Good awards ceremonies have certain elements in common: They evoke in us a sense of history, of amazement—who are these dazzling people and how did they get that way?—and of pleasure at being able to share their accomplishments, even if only for a brief moment. The IEEE Honors Ceremony, held at the world-famous Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City this past June, had all these elements, along with a good deal of fun.
The ceremony’s clever conceit was that one of Thomas Edison’s assistants had somehow crossed the space-time continuum to reveal that an IEEE precursor organization, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, had held a famous dinner at the hotel in 1902. Many turn-of-the-century electrotech stars attended that fete celebrating Guglielmo Marconi and his successful shortwave radio transmission of the Morse code for S, of which then-AIEE president George Steinmetz remarked, “Instead of sending messages across the seas by cables, he has succeeded in sending them across empty space through the luminiferous ether.”
Professional scientific and technical societies were on the rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and electrical and communications geniuses like Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Marconi were the Silicon Valley titans of their day. They were known for their spirit and drive, their passion and intelligence.
The same was apparent at this year’s honors ceremony. IEEE gave 23 recognitions for a wide range of brilliant discoveries and innovations. Notable among the recipients was Mildred Dresselhaus [above], who received IEEE’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. She is the first woman to do so.
Because of her work on graphite and carbon-based materials, she is known as the “queen of carbon.” The field of carbon electronics was born out of her persistent—and one has to imagine, sometimes lonely—efforts. Dresselhaus has been a tireless advocate for women in engineering and science and a mentor to myriad students. And she’s a native New Yorker to boot! (Full disclosure: So am I.)
IEEE Spectrum presented awards to two important young companies we’ve covered: Daktari Diagnostics and O3b Networks. O3b stands for “other 3 billion,” those people who have no access—yet—to the Internet.
Daktari received our Technology in the Service of Society Award, given to celebrate a technology that will greatly benefit the social good. Daktari is developing a series of simple and portable “lab in a backpack” kits to help address some of the world’s most difficult health problems—like HIV, hepatitis C, and sickle-cell anemia—in those areas with the fewest health care resources. Daktari principal scientist Martina Medkova, accepting the award, said that her long days in the lab were made worthwhile knowing how much impact the kits will have.
O3b received our Emerging Technology Award, for the technology with the potential for the greatest commercial return and broad commercial impact. The company is building out a medium-Earth-orbit satellite constellation that provides instantaneous high-volume, low-latency data access to any place in the world. Accepting for O3b, CTO Stewart Sanders pointed out that he and his colleagues also felt that what was paramount was the impact the technology is having on people’s lives and on entire nations. It gives users Internet access—via satellite—to health care, education, business opportunities, and social networking, access not previously available.
It’s clear that engineers and technologists like these deserve the red carpet treatment as much if not more than any collection of Hollywood stars. Congratulations and thank you to all the award recipients for your difficult, risk-taking, pioneering work and outstanding achievements.
This article originally appeared in print as “The Pursuit of Excellence.”