Treasured Texts

The greatest textbooks challenge, elucidate, and inspire. Here are the best of the best

13 min read
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Illustration: Rob Magiera

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.

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The James Webb Space Telescope was a Career-Defining Project for Janet Barth

NASA’s first female engineering chief was there from conception to first light

5 min read
portrait of older woman in light blue jacket against dark gray background Info for editor if needed:
Sue Brown

Janet Barth spent most of her career at the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md.—which put her in the middle of some of NASA’s most exciting projects of the past 40 years.

She joined the center as a co-op student and retired in 2014 as chief of its electrical engineering division. She had a hand in Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions, launching the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, and developing the James Webb Space Telescope.

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4 min read
blue mountain of crystals with an inset of molecules on a pink background
Srabanti Chowdhury/Stanford

High-power radio-frequency electronics are a hot commodity, both figuratively and literally. The transistors needed to amplify 5G and future 6G signals are struggling to handle the thermal load, causing a bottleneck in development. Engineers in the United States and England have teamed up to demonstrate a promising solution—swaddling individual transistors in a blanket of thermally conductive diamond to keep them cool.

“Thermal issues are currently one of the biggest bottlenecks that are plaguing any kind of microelectronics,” says team lead Srabanti Chowdhury, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University. “We asked ourselves ‘can we perform device cooling at the very material level without paying a penalty in electrical performance?’”

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4 min read