Electrical Engineering’s Identity Crisis

When does a vast and vital profession become unrecognizably diffuse?

14 min read
Image: Retro File; Image manipulation: Richard Tuschman
Image: Retro File; Image manipulation: Richard Tuschman

More than a century ago, electrical engineering was so much simpler. Basically, it referred to the technical end of telegraphy, trolley cars, or electric power. Nevertheless, here and there members of that fledgling profession were quietly setting the stage for an era in industrial history unparalleled for its innovation, growth, and complexity.

That decades-long saga was punctuated early on by spark-gap radios, tubes, and amplifiers. With World War II came radar, sonar, and the proximity fuze, followed by electronic computation. Then came solid-state transistors and integrated circuits: originally with a few transistors, lately with hundreds of millions. Oil-filled circuit breakers the size of a cottage eventually gave way to solid-state switches the size of a fist. From programs on punch cards, computer scientists progressed to programs that write programs that write programs, all stored on magnetic disks whose capacity has doubled every 15 months for the past 20 years [see “Through a Glass”]. In two or three generations, engineers took us from shouting into a hand-cranked box attached to a wall to swapping video clips over a device that fits in a shirt pocket.

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