It's hard to imagine that electrical engineering ever had a beginning. Hasn't it always been with us? Looking at the incredible number of students, professors, focuses, and disciplines that exist today, you would think so. But not that long ago two men from different backgrounds and different countries would work together to create the world's first electrical engineering college.



In the late 1800s an avalanche of electrical innovations emerged and shocked the world--the first transatlantic cable came in 1866, the first telephone in 1876, the first light bulb in 1879, the first AC power transformer in 1881, and by 1882 the first commercial power plant by Edison servicing residents of one square mile in Lower Manhattan.  Then in the autumn of 1882 the world saw its first electrical-engineering courses. But that is the end of the story.



Charles R. Cross ~1870 (left). Alexander Graham Bell ~1876 (Right) Via MIT


It all started with a academic friendship between Alexander Graham Bell and MIT Physics Professor Charles R. Cross. Bell, from Edinburgh Scotland, was a teacher for the deaf with a seasoned knowledge of speech and acoustics. In 1871, he travelled to Boston in an effort to learn and invent in his spare time. There he found himself in the epicenter of early telegraphic invention. At the Charles Williams machine shop on Court Street he was introduced to telegraph relays, galvanometers, and other devices of the sort.


While in this community, Bell would attend public lectures at MIT. Bell's fateful attend in October of 1872, Professor Charles R. Cross along with colleague Edward C. Pickering (both from the physics department) demonstrated the "tin-box-receiver." The device was a thin metal diaphragm that vibrated when current flow through an electromagnet was changed in anyway. A tuning-fork was struck. That sound disturbed the current flowing a driving circuit, and a rough transmission of a tuning-fork sound could be heard across a telegraph line on the receiver. This began Bell's own pursuit of electrical communication, and later resulting in the telephone.


Bell accepted a vocal physiology and elocution professor position at Boston University in 1873. In April of 1874, Cross invited Bell to speak at MIT. After Bell had spoken about his acoustical studies and desire to teach the deaf to speak, Cross was so impressed that he gave Bell unlimited access to MIT's labs and facilities. During the following years Bell and Cross spoke often of scientific matters. Bell later admitted that Cross's influence played a major part in the creation of the Telephone in 1876, for what Bell is best known. During the talks, Cross realized the importance of learning the principles behind electronics were as important as being technically adept to hardware itself.


MIT Professor emeritus of electrical engineering Paul Penfield put it clearly when speaking of Cross's inspiration, "Technicians use existing technology, and they do interesting things with it, and they make inventions, and so on. And scientists advance science. But the link between those two is engineers, who not only use existing technology but develop new technology using known science. And that was more or less the vision of the founding of MIT.”



Charles R. Cross Teaching "Another View of Charlie" via MIT

Cross near single handedly created the electrical engineering curriculum.


- A 1881 MIT catalog announcement read: "On alternate years a course of lectures will be given upon the scientific principles involved in the more recent application of Electricity including the Telegraph, the Telephone, Electric Lighting, and the transmission of power by electricity.”

- In the fall of 1882, the first electrical engineering course began at MIT. An addition of an extended course of "Laboratory Instruction in Electrical Instruments" was the only change. This lecture class became the senior course for senior-year students in the new “alternative course in Physics… for the benefit of students wishing to enter upon any of the branches of Electrical Engineering.”

- In 1884 electrical engineering is no longer a sub-group of physics at MIT.


  • Concurrently and possibly influenced by MIT, William Anthony wrote a curriculum for the new profession of electrical engineering at Cornell University in 1883. Anthony taught a class called “measurement of electromagnetic power, with reference to electromagnetic machines and motors" in 1873, but was inspired by a student letter in 1882 to create an electrical engineering curriculum.


  • The first national electrical engineering department at any college is cited to have been formed in 1886 at the University of Missouri. Professor of Physics Benjamin Franklin Thomas felt that electrical engineering should be separate from physics.


- By 1892, 27% of the students at MIT were enrolled as electrical-engineering students. Which has stayed roughly in that percentile ever since.


Flash 129 years from its inception, there are millions of electrical engineers worldwide.


Unfortunately, there are also millions unemployed as well. In 2008-2009, unemployment for EEs hovered around 9.5%. By 2010 it dropped to 7.8%. Many speculate that employment figures will never reach pre-recession levels again. Jobs continue to be outsourced to a cheaper workforce.


In the midst of a challenge, every engineer innovates. According to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, new businesses in college graduate level engineers has risen over the past few years. The unemployed have engineered a carrier for themselves. (We never stop.)




Other history lessons:

The man who taught Edison to be a true engineer

Oldest working light bulb and the man who invented it


ps, "Professor emeritus" is a title given to a retired professor.