Many people know Paul Madren of Mount Airy as a master craftsman beekeeper (one of only 12 in the state), but in a “previous life” he helped bring electronics into the modern digital world that exists today.
That role has been recognized through Madren’s recent induction into the alumni Hall of Fame for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at N.C. State University, where he graduated in 1959 with a B.S. degree in electrical engineering.
Closer to home, the retiree now in his 80s also was honored for his engineering accomplishments during the last meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.
Madren, who worked for IBM (International Business Machines), is one of 12 N.C. State electrical and computer engineering graduates tapped for the 2017 class of the ECE Alumni Hall of Fame now in its third year. He is among a select number chosen, given that there are more than 15,000 ECE alumni.
The Hall of Fame honors and celebrates “outstanding graduates” in electrical and computer engineering who have used their education to excel in a profession or career field and made “groundbreaking contributions” in the study of those areas.
In Madren’s case, he has been at the cutting edge of innovations that affected television and telephone communications, NASA broadcasts from the moon and other breakthroughs, according to biographical information cited by city officials.
Along the way, Mayor David Rowe mentioned when recognizing Madren at the council meeting, the local engineer even met computer industry giants Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. This occurred while Madren was evaluating operating systems for the original 1981 IBM personal computer.
Bridging the gap
Madren grew up near Ossipee, a town in Alamance County, and earned a certificate in electrical technology from Morehead City Technical Institute. After joining the U.S. Air Force, he served in Korea from 1952-53 before enrolling at N.C. State in 1955.
“I was always interested in electricity and that sort of thing,” Madren explained Thursday. “The thing I really wanted to do was go to State and work in electronics.”
His senior project at N.C. State was a specialized circuit. “That’s the last time I worked with vacuum tubes,” he said of a technology that Thomas Edison had used in the late 1800s.
Madren’s 40-year engineering career coincided with a transition from old to new electronics and digital systems, and he personally provided bridges for that transition:
• Within a year after graduating from N.C. State, he was designing transistor circuits for Bendix Radio while the company was constructing its first transistor plant. Madren received a patent for a 100 Mhz (megahertz) analog-to-digital converter.
• At Raytheon, a major weapons and military/commercial electronics manufacturer, Madren designed timing mechanisms that were an essential part of the first electrocardiogram.
• He also worked on converting analog and digital TV signals during that time, which enabled live broadcasts of NASA astronauts’ moon landings. This was a foundation for the 1990s conversion of analog TV broadcasting to digital.
• While at IBM between 1963 and 1990, Madren designed interfaces that connected office typewriters with other business machines. He also worked on interfaces for high-speed data telecom circuits and helped develop an early voice-recognition system that led to the 411 program used today.
• Also during his tenure with IBM, Madren acted as a liaison to the Federal Communications Commission and U.S. State Department on national and international telecom standards and served on and sometimes chaired industry standards groups.
The biggest highlight of his career was receiving the patent in the early 1960s, due to its significance in helping to launch a trend of “the whole world changing from analog to digital,” Madren said Thursday. “That sort of pulled me into everything I did.”
Madren retired from IBM in 1990 and moved to Mount Airy in 2002. He is the father of three children, with his wife Margaret deceased, and has five grandchildren.
The recent inductee is a member of First Baptist Church in Mount Airy and the Surry Sunrise Rotary Club.
Madren’s engineering work did not prevent him from keeping bees, a hobby he has had since 1960.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.