Communications History: Capturing, Curating and Making Easily Available: Interview with Douglas Zuckerman, IEEE ComSoc Communications History Committee Chair

By Douglas Zuckerman - IEEE ComSoc Past President, Communications History Committee Chair and Stefano Bregni - Global Communications Newsletter Editor-in-Chief, Director Conference Operations

Today, I have the great pleasure to interview Douglas Zuckerman, IEEE ComSoc Communications History Committee Chair. Doug is not only a great friend of mine, but he also helped me a lot during my first days in the ComSoc Board of Governors, when he was ComSoc President and appointed me Director of Education in the already far 2008.

Dr. Doug Zuckerman, an IEEE Life Fellow, is on the IEEE Future Directions and Industry Engagement Committees. He was IEEE Communications Society President and IEEE Board Director. His BS, MS and PhD degrees are from Columbia University (USA). His earlier work at Bell Labs (and successors) heavily influenced network management standards and implementation.

Stefano: Hello Doug! What a pleasure to interview you today. Would you like to begin by introducing what is the Communications History Committee?

Doug: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the IEEE Communications Society, which is its platinum jubilee celebration. This is a singular bit of history, yet could we imagine if we had lost track? What if all the major milestones in communications and in ComSoc had also been either lost or forgotten? Capturing, curating and making easily available this rich history is essential to building and maintaining our professional community. It also helps set a foundation for the future. Thankfully, ComSoc has a standing committee on Communications History, which I currently have the privilege of chairing.

From the Society’s Bylaws, “This Committee is responsible for identifying, placing in electronic archives, and raising public awareness through all appropriate means of the most important facts, people, and achievements of communications history, as well as telecommunications milestones in general.”

Examples of its activities include solicitation of articles on Communication History for our magazines, organizing communications history sessions at conferences, and commemorating significant anniversaries of the IEEE Communications Society. In 2012, the 60th anniversary of our Society, the Committee organized the updating, expansion and re-issue of the History of Communications book published for our 50th anniversary in 2002, and the production of a 25-minute recollections video in which many former Presidents of IEEE ComSoc recounted their experiences in the communications field and in IEEE ComSoc.

Stefano: What is the current composition of the Communication History Committee?

Doug: Due to the wide range of activities envisioned for this committee, the committee has about a dozen members with the following roster:

Committee Roster
Chair | Douglas Zuckerman (2022-2024)
Voting Members
2022-2024 | Douglas Zuckerman
2022-2023 | Stephen Weinstein
2022 | Scott Atkinson, Kit August, Celia Desmond, Tarek El-Bawab, Rose Hu, Curtis Siller, Martha Steenstrup, Tim Weil, Sarah Kate Wilson
Staff | Cynthis Sikora

This team has former ComSoc presidents, past Communications Magazine EiC’s, a past History Committee chair, several Life Members, and founders of some of the earliest ComSoc flagship conferences as well as organizers of more recent ones.

Stefano: Certainly, your Committee includes very well known volunteers of ComSoc, with a long record of service in our Society. What initiatives are you planning for this year?

Doug: Earlier this year, the History Committee came up with the following initiatives for 2022:

  • Communications History Book — Add events since 60th anniversary edition (also feeds into Interactive Communications History).

  • Interactive Communications History — Contribute to this project which has been funded by ComSoc’s Board of Governors.

  • IEEE Milestones — Identify and guide proposals for new communications milestones.

  • Conference History — Start with GLOBECOM/ICC history — including interviews.

  • Presence at IEEE GLOBECOM 2022 — Organize and moderate a panel (currently planned to be a “Panel of Presidents,” and will memorialize several leaders who have passed during the year). Have exhibit hall presence.

  • Presence in IEEE Communications Magazine — Do column, reprints, old ComMag synopses, Global Communications News (GCN) articles.

  • Update Web Presence — Participate in ComSoc-wide website update activity relevant to history activities.

  • Virtual Museum — Provide an AR/VR museum experience.

  • Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — Recognize “Women in Communications History.”

In addition, there are two other important activities:

  • ComSoc Platinum Jubilee Celebration — Work with the Board of Governors and ComSoc staff in preparing for the Society’s 70th Anniversary Platinum Jubilee celebration.

  • Memorializations — Write obituaries for ComSoc’s “In Memory” website and where appropriate author Society News articles in Communications Magazine for recently deceased colleagues. This year, we have memorialized Bob Lucky and Des Taylor (May they rest in peace.).

