The son of a British Quaker schoolteacher who became a brilliant orator but believed that practical study was more important than lectures, a mathematical genius fleeing Germany because of his socialist views who was almost turned back by New York customs officials as medically unfit, and two educators, one self-taught in engineering, the other an inventor of analog computers—what did they have in common? Their textbooks on electrical technology were among the few classics that helped establish a new discipline and set the world onto a path that would eventually lead to pocket computers, broadband Internet access, and plasma-screen TVs.
Electrical engineering emerged as a profession in the 1870s and 1880s, when, for the first time, inventors devised such wonders as effective generators, practical arc lamps and incandescent bulbs, effective motors, transmission of power from central stations, and the telephone. Indeed, there had been earlier electrical technologies—the lightning rod, electroplating, and, most importantly, the electric telegraph—but these were not sufficient fodder to nurture a full-fledged profession.
As the list of inventions grew, developing and exploiting the new technologies behind them required a high level of mathematical and scientific training. Universities around the world stepped in to offer courses in electrical technology, both by setting up engineering programs and by adding courses in physics departments.
Colleges in Switzerland and Japan led the way. The first courses were taught in the 1870s at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich and at the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo. During the next decade, two German schools, the Technische Hochschule Darmstadt and the Technische Hochschule Berlin-Charlottenburg, established EE professorships in 1882 and 1883, respectively. Three British schools competed for students in the mid-1880s: City & Guilds of London Institute for the Advancement of Technical Education (which set up Finsbury Technical College), Central Technical College, and University College, all in London. In the United States, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cornell, Columbia, the Case School of Applied Science (later Case Western Reserve University), and the University of Missouri were among the schools that established EE programs in the 1880s.
Scholars soon began writing textbooks to help teach students the new discipline. Scattered among the many fine texts that have been written over the past 140 years are the truly great ones—those that have endured for many generations of students, challenged them to solve practical problems, and inspired them to extend the field.
In this article, 13 of these texts are described. Nine more will be covered in a future issue of IEEE Spectrum. While only a small subjective sample of the great EE textbooks, these 22 texts were chosen because they illustrate the century-long development of electrical engineering from the 1880s to the 1980s, as well as the transnational character of the technology.
Dynamos, motors, and power lines
One of the most remarkable of the first English-language textbooks in electrical engineering offered both theoretical and practical information. In Dynamo-Electric Machinery: A Manual for Students of Electrotechnics (1884), Silvanus Phillips Thompson, a teacher at University College, Bristol, discussed the general physical theory that was the heart of all types of dynamo-electric machines and then showed how to design them.
The book was in such great demand in industry as well as in schools that it went through several editions very quickly in both Britain and the United States. By the time the eighth U.S. edition appeared in 1901, it was translated into several languages. Nobel Prize winner Ernest Rutherford wrote, "I cut my first teeth on Dynamo-Electric Machinery," which he praised for the "clearness, simplicity, and charm [that were] characteristic of all [Thompson's] writings and lectures."
At Finsbury, Thompson gave 10-12 lectures a week, but always told his students that time spent in the laboratory was more important than time spent attending lectures. Besides his college work, he was in great demand as a speaker, not only in England but on the continent as well because of his fluency in Italian, German, and French.
The author of several other influential EE textbooks, Thompson is surely one of the greatest explainers of all time. To help his students grasp differential and integral calculus—essential for the electrical engineer—he invented a new way of presenting the subject, and his Calculus Made Easy (1910) became the most successful calculus primer ever. It has sold more than a million copies and is currently in print in two versions, one of them a 1998 revision by Martin Gardner, who said of Thompson that "no author has written about calculus with greater clarity and humor."