The History of Electrical Engineering

How Far We have Come

The History of Electrical Engineering


Electrical engineers are saddled with a lot of responsibility in today’s world of rapidly advancing technologies.They are tasked with designing, developing, and testing electrical equipment and systems. From smartphones to supercomputers, electrical engineers are deeply involved in every step of the engineering process. But what is electrical engineering?

The definition of electrical engineering is different depending on who you ask. Electrical engineers would agree that it is the branch of engineering that deals with the technology of electricity, of course, but it is so much more than that. On a fundamental level, electrical engineers combine the physics and mathematics of electricity, electromagnetism, and electronics and apply them to information processing and energy transmission.

The discipline of electrical engineering is young—less than 200 years old—but rapid advances have been made in such a short time. Developments are being made so quickly that what some considered to be years away have become reality, giving electrical engineering a fascinating history. How the discipline has evolved into what it is today may shock you.

To understand the history of electrical engineering, look first to the history of electricity. Humanity’s records of the origins of electricity, however, are inadequate at best. Humanity knew about electric eels and lightning, for example, but how electricity was generated remained out of reach. Although the history of electricity is full of unknowns, most people agree that Michael Faraday, a British chemist and physicist, played a large part establishing electrical engineering as a field of study..

The father of electrical engineering: Michael Faraday

Born in 1791, Michael Faraday, did not receive a traditional scientific education. He became an apprentice to a bookbinder, where he learned about scientific subjects from the books he bound. As he gained an interest in science, he started to attend scientific lectures. He was especially interested in electricity, galvanism, and mechanics. Eventually, he attended four lectures given by Humphry Davy, which marked the start of his scientific career.

In 1814, Faraday travelled throughout Europe with Davy for 18 months, meeting many scientists and developing his scientific knowledge along the way. Upon his return, he worked on chemical experiments with Davy for several years before he published his research on electromagnetic rotation, which is the principle behind the electric motor, in 1821. This moment, perhaps, was the birth of the electrical engineering discipline.

It took ten long years before Faraday did much more significant work with electricity. In 1831, he discovered electromagnetic induction, which is the principle behind the electric transformer and generator. He proved that a magnet could induce an electrical current in a wire, where he converted mechanical energy into electrical energy. This discovery showed that electricity had enormous potential for technological development. It didn’t have to be confined to a lab any longer.

Faraday died in 1867, having made many contributions to the world of electricity. His work serves as the basis for electrical engineering, as the fundamental principles he discovered are still in use today.

Recognizing electrical engineering as a field of study

Although the study of electricity was originally considered to be a part of physics, electrical engineering eventually branched into its own discipline. In 1883, the world’s first School of Electrical Engineering was established at the Technische Universität Darmstadt. Other schools followed suit in providing an education to budding electrical engineers, and the field continued to expand.

Since electricity was becoming increasingly influential in society, an organization to support those in electrical professions was formed in 1884. This organization was known as the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. In 1963, this organization merged with the Institute of Radio Engineers (formed in 1912) to form the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which today is the world’s largest technical professional organization. 

Advancements in electrical engineering

Great advancements have been made in electrical engineering since the School of Electrical Engineering was established in Darmstadt. Since then, radar, smartphones, and computers have all been invented. Faraday would be astonished!

Vast improvements in electronic technologies have also been made, like with the television. When they were invented in the 1920s, televisions had small screens, could only show images in black and white, and only the wealthy could afford them. Today, television screens are massive. They can show lush colors in stunning resolution and are more affordable than ever.

The history of electrical engineeringOther major advancements in electrical engineering include Wi-Fi, lasers, microwave ovens, and smart home products. Electrical engineering has come a long way since Faraday’s time!

The world would cease to function as it does today without electrical engineers. Global positioning systems are a great example of their contributions. Electrical engineers helped to develop the components for these systems and make them resilient enough to withstand years of use. Without their contributions, your smartphone wouldn’t know your location, and you couldn’t track the location of your Amazon packages. The next time you use anything electronic, be sure to thank an electrical engineer.

Recent innovations in electrical engineering

Electrical engineering is a constantly evolving field, and continues to produce incredibly innovative products. Being able to check the contents of a refrigerator while on vacation? Boots that can provide workers with alerts of unsafe environmental conditions? Having food delivered by drone? What were dreams a decade ago are now realities.

The discipline will continue to evolve at a breakneck pace. Processing power will continue to improve, allowing for smaller, faster, more innovative devices to be produced. Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors that can be packed onto a microchip doubles every two years, allows for processing power to grow exponentially. Microchips that could host fewer than 100,000 transistors in the 1970s can today host more than 50 billion.

The future of electrical engineering

In an increasingly technological world, electrical engineers are more in demand than ever. They will be called upon to provide innovative engineering solutions for diverse industries, such as telecommunications, automobile, and renewable energy. Luckily, electrical engineers are more than up to the challenge!