene was a spectator at the game (which, unlike the trial, AT&T won). Bell did not approach Greene at first and did not even appear to be taking notes. “I wanted to get quotes,” she says, “but I didn’t want to be seen taking notes.” How did she manage it? She memorized what was being said and then periodically excused herself to record the dialogue on paper she had secreted in her clothes. “I went to the bathroom an awful lot,” Bell says.

After the game was over, Bell handed a copy of her draft manuscript to Greene, ostensibly as a courtesy. A few days later, sitting at her desk at 1:30, Bell answered her phone and heard a woman say, “Please hold for Judge Greene.” Greene’s first words to her were, “I found your article so interesting I felt I just had to contribute to it.” For the next half hour, Greene gave Bell one of the very few press interviews he ever granted and left Bell with an enduring memory. “Of all the articles I’ve ever done, this was one of my career highlights,” she says.

Another article from the same period also broke new journalistic ground. Early in 1986, John Horgan traveled to the Nevada Test Site (NTS), where the United States tested nuclear weapons. The U.S.S.R. had just announced it would unilaterally cease testing nuclear weapons, and the pressure was on the United States to follow suit. Although testing was in the news, very few journalists had been to the U.S. test site, and none had written a comprehensive article on the technology of weapons testing.

Horgan, then an associate editor at Spectrum, jumped at the chance. “I had written my master’s thesis on the antinuclear movement,” he recalls. “I thought the nuclear arms race was imperiling all of humanity and that it absolutely had to be stopped. And the testing of the weapons at NTS was a really crucial part of the arms race.

“I went into this assignment wanting to criticize this stuff,” he adds. But something funny happened after he arrived at the remote desert site and started interviewing engineers there: “I ended up falling in love with it. There’s something exhilarating about nuclear weapons,” he says. “They’re just so insane.”

HRHorganNevadaTestNuke The Vault: In 1986, Spectrum associate editor John Horgan posed in a bank vault that had been heavily damaged by a nuclear bomb. Photo: John Horgan

During a visit to a test site called Frenchman’s Flat, Horgan saw the mangled remains of a bank vault that had been touted (prior to the test that mangled it) as being capable of withstanding an atomic attack. A public affairs official snapped a picture of a youthful Horgan standing in the doorway of the ruined vault [photo, left]. Today, the photo hangs on the wall of Horgan’s office at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., where he is director of the Center for Science Writings.

Shortly after Horgan’s article [PDF] ran, in the April 1986 issue of Spectrum, remarkably similar stories on the very same topic were published in The New York Times and Discover magazine (the latter even used our main illustration, for which Discover graciously reimbursed us).

Two other articles have proven prescient, with a quarter century’s perspective. One was written by Karen Fitzgerald and published in December 1989. “Technology in Medicine: Too Much, Too Soon?” [PDF] posited that emerging medical technologies would push health-care costs to considerably higher levels in the United States. They did, and that surge was just the start of an elevation in U.S. medical costs that has developed into something of a national crisis. When Fitzgerald wrote her article the emerging technologies included defibrillators, magnetic resonance imaging, ultrasound, and computer tomography. Today it’s robotic and other minimally invasive surgical techniques, bone replacements, fertility treatments, and others. I’ve read few forward-looking articles in my career that were as insightful and absolutely spot-on as Fitzgerald’s.

In 1991, as the United States led a coalition into war in the Persian Gulf, a big assortment of new weapons and technologies were unleashed for the first time. Cruise missiles, smart munitions, stealth aircraft, the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System reconnaissance aircraft, antimissile missiles, and vast tactical and command-and-control networks all registered blows on the Iraqi military. The embedded press corps, many of them relatively uneducated when it came to technology, were fed a diet of impressive-looking bomb-cam video from the U.S. Defense Department. The result, particularly early on in the war, was fawning press coverage.

John A. Adam, Spectrum’s military editor in those days, knew better. Adam is one of the best reporters I’ve met in 30 years in this business. His article, “Warfare in the Information Age” [PDF], published in September 1991, is a model of careful and insightful reporting done in a turbulent environment and against a low signal-to-noise ratio. Amid the breathless reports of the day, Adam noted soberly that “Pilots were sent to attack targets that did not exist or were long evacuated”—and that the proportion of so-called friendly fire deaths, at 23 percent, was “the highest ratio ever.”

Whereas Fitzgerald’s and Adam’s articles anticipated the future, another of my favorites took a fond look backward. In our August 1998 issue, Spectrum published an article called “The Cool Sound of Tubes” [PDF], about the improbable resurgence of vacuum tubes in audio. The story was conceived and edited by Michael J. Riezenman, an MIT graduate, bon vivant, and raconteur, whom I was fortunate to have as a friend and colleague. Riezenman, who died this past January, was a great rarity: a person who had a deep understanding of technology and could really write.

I’ll mention one more article. It will always be special for me, even if it wasn’t all that good. It was about aluminum house wiring [PDF]. Really. I wrote it in February 1984, in a drafty one-room attic apartment in Arlington, Va., when I was 22 years old. I wrote it for IEEE Spectrum, hoping to get a job there—I did—and dreaming of a career as a journalist. Darned if I didn’t get that, too.

This article originally appeared in print as “My Favorite Things.”

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