7 Famous Electrical Engineers
The modern era of electricity as a public utility began only as the result of the confluence of many economic, technical, and social factors — not to mention the great talents of some of the most creative and enterprising engineers to ever live.
Today, electrical engineering pioneers are developing amazing new technologies that touch on every aspect of business, communication, and leisure. Let’s remember the lives and works of 7 great electrical engineers of the past:
Alexander Graham Bell
As electrical engineering began to mature as a discipline, many pioneers in the field began their careers as telegraph operators. Born in 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Bell was drawn to this technology early on. He moved to Boston in 1871 to begin work on an upgraded telegraph machine that would allow for sending and receiving multiple messages simultaneously. Bell’s new ideas frustrated his investors but inspired his partner, electrician Thomas Watson. Between 1874 and 1876, the two successfully developed the first voice transmitting device.
Until fairly recently, few people were aware of the extent of Nikola Tesla’s contributions to electrical engineering. Born in Croatia, Tesla immigrated to the United States in 1884. Much has been made of his brief partnership with Thomas Edison, but this is only one small part of his story. Tesla was able to develop many important alternating current technologies, challenging the growing consensus in favor of direct current, which Edison championed. Tesla sold many of his patents to George Westinghouse, facilitating the emergence of AC power plants nationwide.
Famed as the chief business partner of Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse was responsible for bringing many electrical technologies to the public. By purchasing a variety of Tesla’s patents, he was able to significantly accelerate commercialization on a number of fronts — and became the man to beat Thomas Edison to the goal of electricity as a large-scale public utility. As the leading champion of alternating current, he founded 60 businesses and was behind 360 patents. Just 10 years after establishing his first power plant, he employed more than 50,000 personnel.
Born in Kansas, Jack Kilby joined Texas Instruments in 1958. He developed the first integrated circuit early in his career. It was a simple design with a single transistor and a few other components packed onto a small sliver of germanium. The original microchip was about half the size of a paper clip. As it was refined, it allowed Texas Instruments to dominate the market in a wide variety of electronics for many years afterwards. Kilby received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000 as a result of his work, which is still influential today.
Born in 1908 in Madison, Wisconsin, John Bardeen showed an early talent when he enrolled in engineering at the University of Wisconsin at age 15. He earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, concluding a Ph.D. in mathematical physics at Princeton soon after. He was one of the Bell Telephone Laboratories researchers responsible for the discovery of the transistor effect and other major advances. He was co-winner of two Nobel Prizes in Physics — in 1956 for the transistor and in 1972 for the theory of superconductivity.
Born 1889 in Sweden, Harry Nyquist immigrated to the U.S. at age 18. There, he earned electrical engineering degrees from the University of North Dakota, culminating in a Ph.D. in Physics from Yale in 1917. Afterward, he joined the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, and continued his work when his department was absorbed into Bell Labs in 1934. During his 37-year career, he earned 138 U.S. patents and published a dozen major technical articles. He is best known for the Sampling Theorem, supporting digital encoding of analog signals.
Claude Shannon was a contemporary of Harry Nyquist at Bell Laboratories. Brilliant in his own right, Shannon is hailed as the father of information theory. His groundbreaking paper, “The Mathematical Theory of Communications,” cites Nyquist’s own work. Jointly responsible for many of the major communications advances of his era along with Nyquist, Shannon is said to be among the first to mathematically prove the Sampling Theorem. By positing that data should be measured in “bits” corresponding to one or zero, he launched the IT era.
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