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This article details the history of electrical engineering. Topics also included are the general developments and notable individuals within the electrical engineering profession.


Ancient developments

ca. 460 BCE to ca. 370 BCE
From him, the beginning of Physics as we understand it today.

Thales of Miletus, an ancient Greek philosopher, writing at around 600 BCE, described a form of static electricity, noting that rubbing fur on various substances, such as amber, would cause a particular attraction between the two. He noted that the amber buttons could attract light objects such as hair and that if they rubbed the amber for long enough they could even get a spark to jump.

At around 450 B.C. Democritus, a later Greek philosopher, developed an atomic theory that was remarkably similar to our modern atomic theory. His mentor, Leucippus, is credited with this same theory. The hypothesis of Leucippus and Democritus held everything to be composed of atoms. But these atoms, called "atomos", were indivisible, and indestructible. He presciently stated that between atoms lies empty space, and that atoms are constantly in motion. He was incorrect only in stating that atoms come different sizes and shapes. Each object had its own shaped and sized atom.[1][2]

An object found in Iraq in 1938, dated to about 250 BCE and called the Baghdad Battery, resembles a galvanic cell and is believed by some to have been used for electroplating in Mesopotamia, although this has not yet been proven.

19th century developments

Michael Faraday, detail from portrait by Thomas Phillips c1841-1842 [3]

In the 19th century, the subject of electrical engineering, with the tools of modern research techniques, started to intensify. Notable developments in this century include the work of Georg Ohm, who in 1827 quantified the relationship between the electric current and potential difference in a conductor, Michael Faraday, the discoverer of electromagnetic induction in 1831, and James Clerk Maxwell, who in 1873 published a unified theory of electricity and magnetism in his treatise on Electricity and Magnetism.[4] In the 1830s, Georg Ohm also constructed an early electrostatic machine. The homopolar generator was developed first by Michael Faraday during his memorable experiments in 1831. It was the beginning of modern dynamos — that is, electrical generators which operate using a magnetic field. The invention of the industrial generator, which didn't need external magnetic power in 1866 by Werner von Siemens made a large series of other inventions in the wake possible. In 1878, the British inventor James Wimshurst developed an apparatus that had two glass disks mounted on two shafts (ed. it was not till 1883 that the Wimshurst machine was more fully reported to the scientific community).

Thomas Edison built the world's first large-scale electrical supply network

During the latter part of the 1800s, the study of electricity was largely considered to be a subfield of physics. It was not until the late 19th century that universities started to offer degrees in electrical engineering. In 1882, Darmstadt University of Technology founded the first chair and the first faculty of electrical engineering worldwide. In the same year, under Professor Charles Cross, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began offering the first option of Electrical Engineering within a physics department.[5] In 1883, Darmstadt University of Technology and Cornell University introduced the world's first courses of study in electrical engineering and in 1885 the University College London founded the first chair of electrical engineering in the United Kingdom. The University of Missouri subsequently established the first department of electrical engineering in the United States in 1886.[6]

During this period work in the area increased dramatically. In 1882 Edison switched on the world's first large-scale electrical supply network that provided 110 volts direct current to fifty-nine customers in lower Manhattan. In 1887 Nikola Tesla filed a number of patents related to a competing form of power distribution known as alternating current. In the following years a bitter rivalry between Tesla and Edison, known as the "War of Currents", took place over the preferred method of distribution. AC eventually replaced DC for generation and power distribution, enormously extending the range and improving the safety and efficiency of power distribution.

Nikola Tesla made long-distance electrical transmission networks.

The efforts of the two did much to further electrical engineering—Tesla's work on induction motors and polyphase systems influenced the field for years to come, while Edison's work on telegraphy and his development of the stock ticker proved lucrative for his company, which ultimately became General Electric.

However, by the end of the 19th century, other key figures in the progress of electrical engineering were beginning to emerge.[7] Charles Proteus Steinmetz helped foster the development of alternating current that made possible the expansion of the electric power industry in the United States, formulating mathematical theories for engineers.

Modern developments

Emergence of radio and electronics

Beginning of the 20th century

During the development of radio, many scientists and inventors contributed to radio technology and electronics. In his classic UHF experiments of 1888, Heinrich Hertz transmitted (via a spark-gap transmitter) and detected radio waves using electrical equipment. In 1895, Nikola Tesla was able to detect signals from the transmissions of his New York lab at West Point (a distance of 80.4 km) [8]. In 1896, Alexander Popov made wireless transmissions across 60 m and Guglielmo Marconi, around the same time, made a transmission across 2.4 km. John Fleming invented the first radio tube, the diode, in 1904.

