What is Electrical Engineering? According the Wikipedia's definition, this profession "is a field of engineering that deals with electricity, electronics and electromagnetism". The definition is short and precise, but probably does not say much to the general public. In this article, we are going to review a bit of the history of the profession, what are its contributions to our society, and the problems that addresses.

Electrical engineering is a profession responsible for much of the technological innovation that we see in today's world. Electrical engineers work in energy, electronics, industrial automation, robotics, instrumentation, sensors, signal processing, and telecommunications. Its practitioners are one of the largest bodies of engineers in the world, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or IEEE (reads as I-triple-E) is the largest professional association in the world.

History of the Discipline        

Electricity has been a topic of fascination and study since the days of ancient Greece. However, no much progress was made until the XVII century, when the topic was "re-discovered" by William Gilbert.

It remained as a subfield of physics for almost two centuries before the discipline could develop wings, and take the form that has today. The boost came by the end of the XIX century and early XX century, with the consolidation of the Theory of Electromagnetism and the birth of Quantum Physics.

Today, electrical engineers have a presence in many fields of technology innovation, and have been responsible for the creations of entire new professions and industries thanks to their contribution throughout the years.

The 3 Pillars of Electrical Engineering

The first problem that electrical engineers took care of was that of electrification of cities and towns. By the second half of the XIX century the industrial revolution was in full force in many countries around the world, so more power was needed increase production in factories.

This problem motivated electrical engineers to use some of the discoveries of electromagnetism  to build machines capable of turning the energy created by wind, a water fall, or a river current, into electricity.

Of course, the generation of electricity was only one part of the problem, because not always one had an energy source close enough to the point of consumption. The need for transporting energy from generation plants to neighborhoods, towns and cities, motivated the design and construction of the complex networks that today feed our homes, hospitals, shopping malls, schools, and factories.

Today, this subfield is known as power engineering and is the first pillar of electrical engineering. Electrical engineers that work in the power subfield address problems of generation, transmission, distribution, storage, and conversion of energy.

Other subfield that has been making progress since the early days is telecommunications, which is concerned with the problem of communicating messages through long distances. The first technologies developed to provide a solution for this problem were the telegraph and the telephone, in the second half of the XIX century. The early days of the XX century saw the first wireless transmission, that later powered the radio and TV broadcast industries in the first half of the century. By the late 90’s, the penetration of the industry was complete, and has made possible the spread of high speed networks, cellular phone networks, wireless broadband, cable TV, and the internet. 

Today, this field it is known also with the name of communications and is the second pillar of electrical engineering. In addition to the applications earlier mentioned, is responsible for the technology that makes possible the large amounts of data storage that today we enjoy.

Electronics is the third pillar of the discipline and has made possible that many of the dreams of theorists and science fiction writers could become a reality. Its origins can be traced back to the last days of the XIX century, but its real break came by the end of the WWII, when the first transistor was invented. Transistors allowed for the development of small and reliable equipment that found applications in the telecommunications and computers industry.

In 1958, the discipline gave the final consolidation step with the invention of the integrated circuit. New fields and tons of devices have come and go since that time, thanks to the existence of integrated circuits. Robotics, personal computers, pocket calculators, compact discs, DVD and Blu-ray players, iPods and iPhones are just a few examples of modern devices that could not exist without an integrated circuit.

Other subfields of Electrical Engineering and the Future

As years and decades came by, the discipline of electrical engineering started tackling problems outside its initial scope in energy, communications, and electronics.

Today, the profession has specialist that work in antennas, control, computing, instrumentation, robotics, and signal processing. But also, many electrical engineers work in related fields such as computer science, industrial engineering, finance, and even medicine and mathematics.

Who knows what new disciplines and industries are going to be influenced and developed during the following decades. Let us hope that the applications that will be created from electrical engineering are as successful as the ones we enjoy today.