If you’re doing the laundry, driving to the supermarket, heating last night’s leftovers or watching your favourite series, you’re benefiting from innovations in electrical engineering (electricity, electronics and electromagnetism). And although it’s a relatively new discipline, it’s changed and continues to change the way we live, work, communicate and more. A broad and exciting field, it includes several sub-fields – from power and energy to telecommunications and computer engineering.
Electrical engineering has advanced leaps and bounds over the past two centuries. Here are just three significant inventions in its history.
While the actual inventor of the lightbulb may be up for debate, Thomas Edison is credited with creating the “first practical electric incandescent lamp” (si.edu). As one of the most important developments in history Interesting Engineering calls this invention a pivotal point in the electronic age – bringing added safety to the world’s streets at night.
TV technology has come a long way since John Logie Baird and Charles Francis Jenkins built the first successful televisions in Britain and the United States respectively (britannica.com). Since its invention, TV has taught, entertained, connected, marketed to and helped to shape society and culture more than we could possibly imagine. Today, there are TV sets in about 1.7 billion households worldwide.
Although the world wide web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, its foundations actually trace back to Claude Shannon – father of the 1940’s Information Theory. Since the internet was made publicly available in 1993, it’s increasingly harder to remember how we operated before its existence. It’s so much more than a tool. It’s a part of who we are: how we learn, how we remember, how we communicate, how we use a map, how we work, how we catch up on news and so much more. Over and above email, collaboration tools, search engines and social networking, the internet also allows us to switch on our stoves from the other side of the world, make huge leaps in big data and AI, and turn self-driving cars into a reality.
The impact of pioneering electrical engineers in history can still be felt today. Here’s a closer look at three extraordinary people who made a significant difference in their field.
Born 1791 in London, United Kingdom
Often referred to as the father of electrical engineering, chemist and physicist Michael Faraday is “one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century” despite receiving only a basic education. (britannica.com). As New Scientist explains, “Faraday developed the electric motor (in 1821) and then, a decade later, found that a magnet moving in a wire coil induced a current. In 1845, he formulated the cornerstone of modern physics, the field theory of electromagnetism.” As a chemist, Faraday also had a number of notable achievements: along with liquefying several gases, like chlorine and carbon dioxide, he also discovered the chemical compound benzene.
Born 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia
Such is the legacy of Nikola Tesla that Elon Musk named his electric car company after the Serbian American inventor and engineer. But that’s not the only testament to his enduring influence. There’s also an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to “Things named after Nikola Tesla”. He’s best known for designing the alternating-current (AC) electric system – the predominant electrical system we use across the world (biography.com). Tesla also developed “the underlying technology for wireless communication over long distances” and held around 300 patents for his inventions (smithsonianmag.com). Interesting Engineering calls Tesla “one of the most prolific inventors and engineers of the last couple of centuries”.
Born 1883 in Maryland, United States
A pioneer in more ways than one, Edith Clarke ticked off plenty of firsts in her lifetime. Not only was she the first woman to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT, she also became the first female professor of electrical engineering in the United States. During her career, she invented the Clarke Calculator, which “greatly simplified the calculations necessary to determine the electrical characteristics of long electrical transmission lines” (invent.org) and wrote the seminal textbook Circuit Analysis of A-C Power Systems. According to Scientific American, her innovative ideas have been called “the first steps toward ‘smart grid’ technology.”
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