7 Famous Electrical Engineers of the 20th Century

Electrical engineers

“Electricity” was first described in 1600 in reference to static electricity, and it wasn’t until 1759 that Benjamin Franklin would make his famous discovery that lightning is electrical. Since that time, thousands of men and women from all over the world have contributed to the vibrant and essential science of electrical engineering.

Believe it or not, the first electrical engineering curriculum in the United States did not emerge until 1882 – it was offered at MIT. Prior to that, though many electrical engineers had a strong scientific background in physics, they were essentially pioneers in an emerging field. Today, electrical engineering is essential to virtually all advanced technology.

Seven Great Electrical Engineers of the Modern Era

George Westinghouse – Engineer and Business Magnate

George Westinghouse’s early life was marked by the successes and troubles of his father, also called George, who had established a farm equipment business. Although the business was often lucrative, it also suffered major setbacks until finding a permanent home on the Erie Canal. Here, George Westinghouse received his early experience and education in engineering.

By the early 1880s, Westinghouse was seeking to develop a business around alternating current. He bought AC patents developed in Europe while, at the same time, contributing to the design of crucial metering and measurement equipment. During the “War of Currents,” Westinghouse launched seven major AC power plants. He stepped down from the company he founded in 1907.

Thomas Edison – Holder of More Than 1,000 Patents

Born 1847 in Milan, Ohio, the extraordinarily prolific Thomas Edison has been described as the “Shakespeare of electrical engineering.” His career began at age 16, when he served as a telegrapher at Port Huron, Michigan. His first commercial success was a “quadrupex” telegraph machine capable of both sending and receiving two messages at once.

After selling the device to Western Union, Edison relocated to Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he would have some of his greatest discoveries. Edison went on to become a leading pioneer and advocate for direct current power. Some of his innovations include the light bulb, phonograph, the motion picture, and an electric battery for the Ford Model T.

Nikola Tesla – A Pioneer of Effective AC Power

Today, Nikola Tesla is one of the most popular figures in the history of electrical engineering. During his life, however, much of his work remained unknown. Tesla was already an accomplished engineer with a strong background in telephony when he emigrated to the U.S. in 1884 to work with Thomas Edison. He soon had financial backers and a laboratory of his own.

Although Tesla is popularly remembered for the “War of Currents” – he championed the use of AC power in opposition to Edison – his story goes far beyond this. He was responsible for the induction motor, rotating magnetic field, the Tesla coil, and one of the first remote controlled vehicles ever seen. In 2012, supporters raised $1.37 million for a museum in his honor.

David Packard – Leading Mind in Computing

Born 1912, David Packard is one of the names behind Hewlett-Packard computers. Educated at Stanford University, he worked for General Electric out of Schenectady, New York. After four years, he returned to Stanford for his master’s degree in electrical engineering. After completing it, he and friend William Hewlett launched their company out of Hewlett’s garage with about $500 in funds.

As their company grew, Packard would serve as a senior executive until 1993. Hewlett-Packard became known as one of the foremost manufacturers of consumer devices including calculators, desktop computers, and printers. It was also the #1 producer of electronic measurement and testing devices worldwide. Later in his career, Packard also served as Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Robert N. Hall – Semiconductor Pioneer

Born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1919, Robert “Bob” Hall earned a B.S. in Physics at CalTech in 1942. He worked in the defense industry before completing a Ph.D., also at Caltech, in 1948. After the war, his initial research was on transistors. To further his observations, he developed a novel method of creating purified germanium.

Hall’s germanium-based power rectifier is the forerunner of the modern semiconductor, which generally uses silicon. Later on in Hall’s life, the magnetron – which he invented during World War II – was revisited and became the most important component of the modern microwave. In 1962, he invented the semiconductor injection laser, now used in all CD players.

Carl H. Rosner – Superconductors

Born in Hamburg in 1929, Carl H. Rosner – who continues to work and produce findings today – escaped the Holocaust and studied in Stockholm during his early life. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1955, beginning his career at the General Electric Research & Development Lab. There, he contributed to the team that developed the world’s most powerful superconducting magnets.

After this groundbreaking research, Intermagnetics General (IGC) was spun off from General Electric to continue the research and commercialization of MRIs, elevated trains, strong research magnets, and power transmission technologies. Rosner led IGC before forming CardioMag Imaging, which focuses on improved diagnostic imaging technologies.

Charles Concordia – Systems Engineering

Charles Concordia was born 1908, growing up in Schenectady, New York. By 1926, he was a successful honors student with a clear talent in physics – he went straight from high school to General Electric. By 1934, having contributed essential insights to early television research, he graduated from GE’s Advanced Engineering Program.

From there, Concordia focused on systems engineering and public utilities. He quickly became GE’s top liaison for public utilities, working on technical solutions for reliability and efficiency. Through the 1940s, he established some of the most important modern theories regarding the relationship between synchronous machines’ voltage regulators and their stability.

Learn More

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