Backscatter: Books, Books, Books

By Donald Christiansen

I like books. Most of the rooms in my home are covered with bookshelves, many of them floor to ceiling. Most of my books are nonfiction — I’m guessing over half of them are STEM-related.

For the edification of the few digital natives (anyone born with a smartphone in his or her crib) who may be reading this, let me briefly explain what a book is. It consists of a number of sheets of paper with writing or printing on them, fastened together along one edge, usually between protective covers. (I am not against "e-books" — I both read them and write them. But they are not books!)

A Safe Haven for Endangered Classics?

Stephen Kahne, emeritus professor and former vice president of technical activities for IEEE, recently expressed his concern about the fate of "the once outstanding libraries of classic technical texts and reference books" that many of us own. "What are we going to do with them?" he asked. His question struck a sympathetic chord, prompting me to review my own collection. Here are just a few of them.

  • Perhaps my most venerable book is an 1896 edition of Silvanus Thompson’s Elementary Lessons in Electricity & Magnetism. Thompson was a professor of physics at the London Technical College. His classic 1910 Calculus Made Easy is still in demand, available from Amazon in both contemporary hardcover and, yes, Kindle editions.

  • Among my collection are two editions of Frederick Terman’s Radio Engineering. The 1937 edition dates from my Navy radio technician courses during World War II. His second (1947) edition, assigned to me as an undergraduate at Cornell, was completely rewritten, with extended coverage on uhf and microwave techniques, radar, and television. Terman was a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford and president of the Institute of Radio Engineers. Among his other works were Fundamentals of Radio, Measurements in Radio Engineering, and the Radio Engineers’ Handbook. Many years after profiting from the lessons in his several texts, I was privileged to meet him. I introduced myself and audaciously asked him "Have you written any good books lately?" I breathed more easily when he responded with a chuckle and a hearty guffaw.

  • Here’s another of my favorites: The Principles Underlying Radio Communication, an Army Signal Corps book (1921) issued to my father when he was a member of the U.S. Signal Corps Radio Laboratories at Fort Monmouth. His signature with handwritten date, May 27, 1922, appears inside the front cover.

  • Here’s Photocells and Their Applications, written by Vladimir Zworykin (RCA) and his co-author E. D. Wilson (Westinghouse). This is the second edition (1934) in which the chapter on the photocell in television has been expanded.

  • Another: A First Course in Physics, 1906, by Robert Millikan and Henry Gale, both then professors at the University of Chicago.

  • And The Electric Circuit, by Vladimir Karapetoff (1912 edition), famed EE professor at Cornell University. The Eta Kappa Nu Karapetoff Award for outstanding technical achievement is named in his honor.

  • A valuable text during my undergraduate EE days was Physics, by Erich Hausmann and Edgar Slack of Brooklyn Poly. It was widely used in many schools. I have the second edition, 22nd printing.

  • Another favorite: Vacuum Tubes, by Karl Spangenberg, Stanford University EE professor. First edition (1948).

  • A 1929 classic still on my shelves, Transmission Networks and Filters, by T. F. Shea of Bell Telephone Laboratories.


Professor Kahne’s question, reinforced by a review of my own library, prompted me to search for possible recipients of classic engineering texts. Many public libraries no longer accept technical textbooks as additions to their holdings or even for resale at fundraisers.

Michael Geselowitz, senior director of the IEEE History Center, notes that while many history scholars often think of texts as secondary sources, a well-organized and -written textbook can provide an excellent snapshot of the state of the art at any given period of time. In 2003, Frederik Nebeker of the IEEE History Center collected a few classic texts for a pair of articles he was preparing for IEEE Spectrum. At the time, additions to this modest collection were not possible due to space limitations. However, with the relocation of the History Center to the Stevens Institute of Technology underway, serious consideration is being given to expanding its library. If you have electrical, communications, or computer engineering texts that you would consider donating, you may send a list of them to Please do not send any books, as temporary storage space is not yet available, and funding required to operate the proposed library is being evaluated.

The Smithsonian Collection

The Smithsonian Institution houses and provides access to rare books of the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. Bern Dibner was an EE graduate of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn who founded the Burndy Engineering Company in 1924. He was also a student of the history of technology, and author of more than a dozen books on the topic. Dibner’s collection of rare books from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century includes mathematical works by Euclid, Bernoulli, Euler, and Gauss, and physics texts by Galileo, Newton, Planck, Coulomb, Galvani, Volta, Oersted, Faraday, Ampere, and Henry. His donation of portions of this collection began in 1974, with the presentation of one-quarter of these holdings to the Smithsonian.

The Dibner Smithsonian Library now houses more than 35,000 volumes. Against the background of this outstanding collection of science classics from the pre-electronic years, I wondered if the Smithsonian might be interested in acquiring texts of the 20th and 21st centuries — especially those representing watershed developments in electronics and computers. It may be that some organizations consider it premature to archive technical volumes that are less than 90 to 100 years old. When I asked the Smithsonian whether its National Museum of American History Library might be interested in seeing a list of classic, university-level, science and engineering texts for possible acquisition, and for the purpose of being made accessible to scholars and historians, I was informed that "we do not collect them." It was suggested, instead, that interested recipients might include local thrift stores, Goodwill, or the Salvation Army. [!!!] The Smithsonian Libraries also provided a list of some thirty universities with history of science or technology programs, some of whom might wish to receive donations of historic texts.

The Future of Books

Author Rex Pickett is among those who envision the end of books, writing, in 2012, "in less than five years . . . all paper books will be as anachronistic as music CDs now are." In one study, reported by Mark Bauerlein in his book The Dumbest Generation, over 40 percent of college freshmen said they did not enjoy reading serious books and articles, doing so "only when I have to." In another survey of college students, one quarter said they never read a word of anything for either enjoyment or edification. Information gurus predict that the Internet will guarantee the obsolescence of books. College professors will teach from lecture notes or through online courses. With textbooks projected to become unnecessary, the question remains: will classic texts increase or lessen in value and usefulness to scholars and historians?

Lest I end this essay on a somewhat negative note, an architect friend, observing that my collection of books nearly always covers the outer walls of each room, encouraged me. "Good insulation," he remarked. "That should cut your heating bills!"


Nebeker, F., "Treasured Texts," IEEE Spectrum, April 2003.

Nebeker, F., "More Treasured Texts," IEEE Spectrum, July 2003.

Smithsonian Libraries Special Collections (retrieved April 19, 2014)

Bauerlein, M., The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, Persica, 2008.

Dibner, B., The Founding Fathers of the Electrical Science, Burndy Library, 1954.

Basulto, D., The Future of Books: From Gutenberg to e-readers (retrieved March 20, 2014)

Donald Christiansen

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. His Backscatter columns can be found here.

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