Reginald Fessenden recognized that a continuous wave needed to be generated to make speech transmission possible, and he continued the work of Nikola Tesla, John Stone Stone, and Elihu Thomson on this subject. By the end of 1906, Fessenden sent the first radio broadcast of voice. Also in 1906, Robert von Lieben and Lee De Forest independently developed the amplifier tube, called the triode.[9] Edwin Howard Armstrong enabling technology for electronic television, in 1931.[10]

Second World War years

A fifty foot dish Antenna of an 3 kW C-band Radar. Kennedy Space Center. Tracks the space shuttle and tracks expendable launch vehicles.

The second world war saw tremendous advances in the field of electronics; especially in RADAR and with the invention of the magnetron by Randall and Boot at the University of Birmingham in 1940. Radio location, radio communication and radio guidance of aircraft were all developed in Britain at this time. An early electronic computing device, Colossus was built by Tommy Flowers of the GPO to decipher the coded messages of the German Lorenz cipher machine. Also developed at this time were advanced clandestine radio transmitters and receivers for use by secret agents. An American invention at the time was a device to scramble the telephone calls between Churchill and Roosevelt. This was called the Green Hornet system and worked by inserting noise into the signal. The noise was then extracted at the receiving end. This system was never broken by the Germans. A great amount of work was undertaken in the United States as part of the War Training Program in the areas of radio direction finding, pulsed linear networks, frequency modulation, vacuum tube circuits, transmission line theory and fundamentals of electromagnetic engineering. These studies were published shortly after the war in what became known as the 'Radio Communication Series' published by McGraw hill 1946. In 1941 Konrad Zuse presented the Z3, the world's first fully functional and programmable computer.[11]

Post war developments

circa. 1947 to 1955 ENIAC in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as Glen Beck (background) and Betty Snyder (foreground) program the ENIAC in BRL building 328

Prior to the second world war the subject was commonly known as 'radio engineering' and basically was restricted to aspects of communications and RADAR, commercial radio and early television. At this time, study of radio engineering at universities could only be undertaken as part of a physics degree.

Later, in post war years, as consumer devices began to be developed, the field broadened to include modern TV, audio systems, Hi-Fi and latterly computers and microprocessors. In 1946 the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) of John Presper Eckert and John Mauchly followed, beginning the computing era. The arithmetic performance of these machines allowed engineers to develop completely new technologies and achieve new objectives, including the Apollo missions and the NASA moon landing.[12]

The invention of the transistor in 1947 by William B. Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain opened the door for more compact devices and led to the development of the integrated circuit in 1958 by Jack Kilby and independently in 1959 by Robert Noyce.[13] In the mid to late 1950s, the term radio engineering gradually gave way to the name electronics engineering, which then became a stand alone university degree subject, usually taught alongside electrical engineering with which it had become associated due to some similarities. In 1968 Marcian Hoff invented the first microprocessor at Intel and thus ignited the development of the personal computer. The first realization of the microprocessor was the Intel 4004, a 4-bit processor developed in 1971, but only in 1973 did the Intel 8080, an 8-bit processor, make the building of the first personal computer, the Altair 8800, possible.[14]


  1. ^ Russel, Bertrand (1972). A History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster. pp.64-65.
  2. ^ Barnes, Jonathan.(1987). Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin.
  3. ^ [1] National Portrait gallery NPG 269
  4. ^ ""Ohm, Georg Simon", "Faraday, Michael" and "Maxwell, James Clerk"" (11 ed.). 1911.  
  5. ^ Weber, Ernst; Frederik Nebeker (1994). The Evolution of Electrical Engineering: A Personal Perspective. IEEE Press. ISBN 0-7803-1066-7.  
  6. ^ Ryder, John; Donald Fink (1984). Engineers and Electrons. IEEE Press. ISBN 0-87942-172-X.  
  7. ^ "History". National Fire Protection Association. Retrieved January 19, 2006.   (published 1996 in the NFPA Journal)
  8. ^ Leland Anderson, "Nikola Tesla On His Work With Alternating Currents and Their Application to Wireless Telegraphy, Telephony, and Transmission of Power", Sun Publishing Company, LC 92-60482, ISBN 0-9632652-0-2 (ed. excerpts available online)
  9. ^ "History of Amateur Radio". What is Amateur Radio?. Retrieved January 18, 2006.  
  10. ^ "History of TV". Retrieved January 18, 2006.  
  11. ^ "The Z3". Retrieved January 18, 2006.  
  12. ^ "The ENIAC Museum Online". Retrieved 2006-01-18.  
  13. ^ "Electronics Timeline". Greatest Engineering Achievements of the Twentieth Century. Retrieved January 18, 2006.  
  14. ^ "Computing History (1971 - 1975)". Retrieved January 18, 2006.  


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