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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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IEEE President’s Note: Looking to 2050 and Beyond

The importance of future-proofing IEEE

4 min read
Photo of K. J. Ray Liu

What will the future of the world look like? Everything in the world evolves. Therefore, IEEE also must evolve, not only to survive but to thrive.

How will people build communities and engage with one another and with IEEE in the future? How will knowledge be acquired? How will content be curated, shared, and accessed? What issues will influence the development of technical standards? How should IEEE be organized to be most impactful?

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The Device That Changed Everything

Transistors are civilization’s invisible infrastructure

2 min read
A triangle of material suspended above a base

This replica of the original point-contact transistor is on display outside IEEE Spectrum’s conference rooms.

Randi Klett

I was roaming around the IEEE Spectrum office a couple of months ago, looking at the display cases the IEEE History Center has installed in the corridor that runs along the conference rooms at 3 Park. They feature photos of illustrious engineers, plaques for IEEE milestones, and a handful of vintage electronics and memorabilia including an original Sony Walkman, an Edison Mazda lightbulb, and an RCA Radiotron vacuum tube. And, to my utter surprise and delight, a replica of the first point-contact transistor invented by John Bardeen, Walter Brittain, and William Shockley 75 years ago this month.

I dashed over to our photography director, Randi Klett, and startled her with my excitement, which, when she saw my discovery, she understood: We needed a picture of that replica, which she expertly shot and now accompanies this column.

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Get the Coursera Campus Skills Report 2022

Download the report to learn which job skills students need to build high-growth careers

1 min read

Get comprehensive insights into higher education skill trends based on data from 3.8M registered learners on Coursera, and learn clear steps you can take to ensure your institution's engineering curriculum is aligned with the needs of the current and future job market. Download the report now!