Electrical engineering

Electrical engineering
NamesElectrical engineer
Activity sectors
Electronics, Electrical circuit, Electromagnetics, Power engineering, Electrical Machines, Telecommunication
Competenciestechnical knowledge, management skills, design (see also Glossary of electrical and electronics engineering)
Fields of
technology, science, exploration, military, industry
Some electrical engineers design complex power systems on a macroscopic level.
Electrical engineers also design microscopic electronic devices and electronic circuitry, which achieved the record setting length of 1 nanometer for a single logic gate.[1]

Electrical engineering is a technical discipline concerned with the study, design and application of equipment, devices and systems which use electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism. It emerged as an identified activity in the latter half of the 19th century after commercialization of the electric telegraph, the telephone, and electrical power generation, distribution and use.

Electrical engineering is now divided into a wide range of fields including, computer engineering, power engineering, telecommunications, radio-frequency engineering, signal processing, instrumentation, and electronics. Many of these disciplines overlap with other engineering branches, spanning a huge number of specializations including hardware engineering, power electronics, electromagnetics and waves, microwave engineering, nanotechnology, electrochemistry, renewable energies, mechatronics, and electrical materials science. See glossary of electrical and electronics engineering.

Electrical engineers typically hold a degree in electrical engineering or electronic engineering. Practising engineers may have professional certification and be members of a professional body or an international standards organization. These include the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) (formerly the IEE). The IEC prepares international standards for electrical engineering, developed through consensus, thanks to the work of 20,000 electrotechnical experts, coming from 172 countries worldwide.

Electrical engineers work in a very wide range of industries and the skills required are likewise variable. These range from circuit theory to the management skills of a project manager. The tools and equipment that an individual engineer may need are similarly variable, ranging from a simple voltmeter to a top end analyzer to sophisticated design and manufacturing software.


Electricity has been a subject of scientific interest since at least the early 17th century. William Gilbert was a prominent early electrical scientist, and was the first to draw a clear distinction between magnetism and static electricity. He is credited with establishing the term "electricity".[2] He also designed the versorium: a device that detects the presence of statically charged objects. In 1762 Swedish professor Johan Wilcke invented a device later named electrophorus that produced a static electric charge. By 1800 Alessandro Volta had developed the voltaic pile, a forerunner of the electric battery.

19th century

The discoveries of Michael Faraday formed the foundation of electric motor technology

In the 19th century, research into the subject started to intensify. Notable developments in this century include the work of Hans Christian Ørsted who discovered in 1820 that an electric current produces a magnetic field that will deflect a compass needle, of William Sturgeon who, in 1825 invented the electromagnet, of Joseph Henry and Edward Davy who invented the electrical relay in 1835, of Georg Ohm, who in 1827 quantified the relationship between the electric current and potential difference in a conductor,[3] of Michael Faraday (the discoverer of electromagnetic induction in 1831), and of James Clerk Maxwell, who in 1873 published a unified theory of electricity and magnetism in his treatise Electricity and Magnetism.[4]

In 1782 Georges-Louis Le Sage developed and presented in Berlin probably the world's first form of electric telegraphy, using 24 different wires, one for each letter of the alphabet. This telegraph connected two rooms. It was an electrostatic telegraph that moved gold leafs through electrical conduction.

In 1795, Francisco Salva Campillo proposed an electrostatic telegraph system. Between 1803-1804, he worked on electrical telegraphy and in 1804, he presented his report at the Royal Academy of Natural Sciences and Arts of Barcelona. Salva's electrolyte telegraph system was very innovative though it was greatly influenced by and based upon two new discoveries made in Europe in 1800 – Alessandro Volta's electric battery for generating an electric current and William Nicholson and Anthony Carlyle's electrolysis of water.[5] Electrical telegraphy may be considered the first example of electrical engineering. Electrical engineering became a profession in the later 19th century. Practitioners had created a global electric telegraph network and the first professional electrical engineering institutions were founded in the UK and USA to support the new discipline. Francis Ronalds created an electric telegraph system in 1816 and documented his vision of how the world could be transformed by electricity.[6][7] Over 50 years later, he joined the new Society of Telegraph Engineers (soon to be renamed the Institution of Electrical Engineers) where he was regarded by other members as the first of their cohort.[8] By the end of the 19th century, the world had been forever changed by the rapid communication made possible by the engineering development of land-lines, submarine cables, and, from about 1890, wireless telegraphy.

