Electrical Engineering Topics

What is Electrical Engineering?

Electrical engineering sometimes referred to as electrical and electronic engineering — is an engineering field that deals with the study and application of electricity, electronics and electromagnetism. The field first became an identifiable occupation in the late nineteenth century after commercialization of the electric telegraph and electrical power supply. The field now covers a range of sub-studies including power, electronics, control systems, signal processing and telecommunications.

Electrical engineering may or may not encompass electronic engineering. Where a distinction is made, usually outside of the United States, electrical engineering is considered to deal with the problems associated with large-scale electrical systems such as power transmission and motor control, whereas electronic engineering deals with the study of small-scale electronic systems including computers and integrated circuits. Another way of looking at the distinction is that electrical engineers are usually concerned with using electricity to transmit energy, while electronic engineers are concerned with using electricity to transmit information.

The History of Electrical Engineering

Electricity has been a subject of scientific interest since at least the early 17th century. The first electrical engineer was probably William Gilbert who designed the versorium: a device that detected the presence of statically charged objects. He was also the first to draw a clear distinction between magnetism and static electricity and is credited with establishing the term electricity. However, it was not until the 19th century that research into the subject started to intensify.

Notable developments in this century include the work of George Ohm, who in 1827 quantified the relationship between the electric current and potential difference in a conductor, Michael Faraday, the discoverer of electromagnetic induction in 1831, and James Clerk Maxwell, who in 1873 published a unified theory of electricity and magnetism in his treatise Electricity and Magnetism.

During these years, the study of electricity was largely considered to be a subfield of physics. It was not until the late 19th century that universities started to offer degrees in electrical engineering. The Darmstadt University of Technology founded the first chair and the first faculty of electrical engineering worldwide in 1882. In 1883 Darmstadt University of Technology and Cornell University introduced the world's first courses of study in electrical engineering, and in 1885 the University College London founded the first chair of electrical engineering in the United Kingdom. The University of Missouri subsequently established the first department of electrical engineering in the United States in 1886.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison built the world's first large-scale electrical supply network. During this period, the work concerning electrical engineering increased dramatically. In 1882, Edison switched on the world's first large-scale electrical supply network that provided 110 volts direct current to fifty-nine customers in lower Manhattan.

In 1887, Nikola Tesla filed a number of patents related to a competing form of power distribution known as alternating current. In the following years a bitter rivalry between Tesla and Edison, known as the "War of Currents", took place over the preferred method of distribution. AC eventually replaced DC for generation and power distribution, enormously extending the range and improving the safety and efficiency of power distribution.

Nikola Tesla

Tesla made long-distance electrical transmission networks possible. The efforts of the two did much to further electrical engineering. Tesla's work on induction motors and polyphase systems influenced the field for years to come, while Edison's work on telegraphy and his development of the stock ticker proved lucrative for his company, which ultimately became General Electric. However, by the end of the 19th century, other key figures in the progress of electrical engineering were beginning to emerge.

Education and Training in Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineers typically possess an academic degree with a major in electrical engineering. The length of study for such a degree is usually four or five years and the completed degree may be designated as a Bachelor of Engineering, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Technology or Bachelor of Applied Science depending upon the university.

The degree generally includes units covering physics, mathematics, computer science, project management and specific topics in electrical engineering. Initially such topics cover most, if not all, of the sub-disciplines of electrical engineering. Students then choose to specialize in one or more sub-disciplines towards the end of the degree.

Some electrical engineers also choose to pursue a postgraduate degree such as a Master of Engineering/Master of Science, a Master of Engineering Management, a Doctor of Philosophy in Engineering or an Engineer's degree. The Master and Engineer's degree may consist of either research, coursework or a mixture of the two.

The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) consists of a significant research component and is often viewed as the entry point to academia. In the United Kingdom and various other European countries, the Master of Engineering is often considered an undergraduate degree of slightly longer duration than the Bachelor of Engineering.

Practicing Electrical Engineers

In most countries, a Bachelor's degree in engineering represents the first step towards professional certification and the degree program itself is certified by a professional body. After completing a certified degree program the engineer must satisfy a range of requirements (including work experience requirements) before being certified. Once certified the engineer is designated the title of Professional Engineer (in the United States, Canada and South Africa ), Chartered Engineer (in India, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Zimbabwe), Chartered Professional Engineer (in Australia and New Zealand) or European Engineer (in much of the European Union).

The advantages of certification vary depending upon location. For example, in the United States and Canada "only a licensed engineer may seal engineering work for public and private clients".

This requirement is enforced by state and provincial legislation such as Quebec's Engineers Act. In other countries, such as Australia, no such legislation exists. Practically all certifying bodies maintain a code of ethics that they expect all members to abide by or risk expulsion.

In this way these organizations play an important role in maintaining ethical standards for the profession. Even in jurisdictions where certification has little or no legal bearing on work, engineers are subject to contract law. In cases where an engineer's work fails he or she may be subject to the tort of negligence and, in extreme cases, the charge of criminal negligence. An engineer's work must also comply with numerous other rules and regulations such as building codes and legislation pertaining to environmental law.

Professional bodies of note for electrical engineers include the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) (which was formed by the merging of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) and the Institution of Incorporated Engineers (IIE).