Tag Archives: donald n. heirman

Taming Electricity: A Purdue Student’s Career in Electromagnetic Compatibility

Electricity, or the flow of electric charge, is arguably the most important invention behind the spectacular advancement in technology witnessed over the last century. It has truly revolutionized our lives on planet Earth, and the way we explore other worlds in the universe. Today, as we sit in our comfortable climate-controlled buildings talking to people on the other side of the globe, we take electricity for granted. We also tend to overlook the hard work of countless engineers and scientists for harnessing the power of electricity. Donald Heirman is one such electrical engineer who worked on some fundamental problems in electrical circuits.

The EMC "can of worms"

The EMC “can of worms”

One interesting problem faced by engineers early on was the relationship between electricity and magnetism: they are intertwined, each is a by-product of the other. When an electrical circuit is powered up, it produces a magnetic field. This can create “disturbance” in a nearby (or even in the same) circuit, and cause performance degradation. If this seems too technical, recall experiencing cross-talk on a 90’s landline telephone, or static noise-lines on a TV. The phenomenon is known as Electromagnetic Interference (EMI), and becomes of greater concern as electronic devices shrink in size. Lots of electrical components are in close proximity of each other, and hence prone to electromagnetic interference.

Mr. Heirman working in a "noise-free" environment c.1979

Mr. Heirman working in a “noise-free” environment c.1979

“Taming” electricity is hard work but vital for the smooth functioning of our modern lives. That is exactly what Donald Heirman dealt with during his career at AT&T spanning more than three decades. Having graduated with BS (1962) and MS (1963) degrees in EE from Purdue, Mr. Heirman joined AT&T Bell Labs as a young electrical engineer. Over the years, he worked on some of the most important and exciting projects at AT&T including the development of an Open Area Test Site facility, and a Transverse Electromagnetic (TEM) cell for the Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) analysis of devices. His work focused on electromagnetic interference testing and compliance, and stretched to a range of systems including computer processors, early telephone systems, antennae, road vehicles, and medical devices. Mr. Heirman was also the founding manager of Lucent Technologies (Bell Labs) Global Product Compliance Laboratory. In this role, he was in charge of the company’s major EMC and regulatory test facility, and its participation in national and international EMC standardization committees.

Mr. Heirman started his EMC career at a time when there were few legal limits on EM emissions from electronic devices (the FCC did not have EMC standards for electronic devices until 1979). His passion led him to join (and later lead) international efforts towards EMC standardization. He continues to work with all major national and international standards organizations including ANSI, IEEE and IEC. His many contributions to global electro-technical standardization in the field of EMC have been acknowledged in the form of some of the highest awards in the area.

Click to see the Bicycle Water Race c.1961

Click to see the Bicycle Water Race c.1961

Mr. Heirman’s papers (http://collections.lib.purdue.edu/heirman/) provide a fascinating peek into the life and career of an EMC engineer. In addition, the papers offer an unparalleled insight into the history and evolution of EMC standards. The collection also includes some of Mr. Heirman’s amateur videos showcasing life at Purdue University during the early 1960’s. These videos are a rare glimpse of some of the events (sports at Purdue, the Purdue grand prix, ground breaking of the Purdue Airport, and the 1961 visit of President Eisenhower), and traditions (pie throwing, Iron Key, bicycle water race) at Purdue University. The video clip on the right shows just one such tradition (now forgotten): the bicycle water race.

Mr. Heirman currently runs a training and consulting business by the name of Don HEIRMAN Consultants. He continues to be a key player and educator in the field of EMC. His papers are part of the Donald N. Heirman Collection in the Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center at Purdue Libraries. The collection is open for research.

A Tragic Telegram and a Goofy Movie

Last year, near the anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, I started digging. It was a momentous occasion–Earhart is one of the more famous historical figures who spent time at Purdue and whose life is documented in our collections. I was searching our databases, looking for some materials from around the time of Earhart’s round-the-world flight. Often if I find something interesting, I will share it with our followers on Twitter. As I scanned the list of search results, I came across this:


I wasn’t prepared for it. The telegram, sent from George Putnam, Earhart’s husband, responding to his son, David Binney Putnam, was sent shortly after contact was lost with Earhart’s plane. It reads: “THANKS DEAR BOY IT HELPS THERES PLENTY OF HOPE YET LOVE DAD.”

When I read it, I felt a sense of dread sinking into me. Knowing that Amelia was not coming back–ever–made George’s hopes all the more tragic. But reading this note, with its short, desperate prose, and knowing that it was just a family thing in that moment, between father and son and an absent stepmother, gave the document a sacred quality. I shouldn’t be reading this. I wasn’t meant to read this. But why feel this way? It’s history. It’s public.

History is often interesting to read about from a distance. We can reflect on how day-to-day life has changed since a famous person’s time, such as Earhart’s heyday of the 1920s-30s. We can joke around about silly fashion and customs from the past. The past is removed from us; we don’t have access to it, so it feels foreign and alien and often quite backwards. We cannot understand why, for example, Purdue students used to race around Memorial Mall on tricycles while people threw buckets of water at them. It makes no sense.

But some things make too much sense. And its in those moments of discovery, when history recorded in writing or film becomes less distant. It comes closer to our own experience as people and becomes less alien. It’s someone we know. It’s how we feel now. For all its strangeness, the tricycle water-bucket race does appeal to a certain sense of goofy fun. The people in the film look like they’re having a good time–and why not? They’re racing around a circle or throwing buckets of water on people. It’s not just hilarious because it’s strange; it’s hilarious because it looks like it might be fun to do.

George’s letter to David about Amelia made sense. The hope still hanging over both of them, the hope that she might show up, somewhere, adrift in the sea, or stranded on an island–a little worse for wear, but still smiling–that hope made more sense than anything. If you’ve ever lost someone, you know about hope. And you might have also felt that same sense of sinking dread I did when you read the telegram, knowing she didn’t come back. That the hope was disappointed. And in that moment, Amelia Earhart wasn’t just a famous missing person. Not just a feminist role model. She was more than her ideals or legend. She was someone like you or me.


And we lost her.

This year marks the 78th anniversary of Earhart’s final flight.  For me, that short telegram reveals so much of the power of history and the importance of preservation. History research does more than just generate academic knowledge and understanding–all of which is important, good, and necessary for our society. It is notes like George’s that tell us what history can be: a moment of human connection transcending time.

The telegram can be viewed online with other materials from the time of the initial search for Earhart’s plane.  These materials are within the full George Putnam Palmer Collection of Amelia Earhart papers, as well as the Amelia Earhart at Purdue Collection, and can be viewed in Archives and Special Collections digital repository e-Archives.