Perpetuating mistakes

One of my pet peeves are inaccuracies in textbooks, especially college textbooks that I use in my work. As a professor, I don’t appreciate being put into a situation where I must contradict something stated in the textbook. Not only does this confuse my students (who must decide which “version” of the facts to consider when studying for a test) but more importantly, it has the effect of perpetuating mistakes into the accepted literature of a discipline.

That’s why I’m rather disappointed in John Vivian’s latest version of “The Media of Mass Communication.” I really like the textbook, and will likely continue to use it, partly because I like the presentation, partly because I like the ancillaries, and partly because I’m used to it. But each time I read this text, I find little things that I know to be inaccurate, things that I must either ignore, or make a special effort to explain to my students why they should believe me rather than the text.

Take, for example, an error I had pointed out to John Vivian years ago in an e-mail message (to which he never replied). In every edition of this text I have used, Vivian continues to make reference to a “Joseph Maxwell of Bell Laboratories” who perfected an “electrical system” for recording sound in the 1920s. Unfortunately, the Bell Lab engineer responsible for this achievement was named Joseph Maxfield, not Joseph Maxwell. There are numerous documents that are freely available in libraries and on the internet that use the correct name; see, for example, this excellent interview of Joseph Maxfield from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Was this just a typo? Perhaps, but why was this typo perpetuated over several editions of this textbook? Why didn’t Vivian, or one of his reviewers, or his editor, or the publisher, bother to correct this? I’m not sure, but it isn’t because I haven’t tried. In addition to my e-mails to the author, I mentioned this to a representative from the publisher who visited my office a couple of years ago. I’ve even offered to serve on the review board for this text, so that I could help correct this and other inaccuracies in the text. But so far my complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

I have a theory. Somewhere in the back of John Vivian’s memory is the juxtaposition of two names: Joseph Maxfield and James Clerk Maxwell. While both names are important in engineering history, they are two different individuals that made two different contributions in two different centuries. Maxwell, a 19th century Scottish scientist, developed a highly influential theory of electromagnetic energy that was the basis for many subsequent advances in the use of radio waves. Maxfield, on the other hand, was a 20th century American engineer who developed (along with Henry Harrison) the “Orthophonic,” an electrical system of recording sound that offered much greater frequency bandwidth than did earlier acoustical systems. (See this article from Mix for more details on this technology.)

Perhaps Vivian got these two names mixed up in his notes for this textbook, and the mistake never got caught. The review board for this textbook, however, is quite extensive, and includes a number of widely-respected academics. You would think at least one of them might have caught this mistake. You would hope that at least one other professor who uses this widely-adopted text would also have brought this to the author’s attention.

Or…perhaps I am the only one who cares about this. At least I can blog about it, and perhaps somewhere, someone, will take note.

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