60th Anniversary: History 60 - 30 - 15 years ago

Happy 60th, Control Engineering! Help us celebrate by looking at issues from 60, 30, and 15 years ago. Control Engineering magazine first published in September 1954. This monthly column in 2014 will review coverage in issues 60 (or 59), 30, and 15 years ago. While technologies have progressed since then, topics below (mathematics, automation, and acquisitions) remain relevant today.


Happy 60th, Control Engineering! Help us celebrate by looking at issues from 60, 30, and 15 years ago. Control Engineering magazine first published in September 1954. This monthly column in 2014 will review coverage in issues 60 (or 59), 30, and 15 years ago. While technologies have progressed since then, topics below (mathematics, automation, and acquisitions) remain relevant today. 

February 1955: Sibyl Rock puts digits to work, a control personality

Computers impress the layman with their apparent complexity. Their description as “brains” makes him fear for the dignity of man. But a chat with mathematician Sibyl Rock is enough to reassure him that computers are really simple and that they are our servants, never our masters. In 1954, Sibyl travelled over 30,000 miles to explain digital computers to engineers, researchers, and administrators in industrial processing plants; to guided missile engineers; to educators in our university centers; and to the uninitiated public. She finds that explanations in terms of everyday phenomena make the computers understandable by all.

February 1955 Control Engineering cover articles include “Where is electronics used in control?”, “Analyze control systems graphically,” “Regulate horsepower directly,” and “A broad look at analog computers.” Courtesy: CFE MediaSibyl has also learned that there is plenty of opportunity for women in the engineering professions. In frequent speeches to school and college groups, she urges able girls to take up mathematics as their life work. Her career demonstrates the rewards of ability.

February 1984: About automation: “We have good news, and we have bad news.”

From the special viewpoint of control engineers, it ought to be obvious to anyone that “automation” in its very essence is nothing more than practical application of feedback control techniques and theory—that is, of course, technology.

The bad news is that, to the world at large, automation seems to mean some vague “high-tech” application of computers and electronics, usually with images of anthropomorphic robots performing precision miracles of speed and position.

The visualization of robots is understandable, at least. In the kind of futuristic scenario given a false reality by Star Wars and its whole genre of copycat movies, the walking-talking human-like robot represents an ultimate achievement for high technology in the eyes of the lay observer.

On the other hand, the popular identification of automation with computers, and even with the less specific idea of “electronics,” is harder to understand, much less to accept. Nevertheless, there it is. The phenomenon seems explainable only as a special proof of Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that “the medium is the message,” with lessons for control engineers.

In both cases, the facts deny the popular perceptions. Neither computers nor electronics are necessary for automation, as control engineers we know well: the fact that both will be present in most future systems notwithstanding.

February 1999: Merger mania

Is bigger really better? Industrial controls suppliers seem to think so, as they continue a decade-long binge of merger mania.

Billion-dollar fish are swallowed by multibillion-dollar fish, with conglomerates moving farther up the food chain. The most recent acquisitions include ABB’s approved $2.1 billion bid for Elsag Bailey; Tyco International’s offer to buy AMP Inc. for $11.3 billion; and Siebe PLC’s (parent of Foxboro, Wonderware, Action Instruments, and Eurotherm) offer of $12.6 billion for BTR Group PLC.

As a testament to innovation, the most successful of small suppliers are usually acquired by the industry giants, often to have the original company founders leave the conglomerate to begin yet more start-up, technology-driven businesses.

And so the cycle continues: Innovation invites acquisition; acquisition creates wealth; wealth breeds more innovation.

- 2014 edits, by Jordan M. Schultz, associate content manager, CFE Media. 

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