A Passionate Proponent of Professional Ethics for Engineers

Walter Elden
Walter Elden

By: Kathy Pretz

THE INSTITUTE Since the 1970s, Walter Elden has been one of the staunchest supporters of providing professional ethics programs for IEEE members. The life senior member has been actively involved in encouraging the organization to offer ethics conduct enforcement, support, and resources.

Elden says he was inspired to take up the cause after several life-changing events. In one, he testified in a court case about the cause of a deadly mobile-home fire. There also was a forced resignation, as well as his participation in several legal cases IEEE was involved in regarding the duty engineers have to practice ethically.

Those events, he says, persuaded him to “get involved professionally in IEEE and support my fellow engineer members in practicing ethically and to protect the public from unsafe designs.”

Elden has had a long, successful career. He has worked on several large projects involving designing telemetry components for U.S.military equipment such as missiles, satellite launchers, high-altitude research balloons, and fighter jets.

He also has served on several IEEE ethics and industry-related standards committees.

FROM MUSICIAN TO ENGINEER

When Elden was growing up in Miami, music was his passion. He began taking formal violin lessons when he was 11. In junior high and high school, he served as a concertmaster, the violinist who relays the conductor’s ideas to the rest of the orchestra. His talent earned him a music scholarship to the University of Miami.

His goal was to become a music conductor for either a high school or college, he says, but the Korean War changed that. After one year at the university, Elden enlisted in the U.S.Navy in 1951. The Navy trained him in aviation electronics and sonar. After assisting a field engineer with installing and testing a new radar altimeter in planes, Elden decided to become an engineer.

“That experience convinced me to switch from music to engineering,” he said, “and to become educated in designing equipment, rather than just testing and maintaining it as a technician.”

After the war, Elden enrolled at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. While there he joined IEEE’s predecessor societies, the Institute of Radio Engineers and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

A course on engineering professionalism and ethics that Elden took in 1957 at the university persuaded him to become a licensed professional engineer because, he says, “That’s the mark of what an engineer should be like.” Professional engineers must perform under a standard of behavior that adheres to the highest principles of ethical conduct to protect the public, he says. He earned his PE license in Florida in 1974.

CAREER BEGINNINGS

Elden’s first job after graduating in 1958 with an electrical engineering degree with honors was as a systems engineer with The Martin Co., an aerospace manufacturer in Orlando. After two years there, Elden decided he wanted to get experience designing and developing electronics equipment, so he moved to Houston in 1960 to work for Dresser Electronics. There he developed one of the signal conditioning modules used to test the Minuteman missile. He took night classes at the University of Houston and in 1962 earned a master’s degree in electronics engineering.

He returned to Florida and rejoined Martin in 1966 for a few years. He then worked for several other companies including Dynatronix, Honeywell and NCR. He returned to Martin in 1971, then left in 1974. He says he was forced to resign “under coercion” for promoting professionalism and ethics to other engineers.

His last position was with Harris, in Melbourne, which he worked at from 1980 until retiring in 1996. In his final assignment, as a system architect, he worked on upgrading the U.S. Defense Department’s messaging system.

ETHICS CHAMPION

The 1970s were pivotal years for Elden’s involvement with ethics issues at work and at IEEE. He presented papers about professionalism, ethics, licensure, and product safety at major conferences. The IEEE Orlando (Fla.) Section named him Engineer of the Year in 1974 for his work on behalf of professional activities.

Later that year he was retained as a PE to investigate the cause of a mobile-home fire that killed two children. He testified as an expert witness.

That experience, he says, led him to have a greater respect for safety measures taken by engineers and manufacturers. To avoid causing harm to the public is their paramount duty, he says.

After Elden lost his job at Martin, he became active with IEEE’s Committee on Social Implications of Technology, which at the time was the group that tackled ethical dilemmas that IEEE members encountered. IEEE had modernized its Code of Ethics in response to a constitutional change in 1972. It added professional activities, allowing the committee to get involved with ethics issues tied to members’ professional activities. The code and the committee were put to the test in three prominent cases.

LANDMARK CASES

The first incident involved three IEEE members who were employed as engineers by the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, in California. The engineers had found safety discrepancies in the design of BART’s automatic train control system and brought the problems to their supervisor’s attention. Getting no results, they reported their concerns to upper management. That led to their firing, and they sued BART for damages.

IEEE’s Committee on Social Implications of Technology conducted its own investigation—led by its chair, IEEE Member Stephen Unger—which urged IEEE to intervene in the lawsuit. In early 1975 IEEE attorneys filed an amicus curiae brief. The brief argued that engineers, under the “public policy exception rule,” have an implied contract to the effect that they have an obligation to practice ethically. To be terminated for doing so would be a violation of the rule, the brief said. The case was settled out of court.

In 1978 Elden helped form the IEEE Member Conduct Committee, now part of the IEEE Ethics and Member Conduct Committee. The MCC was empowered to discipline members who violated IEEE’s Code of Ethics and to provide advice and ethical support to members whose employment was jeopardized for striving to uphold the code. In 1979 IEEE approved supporting Member Virginia Edgerton, an engineer who had been fired for striving to correct degradation in the New York City 911 system that resulted from the implementation of a new police dispatch system. She was not rehired, and the city did not acknowledge any problem with its 911 system, according to a 1979 article in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine.

The MCC accepted a case in 1988 involving Life Member Salvador Castro, who had found a design defect in one of his employer’s infant incubators and tried to get it corrected. The company refused to fix the flaw, and Castro was fired. The case is still in court in Pennsylvania.

CHANGES TO ETHICS ADVICE AND SUPPORT

IEEE established an Ethics Committee in the mid-1990s, then terminated it in 1998. In the early 2000s, the committee was later combined with the MCC to form the Ethics and Member Conduct Committee. But Elden says the EMCC lost a core power that the MCC had when in 1998 the IEEE Board of Directors terminated the Ethics Committee.

He has been working to strengthen the services ever since. In 2017, he, Unger and other IEEE members formed the Concerned Ethics Volunteers to present their concerns to IEEE leadership.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

In 2019 the IEEE Board of Directors approved an ad hoc committee on diversity, inclusion, and professional ethics. Its subcommittee on professional ethics has been working to streamline and merge all of IEEE organizational units’ various ethics and conduct codes into one. It also was tasked with developing training and outreach programs to raise awareness among members and volunteers about IEEE’s Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct.

Last year the Board of Directors approved a set of revisions to the ethics code—which included commitments to privacy and to not engage in harassment. This year the organization revised its reporting process for professional ethics violations.

CONTINUED ADVOCACY

Elden says he would like to see more done, and in 2018 proposed a list of recommendations.

He has spent the past several years compiling a history of IEEE’s ethics activities in a repository, which is housed in the Engineering and Technology History Wiki.

Now 89, Elden says he is ready to pass on the responsibility to younger members. After all, he notes, ethical dilemmas for engineers haven’t gone away. He cites recent instances such as the Volkswagen emissions scandal and the Boeing 737 Max disaster.

A proper ethical outlook is essential, he says, and young engineers’ “future careers depend on it.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 06 July 2021.