MIT professor’s book digs into the eclectic, textually linked reading choices of people in medieval London.
MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, world-renowned for the resilience of its curriculum and the creativity, impact and breadth of its innovations, has produced a lively 6-pound, 162-cubic-inch, 350-page coffee-table book to honor its first 100 years.
"The Electron and the Bit: EECS at MIT 1902-2002," edited by EECS Professor John Guttag and named after a 2003 essay by Paul Penfield, the Dugald C. Jackson Professor of Electrical Engineering, offers an intellectual history of the department in text, photos and replicas of historic documents that will appeal to the general reader as well as scientists in the field.
"We wanted to celebrate our 100th anniversary with a portrait that showed what people were thinking and doing during the department's first 100 years, gave a snapshot of where we are now and offered some insight into where the field might be headed," said Guttag, who has taught at MIT since 1979.
In combination with other material, Penfield's essay, threading its way throughout the book, does all this handily. Composed of seven sections, "The Electron and the Bit" covers the prehistory of electrical engineering, its birth and coming-of-age, as well as the birth of computer science and its rush into adolescence.
Penfield knows his engineering history, and he's happy to name names-from Thomas Davenport, the Vermont blacksmith who got the first patent for any electrical machine in 1837, to Alexander Graham Bell, who demonstrated the first working telephone in 1876 using MIT's acoustical and electrical laboratory.
MIT, Penfield notes, was central to the dawn of the electrical age, founding the nation's first electrical engineering degree program in 1882 and establishing the EE department in 1902. Visionary scientists and educators, including Jackson, Charles R. Cross and Gordon S. Brown, developed a program based on a "no-nonsense approach intended to equip the students for 40 years, the full duration of an engineering career," Penfield writes.
Penfield's essay also outlines the educational revolution that followed World War II, when it became clear that neither science nor society would remain stable, creating new challenges to equipping engineers for 40-year careers.
"A hundred years ago, the department had a 'shop culture' that reflected the electrical industry at the time. Today, there is a more abstract, theoretical character to what we expect our students to know," Penfield notes.
Penfield, who has taught at MIT since 1960, summarizes the department's mission for its graduates as "apply known techniques, develop new techniques from known science and develop new engineering science." In addition, he writes, "Some of our graduates should be prepared to undertake a higher level of social responsibility."
Guttag's other goal for the department's celebratory book was to include the widest possible acknowledgement of what he called the "cohort effect," meaning the productivity among colleagues that flows from an ineffable yet profound mutual energy. Evidence of that effect can be seen in the chronologically arranged list of doctoral thesis titles and authors.
Two other features of "The Electron and the Bit" reflect the liveliness of the EECS community.
First, the book includes profiles of some of the intellectual giants who worked in EECS. Many of these are written with respect and affection by people who knew their subjects personally. Gerald Wilson, the Vannevar Bush Professor and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science as well as of mechanical engineering, knew Harold "Doc" Edgerton, whom he writes about in Part 3; Robert Fano, EECS professor emeritus, author of the profile of Ernst Guillemin, was once Guillemin's student; Robert Gallager, professor emeritus, knew Claude Shannon, the father of information theory; and Guttag, author of the profile of Professor Barbara Liskov, is her close colleague in EECS.
Second, each EECS faculty member and senior research staff member has included a brief summary of his or her favorite work in the section, "Abstracts of Favorite Publications." Anyone interested in the life and work of EECS at MIT and in a very personal view of the practice of science will enjoy this 35-page research buffet.
Here are lively abstracts of papers on aids for the deaf (Louis Braida), behavior-based robotics (Rodney Brooks), unclonable key cards (Srinivas Devadas), encryption (Ronald Rivest) and the design of living replacement cartilage (Alan Grodzinsky).
Here, too, are voices of senior faculty members expressing pride in their own work equally with gratitude to their MIT students. As Clifton Fonstad Jr., the Vitesse Professor of Electrical Engineering, wrote, he chose the paper he did because it embodies the "satisfaction a professor can experience from mentoring MIT graduate students and watching them develop into experts in their fields."
"The Electron and the Bit" is available for $40 through the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. For more information or to order a copy, please contact: Patricia A. Sampson, MIT EECS, Room 38-409G, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139-4307.