Practical applications and advances in such fields created an increasing need for standardised units of measure. They led to the international standardization of the units volt, ampere, coulomb, ohm, farad, and henry. This was achieved at an international conference in Chicago in 1893.[9] The publication of these standards formed the basis of future advances in standardisation in various industries, and in many countries, the definitions were immediately recognized in relevant legislation.[10]

During these years, the study of electricity was largely considered to be a subfield of physics since the early electrical technology was considered electromechanical in nature. The Technische Universität Darmstadt founded the world's first department of electrical engineering in 1882. The first electrical engineering degree program was started at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the physics department under Professor Charles Cross, [11] though it was Cornell University to produce the world's first electrical engineering graduates in 1885.[12] The first course in electrical engineering was taught in 1883 in Cornell's Sibley College of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanic Arts.[13] It was not until about 1885 that Cornell President Andrew Dickson White established the first Department of Electrical Engineering in the United States.[14] In the same year, University College London founded the first chair of electrical engineering in Great Britain.[15] Professor Mendell P. Weinbach at University of Missouri soon followed suit by establishing the electrical engineering department in 1886.[16] Afterwards, universities and institutes of technology gradually started to offer electrical engineering programs to their students all over the world.

During these decades use of electrical engineering increased dramatically. In 1882, Thomas Edison switched on the world's first large-scale electric power network that provided 110 volts — direct current (DC) — to 59 customers on Manhattan Island in New York City. In 1884, Sir Charles Parsons invented the steam turbine allowing for more efficient electric power generation. Alternating current, with its ability to transmit power more efficiently over long distances via the use of transformers, developed rapidly in the 1880s and 1890s with transformer designs by Károly Zipernowsky, Ottó Bláthy and Miksa Déri (later called ZBD transformers), Lucien Gaulard, John Dixon Gibbs and William Stanley, Jr.. Practical AC motor designs including induction motors were independently invented by Galileo Ferraris and Nikola Tesla and further developed into a practical three-phase form by Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky and Charles Eugene Lancelot Brown.[17] Charles Steinmetz and Oliver Heaviside contributed to the theoretical basis of alternating current engineering.[18][19] The spread in the use of AC set off in the United States what has been called the War of Currents between a George Westinghouse backed AC system and a Thomas Edison backed DC power system, with AC being adopted as the overall standard.[20]

Modern developments

Guglielmo Marconi known for his pioneering work on long distance radio transmission

During the development of radio, many scientists and inventors contributed to radio technology and electronics. The mathematical work of James Clerk Maxwell during the 1850s had shown the relationship of different forms of electromagnetic radiation including possibility of invisible airborne waves (later called "radio waves"). In his classic physics experiments of 1888, Heinrich Hertz proved Maxwell's theory by transmitting radio waves with a spark-gap transmitter, and detected them by using simple electrical devices. Other physicists experimented with these new waves and in the process developed devices for transmitting and detecting them. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi began work on a way to adapt the known methods of transmitting and detecting these "Hertzian waves" into a purpose built commercial wireless telegraphic system. Early on, he sent wireless signals over a distance of one and a half miles. In December 1901, he sent wireless waves that were not affected by the curvature of the Earth. Marconi later transmitted the wireless signals across the Atlantic between Poldhu, Cornwall, and St. John's, Newfoundland, a distance of 2,100 miles (3,400 km).[21]

In 1897, Karl Ferdinand Braun introduced the cathode ray tube as part of an oscilloscope, a crucial enabling technology for electronic television.[22] John Fleming invented the first radio tube, the diode, in 1904. Two years later, Robert von Lieben and Lee De Forest independently developed the amplifier tube, called the triode.[23]

In 1920, Albert Hull developed the magnetron which would eventually lead to the development of the microwave oven in 1946 by Percy Spencer.[24][25] In 1934, the British military began to make strides toward radar (which also uses the magnetron) under the direction of Dr Wimperis, culminating in the operation of the first radar station at Bawdsey in August 1936.[26]

In 1941, Konrad Zuse presented the Z3, the world's first fully functional and programmable computer using electromechanical parts. In 1943, Tommy Flowers designed and built the Colossus, the world's first fully functional, electronic, digital and programmable computer.[27] 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 program which culminated in landing astronauts on the Moon.[28]

Solid-state electronics

A replica of the first working transistor.

The invention of the transistor in late 1947 by William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain of the Bell Telephone Laboratories 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.[29]

The microprocessor was introduced with the Intel 4004. It began with the "Busicom Project"[30] as Masatoshi Shima's three-chip CPU design in 1968,[31][30] before Sharp's Tadashi Sasaki conceived of a single-chip CPU design, which he discussed with Busicom and Intel in 1968.[32] The Intel 4004 was then developed as a single-chip microprocessor from 1969 to 1970, led by Intel's Marcian Hoff and Federico Faggin and Busicom's Masatoshi Shima.[30] The microprocessor led to the development of microcomputers and personal computers, and the microcomputer revolution.