Is Electrical Engineering Right For Me? (EP.3 - Where Did It Originate? Where Is It Going?)

Welcome to Episode 3 of my series for choosing an engineering discipline. The second discipline is electrical engineering! In this video I attempt to help students answer the question: is electrical engineering right for me? I start by exploring events where electrical engineering may originate from and end with where I think electrical engineering is going. My hopes are that this video will show potential students what electrical engineering is all about, what electrical engineering classes are like, and how electrical engineering has developed and evolved. So.. who should study / do electrical engineering? YOU, if you can appreciate how electrical engineering started, are excited by the courses you’ll take in school, and hopeful about the future of electrical engineering. 

01 | The History of Electrical Engineering

Around the 1600s, there lived a man by the name of William Gilbert. He was the physician for Queen Elizabeth I and published a very important and influential book titled De Magnete (or in English “The Magnet”). William Gilbert was one of the first experimental scientists and in his book he made a few key findings. The first finding was that the Earth itself was a magnet and he realized that was why compasses pointed north. The second important finding he made was the distinction between electricity and magnetism. He rubbed amber against various metals and realized that the metals were able to attract small objects like water droplets. This effect is due to the movement of loosely bound electrons and static electricity. But, William Gilbert also noticed that a magnet was different in that it only attracted materials containing iron. Gilbert also created the first electroscope, called the Versorium, which is a device that can detect electric charges. The Greek word for amber was elektron and so Gilbert referred to the attractive phenomena produced by static electricity as electricus which meant “like amber”. Electricus later on became the basis for the word electricity.  

Around the 1750’s a character by the name of Benjamin Franklin proved that lightning was in fact electricity. Around the same time he also discovered the conservation of charge. This principle is the same as the conservation of mass: charge cannot be created nor destroyed. Previously, electricity was thought to be comprised of two types of fluids: a positive one, and a negative one. If an object had positive fluid in it then it was positively charge. If an object had negative fluid in it then it was negatively charged. Instead, Benjamin Franklin suggested a single fluid theory. He believed that electricity was comprised of only one fluid and that too much of this fluid resulted in a positive charge and too little resulted in a negative charge. As a child you may have heard stories of Benjamin Franklin flying his kite during a storm and getting electrocuted. Although there are many different accounts of what the true story is, this experiment led Benjamin Franklin to invent the lightning rod. The lightning rod extends from tall buildings and conducts electricity towards it in order to protect buildings during storms.  

In 1799, Alessandro Volta created the first electrical battery known as the voltaic pile. The voltaic pile took chemical energy and converted it into electrical energy which is similar to the batteries that you know and love today. Before the electrical battery existed, there was the Leyden Jar. Leyden Jars could not provide a continuous source of energy and instead stored energy but could only discharge it all at once. But, Volta’s battery was the first that could provide a continuous source of energy! As you can tell, Volta was a very smart man and its not a surprise that a unit of electrical potential, the volt, was named after him.  

Now that people knew how to create a continuous supply of electrical energy, things were bound to change. In the year 1816 Francis Ronalds created the first electric telegraph. A telegraph was a device that used electricity in order to communicate a message. Ronalds believed that electricity had a lot of practical applications and that it could be used to benefit humanity. Ronalds telegraph was rejected and called unnecessary but it laid down the groundwork for future telegraphs. The telegraph most commonly known is the one created by Samuel Morse which used morse code.  

Jumping forward to 1831, a man by the name of Michael Faraday makes a huge discovery. He discovered that moving a magnet through a coiled loop of wire could create a current! This became known as electromagnetic induction. A man by the name of James Clerk Maxwell summarized Faraday’s findings mathetmatically which was a huge milestone in our knowledge of electricity and magnetism. Some claim that Mawell’s work was even more monumental than Newton’s laws! The James Clerk Maxwell foundation states that,

“Maxwell produced the first complete set of equations governing electricity and magnetism…”

Also, in his paper titled “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field” he stated that,

“…light and magnetism are affections of the same substance”.

He was also the first to summarize everything in terms of “fields” like electric and magnetic fields which was a huge paradigm shift. As we can see, Maxwell had really stumbled onto a great truth of the world that electricity and magnetism are two sides of the same coin. The work of Faraday and Maxwell opened up doors for the creation of electric motors and generators.  

Afterwards, we see that electricity really started to become a mainstream tool and not just confined to lab experiments. One of the first mainstream uses of electricity was the arc lamp which functioned as an early lightbulb and was used for street lights and even indoor lighting. But, it was not very good for indoor use, and was known to damage eyesight.  

Around 1879-1880, Thomas Edison created the first incandescent lightbulb. This lightbulb used what was known as Direct Current and was actually practical for indoor use. Direct current just means that the electrical current only moves in one direction and it was invented and popularized by Thomas Edison.  

