History Column

Innovation Looks Both Forward and Backward: How History Fosters Technological Progress

By Robert Colburn and Philip Lee, IEEE History Center

“It is not a sudden discovery; it is an evolution. For every discovery, there is a background and there is going to be a future.” — Leslie Geddes

Can an understanding of history foster innovation? Certainly many great innovators have said so.  Here in their own words—via the oral history collection of the IEEE History Center—are some of the ways innovators have drawn upon history to assist the process of invention.

Ruzena Bajcsy, a pioneer of machine perception, robotics, and artificial intelligence, admired Marie Curie. Alva Solomon (first woman engineering instructor at Columbia University, who did fundamental research on mechanical behavior of materials and wave propagation in solids), also cited the importance of history. “I think everyone has a historical interest. You love to know what’s come before, so you can use it as an indicator of what might come in the future, for yourself or other people.”

An 1880 experiment to create short-duration electrical pulses to measure the excitability of nerves provided useful insights to the 1950s development of the defibrillator. In addition to being a brilliant innovator, Leslie Geddes (who made pioneering contributions to defibrillators, diagnostic equipment for polio, and a method of obtaining the electrocardiogram and respiration from chest electrodes used for patient monitoring today) also studied the history of technology.  The 1880 experiment Geddes had read about was done prior to the invention of vacuum tubes, and long before solid-state electronics. The method used then was a bullet cutting two carefully-spaced wires. When the bullet cut the first wire, it triggered a current flow; the cutting of the second wire a microsecond later stopped the current. That experiment established principles that more modern technology could build upon. In his 2000 oral history, Geddes emphasized the importance of history to innovation.  “Down the road, the student will perhaps be able to make the next leap from the knowledge that he or she has now.”

Max Valentinuzzi (pioneer in impedance microbiology and application of deconvolution to physiology) similarly credited the past. “Many times, ideas can be picked up that are old, but conceived at a time when the technology to develop them did not yet exist…By recreating these very early methods, one can really see how the idea was developed.”  Valentinuzzi described how, in 1870, Adolf Fick outlined the idea that became known as Fick’s Principal.  Frick’s Principal is today’s standard by which measurements are compared for average cardiac output. Hebbel Hoff published an English translation of Fick’s communication in 1948.   Based on much older work by the French physiologist Jean Baptiste Auguste Chauveau (1827–1917), Hoff commissioned Valentinuzzi to come up with something equivalent, but which used updated technology. Valentinuzzi succeeded, and the Projecting Physiograph was the result.

Karl Ganzhorn (computer and communications technology pioneer who worked on the groundbreaking IBM 360 computer) drew a direct correlation between a knowledge of 19th century principles and the techniques fundamental to the computer age of the 20th century. “Many of the stock programming principles—later data processing principles—had their sources in punch-card equipment. When you go carefully through [the history], you find many sources of the idea of how a program should be built in a machine.”


History and Creativity

Alan Oppenheim (pioneer in digital signal processing, speech compression and recognition, seismic signal processing, and artificial intelligence) described the innovative atmosphere that occurs when the present taps into the past. “The more senior people recognized the potential for rejuvenation by encouraging what they saw as the creativity coming from some of the other people…there is the wisdom of the older generation; there is the enthusiasm and energy of the younger generation, and the synergy from that has magic.”

IEEE Medal of Honor winner Harold Wheeler, who invented the first receiver with diode automatic volume control and linear detector, and who also made important contributions to radar IFF (identify-friend-or-foe), as well as to microwave circuits and antennas, referred to engineers sharing the experience of going through the same formative stages. “I think the people who are outstanding in their accomplishments recognize that the history of their development is relevant.” Wheeler also pointed out the delays and inefficiencies that arise from not being aware of history. “Part of the reason we produce too many papers is that there is a tendency in [some countries] of researchers failing to look at the history…tend to reinvent the wheel.”

Knowledge of History Avoids Mistakes and Redundancies

Paul Baran, who invented the airport metal detector, as well as the principle of packet switching which underlies communication on the Internet, was very blunt about the risks of not knowing history. [Not knowing] “…contributes to duplicative research, made more common by the reluctance of some to take time to review the literature before proceeding with their own research…The major value of a study is to go back to find out what worked and what didn’t.”

Historical Context is Vital for Understanding Consequences of New Technologies


“You need to look at the consequences of your technology; the engineer has a societal role. The good engineer is looking at what [the technology] is going to mean to other people,” said Jack Casazza (power engineer who headed the U.S. Electric Powers System Planning delegation in the U.S./USSR technical exchange programs of the 1970s) in his oral history. Casazza emphasized the importance of history in helping the engineer understand the consequence of his or her work.  “We who are older and have lived through things have an obligation to pass on some of the good and bad, and in terms of people—not just ideas.”

Wallace Read (1996 IEEE President, Electric power utilities, member of the Order of Canada) noted the eureka moments that can come when people use history to say, “Gosh, if we had only thought about that twenty-five years ago…”

The material for this article comes from the oral history collection on Engineering and Technology History Wiki, managed by the IEEE History Center. The IEEE History Center is partially funded by donations to the History Fund of the IEEE Foundation.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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