Chances are, you take for granted your ability to easily detect the presence of static electricity. But before the advent of the 17th Century, nobody had shag carpeting or electric dryers – so finding static electricity wasn’t as easy as scuffing your feet across the floor and touching a doorknob. Fortunately, the father of modern electrical engineering services was able to solve that problem.
That man was William Gilbert – possibly the world’s very first electrical engineer. He invented the versorium – essentially a metal needle mounted on a base, and able to spin freely. The versorium could distinguish between charged and non-charged objects; it would spin toward charged objects, letting the user know that they were carrying some amount of static electricity.
(While you’re unlikely to find a versorium in the toolbox of a common electrical engineer, it was the precursor to the electroscope, a device that same electrical engineer uses to detect the magnitude of an electric charge.)
Despite a few important discoveries in the intervening years, electrical engineering didn’t grow much as a discipline until the 19th Century, when scientists like George Ohm and Michael Faraday made new observations and developed new theories. Then, in the late 1800s, the legendary “War of Currents” pit electrical engineer against electrical engineer, colleague against colleague, and scientist against scientist.
Thomas Edison, famed for inventing the light bulb and the phonograph, embraced the standard method of direct-current, or DC, power distribution. Produced by batteries and dynamos, DC describes the unidirectional flow of an electrical charge. But George Westinghouse, the electrical engineer who built a fortune by making improvements to America’s railroad system, threw his weight (and his money) behind the development of a power network based on alternating current, or AC, a more efficient transmission method whose magnitude changes cyclically.
In the end, alternating current won the battle. Edison even recanted near the end of his life.
Also on the AC side was Nikola Tesla, one of the most eccentric and prolific electrical engineers in history. Tesla, whose work formed the basis of AC power, is one of the most admired pioneers in electrical engineering. Because of his showmanship, his probable obsessive-compulsive disorder (he was obsessed with pigeons and the number three), and unique inventions, Tesla has become a fixture in modern films, comic books and science fiction works, including the 2006 film The Prestige – possibly the most successful film to feature a world-famous electrical engineer in a supporting role.
In the 20th Century, electrical engineering, like many technologies, expanded by leaps and bounds. By 1900, the radio was already in common use (thanks in large part to Tesla), and developments over the next few decades made radio even more useful. Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the telegraph, made radio useful worldwide, developing the first transatlantic radio transmissions. During and after World War II, radio became more prevalent in communications and guidance.
The rest is history. The development of the integrated circuit in 1958 led to the advent of electronic engineering, after which came the personal computer, the microprocessor, and a variety of signal and control systems.
And it all started with a device that measured static electricity.