Founder of Italy’s Pavia Museum of Electrical Technology Works to Keep Engineering History Alive

IEEE Senior Member Antonio Savini is bridging the gap between engineering and art

3 min read
View of Museum Section 2
An overview of the museum's Electricity Comes of Age exhibit.
Photo: Cantalupi, Pavia

THE INSTITUTE Although not a trained historian, IEEE Senior Member Antonio Savini says he has always been interested in the origins and evolution of technology. It’s important not only to preserve electrical technology and artifacts, he says, but also to explain their impact on society.

“If engineers do not understand the evolution of technology,” Savini says, “they lack important knowledge that could be applied to their own innovations.”

He became a member of the IEEE History Committee in 2012, and he still serves on it today.

While working as an engineering professor at the University of Pavia, in Italy, he helped establish the university’s Research Center for the History of Electrical Technology in 1998. The center promotes exhibitions, meetings, and lectures and conducts research.

Antonio Savini, co-founder and first Director of the Museum.IEEE Senior Member Antonio Savini, co-founder and first director of the Pavia Museum of Electrical Technology in Italy.Photo: Antonio Savini

In 1999, Savia was tasked with leading the effort to conceptualize and design the university’s Museum of Electrical Technology. Savini was the museum’s director until he retired in 2015, but he’s still involved.

“The intent of the museum was to preserve the memory of important steps in the evolution of electrical technology,” he says.

The oldest artifacts on display are from the early 1800s.

A WALK THROUGH TIME

Since 1980, the University of Pavia has been collecting old and new electrical equipment to teach its students about how machines work. Most artifacts were industrial equipment, such as large power generators, high-voltage insulators, and a tramway, Savini says. The university wanted to build a museum to showcase its collection, but it didn’t think it had enough variety, he says.

According to an article in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library about the museum’s establishment and its efforts to build its collection, two major Italian organizations stepped up to help. Energy company ENEL and telecommunications company SIRTI each had museums of their own but were looking for one central place to house all their technology-related exhibits, so they offered their collections to the university. That decision spurred the construction of the Pavia Museum.

The University of Pavia’s electrical engineering department uses the museum’s artifacts as teaching aids.

Enigma machine, 1939, SIRTI collection. An Enigma ciphering machine that was donated to the museum by telecommunications company SIRTI.Photo: Cantalupi, Pavia

One of the artifacts from SIRTI collection was a German ciphering machine used in World War II, an Enigma, Savini says.

The museum opened its doors to the general public in 2007. During the first year the museum was open, it attracted more than 4,000 visitors, including student field trips. Since that initial year, it has continued to add exhibits and events.

CREATING A tech WONDERLAND

When Savini began curating the museum, he asked a team of experts to help him. They included representatives from European science and technology museums.

To show visitors the evolution of electrical technology, the museum has five exhibition areas: Early Electricity (up to around 1880), Electricity Comes of Age (around the end of the 19th century), Electricity for Everyone (early 20th century), Electricity Everywhere (later 20th century), and Electricity Today and in the Future.

Today’s technology museums are competing with TV programs and websites that cover the history of tech. “Museums—where wonderful objects such as a replica of Volta’s electric battery, Thomas Edison’s DC generator, and a German Enigma machine are preserved in a silent and isolated environment—are struggling to attract enough people,” Savini says.

To modernize, the museum has incorporated touch screens that describe each artifact’s importance and impact on society.

ENGINEERING AND ART MEET

Savini’s goal for the museum was not only to showcase the history of technology but also to promote the relationship between science and art through exhibits and partnerships with other universities and museums.

People’s knowledge about the connection between art and science is fragmented because of how both are viewed in modern times, he says.

“Both engineers and artists work on the basis of curiosity and creativity,” he says. In the past, he notes, there were instances when innovators, like Leonardo da Vinci, were engineers as well as artists, and vice versa.

Savini says that one of the most memorable experiences he has had in trying to bridge the gap between engineering and art was in 2016, when a group of students from the Milan Academy of Art visited the museum. While giving them a tour, Savini says, they were particularly fascinated by an exhibit on the history of electricity.

“They thought of electricity as something mysterious and wanted to know more about how it worked,” he says. That experience led him to lecture at the art school about electricity. It also spurred him to start a project in which the academy’s students were asked to prepare artworks for the museum incorporating electricity or inspired by it. The museum displayed the installations, paintings, and sculptures for a couple of months.

“In the future,” Savini says, “we want to exhibit pieces of art from famous artists who have been inspired by electrical technology.”

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
Vertical
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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