Stefano: Would you please explain the meaning of the three items you mentioned in the title of this interview? Capturing, Curating and Making Easily Available?

Doug: Capturing, curating and making easily available our history is a daunting, almost boundless, challenge. IEEE itself has an IEEE History Committee with full time staff and has been supporting some of our activities, including hosting an important communications history site: Discussions are ongoing on how our Society’s and IEEE’s history committees may continue collaborating on mutually beneficial activities.

An area where we can especially use help is in generating history articles for Communications Magazine. As ComSoc’s History Committee chair, I also do a history column in that magazine. I have solicited a few articles that are still in preparation but would like to see a more regular presence. One idea has been to have monthly one-page synopses of the tables of contents from “this month, 25 and 50 years ago.” Also, the ComMag EiC has solicited best papers for reprint (with possible historic updates) from issues during their term as EiC. Going forward, I would expect to see more history content appearing in ComMag.

Stefano: Are you working also with some Chapters?

Doug: Since this is an article in the Global Communications Newsletter, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that history also has a geographic perspective. Many IEEE sections and regions have history committees, and these typically include content of relevance to communications. An example that comes to mind is that of the NJ Coast Section. This is the section that had been the host to important fundamental research and development entities in the communications field, e.g., Bell Labs and Fort Monmouth. AT&T also hosts a museum within this section. This example of a section history is at Note, its historian is also an active member of the ComSoc History Committee.

Stefano: Besides posting a column on the Communications Magazine, are you also planning to organize some event at ComSoc conferences?

Doug: As already mentioned, we are organizing a “Panel of Presidents” for GLOBECOM 2-22 in Rio de Janeiro this December, as well as being part of the ComSoc exhibition booth. The History Committee is also participating with ComSoc’s Board of Governors in identifying other anniversary activities as well.

Above, the Conference History initiative mentioned starting with GLOBECOM and ICC (flagships) capturing their history. This is well underway for our two flagship events. I would like to encourage our important portfolio conferences to also capture their history. Memories fade, so now, at the Society’s 70th anniversary, is the time to do it.

For example, how many people will remember when the first NOMS took place, where it was, who was on the organizing committee, and what topics were important at the time? I was able to find the call for participation that appeared in the November 1987 issue of IEEE Communications Magazine, when Fred Andrews was ComSoc President (and a strong supporter of NOMS).

The first NOMS took place in February 1988 in New Orleans, was heavily supported by AT&T Bell Labs (especially Eric Sumner) and BellCore (especially Fred Andrews), had the theme, “Productivity Through Operations,” was standing room only (registrations were screened and many were turned away), and generated an unmentionably huge surplus. Also, its conference record was “visuals plus accompanying text” (done by “cut and paste” on paper during this pre-PPT era). The attendees were almost entirely from industry. Bruce Kieburtz was General Chair, Ed Glenner was Vice General Chair, and Ken Lutz and I were the Technical Program Committee Chairs. From the call, it is interesting to note the variety of topics that were important to the network operations and management community — and industry — at that time.

Stefano: I am sure you have a number of nice memories to share! Please, choose one from your early career in the communication industry and tell us. Young readers will be interested to hear.

Doug: I could also share early memories from my professional career at Bell Labs, starting at Holmdel on the WT4 Millimeter Waveguide Transmission Systemin June 1969. My first boss told stories of his days on the Telstar project, which was a “spare no money” effort in response to the launch of Sputnik. The WT4 system had promise until long distance fiber proved practical — and then many of us moved onto satellites and undersea cable.

On a more personal level, which will give away my generation, I grew up with vacuum tubes, rotary telephones (on a party line), and our first TV (black and white, with a mechanical tuner, only one for the family). During my undergraduate years at Columbia University (USA), we used a book by Millman and Halkias and taught at the cusp of moving from vacuum tubes to transistors and integrated circuits. I also recall a one-semester class taught by Omar Wing on the Fortran IV programming language - used with punch cards and a huge IBM 360 computer center (“printouts” were overnight at the “economy” rate). Prof. Wing was responsible for my joining IEEE as a student member. In his introductory circuits class, he handed out application forms and said IEEE was good to join. I joined.

This reminds me of an “historic” telecom concept, “The Network is the Database.” Analogously, one might say, “The Members are the History.” All of us are creating history and storing it in our personal memories (some of which I just shared with you). The challenge is in capturing, curating and making that history easily available. The ComSoc History Committee stands ready to help!