BUT WAIT… people started to realize that Direct Current had a major drawback at the time. It could not be transmitted over long distances. A man by the name of Nikola Tesla created the first Alternating Current motor, or AC motor. Instead of moving in one direction, AC current has a back and fourth motion. An entrepreneur by the name of George Westinghouse got the patent for the AC motor from Tesla and began a “War of Currents” with Thomas Edison. People were debating which form of power was better: DC or AC? Eventually, AC ended up winning due to the fact that it could be transmitted over greater distances. 

In 1888, Heinrich Hertz proves that radio waves, AKA electromagnetic waves, do exist.  

Fast forward to 1902 and a man by the name of Guglielmo Marconi sends the first wireless radio message to travel overseas. His wireless telegraph used morse code and a fun fact, his telegraph was also used on The Titanic. Because of his technology, crews members on the ship were able to send emergency signals, and some people were able to survive the sinking of the titanic. But, the first audio radio message wasn’t sent until 1906 by Reginald Fessenden.  

Moving ahead to WW2 there were lots of advancements in radar and radio technology. As you can imagine, having strong navigational, and wireless communication technology was very important at the time because being able to communicate new intel within minutes or seconds made a huge difference in war. 

In 1946, the first electronic and programmable computer was created: the ENIAC. The ENIAC was able to perform calculations much faster than any human could and so as you can imagine the ability to calculate things faster, greatly increased our ability to produce new technology.  

In 1947, the transistor was invented which was a revolutionary device. A transistor is essentially a compact and electrical switch in almost all electronic devices. It can be either be switched into an on or off state. By combining multiple transistors computers are able to store information and make decisions. The invention of the transistor led to the invention of the microprocessor, which eventually lead to the development of the first personal computer - The ALTAIR 8800.  

As you can see, electrical engineering has evolved immensely and continues to. We went from not believing that we could produce electricity, to producing static electricity, to a continuous source of electricity. Through our curiosity we were able to learn more about the nature of electricity, and magnetism and how to harness these powers for our own benefit. We started to understand electricity and magnetism as a monumental force of nature like gravity. Electrical engineering is not just about electricity anymore but also about electromagnetic waves.  

02 | The Present of Electrical Engineering

Now let’s take a look at some of the areas you’ll study in school. The first is math. Namely, calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, and probability and statistics. Electrical engineering is usually referred to as the engineering discipline with the most mathematical courses. The next area is communications. Communications is the study of how information is transmitted. Then there is controls. In controls you learn how to CONTROL how a system will behave. An example would be learning how to devise a system where a tank fills with water up until a certain limit and then stops. The next area is signals and systems. Here you will learn to take signals (which is just a broad term for information), analyze them, and extract useful data. Then there is the study of electronics. This is the study of electronic components, and how to use them to design parts of various electrical devices like circuits, microprocessors, and micro controllers. Then there is power. Power is the study of how to generate, transmit, supply, distribute, and use electrical power. 

03 | The Future of Electrical Engineering

Now lets take a look at some of the future possibilities of electrical engineering. Like mechanical engineering, I believe that there will be a lot of hybridization in the future of electrical engineering. 

The first area of interest is biomedical engineering. Electrical engineers are figuring out how to use electricity, electronics, and electrical systems for biomedical applications. An example, of a really cool application is the ability for people to FEEL touch on prosthetic limbs. Something like this would be done by stimulating electrical impulses onto the brain.  

The next area of interest is of course alternative energy. Electrical engineers will play a massive role in determining how to store, transmit, and distribute energy from solar panels and wind farms. They will also play an interesting role in realizing how alternative energy can replace fossil fuels such as in electric cars. 

The next cool field is automation or mechatronics. Our world is definitely heading towards more and more automation. Electrical engineers will play a big role in creating the electrical circuits, and devices that will allow various things to be automated.  

The next obvious field is electronics. Consumers are constantly looking for smaller, thinner, sleeker, cost effective, and efficient electronics. Electrical engineers will play a huge role in making this a reality. 

Then there is SMART technology. The world is becoming more and more driven by data. The collection of data, and use of data is a huge part of the new world. Electrical engineers will play a large role in making everyday technologies “smart”. For example, lights will eventually be connected to a cloud system where they can transmit data that they collect. Store owners can see where most of their customers are walking and how they can reorganize and optimize their store layout in order to increase profits. This line of thinking won’t stop at just lights. The world is heading towards SMART cities as well. Imagine if the government could collect and analyze data on the most congested streets. They could use this information in order to plan out new roads and highways that can aid the problem.  

The final field is virtual reality and augmented reality. Virtual reality and augmented reality are increasingly becoming prevalent in today’s society. Electrical engineers will help make this technology more immersive, realistic, safe , and effective.

What do you electrical engineering right for you?