Electricity may power our modern world but the phenomenon of electric activity has been observed for millennia. Studies into triboelectric charges, or electrostatic charging created by rubbing two objects together, extend back to the 6th century BC and the work of Thales of Miletus who found that rubbing amber on wool created a static charge. Starting in the 17th century AD, contemporary scientists began making contributions to the understanding of electric activity, including America’s own Benjamin Franklin. The first practical uses of electricity as a force that can be controlled to improve productivity were demonstrated in the 1830s by British physicist Michael Faraday, the discoverer of electromagnetic induction.
The below list represents the most famous inventors in the electric/electronic field, it is only a small subset of the great minds that have brought us to our current level of understanding, and the technology we enjoy today.
Nikola Tesla and the AC Induction Motor – There is no way to understate the importance of Serbian-born inventor Nikola Tesla to the body of electrical engineering knowledge which keeps the power flowing across the world. Tesla may not have invented the first system for electrical transmission but his development of alternating current (AC) transmission systems provided a vast improvement on the efficiency of direct current (DC) systems, which wasted energy through friction. In fact, much of Murray’s work in revolutionizing New York City’s electrical grid dealt with converting DC power sources into AC generation plants. Tesla was an inventor truly ahead of his time, a pioneer in wirelessly-controlled drones and wireless energy transmissions, he even conceptualized the smartphone 100 years before the advent of the iPhone. During his life, Tesla earned 111 U.S. patents but unfortunately poor business acumen led him to miss out on the financial successes of other inventors from the era.
Thomas Edison and Incandescent Lighting – Tesla’s AC systems may have eventually won the War of the Currents, but American inventor Thomas Alva Edison is another prolific name in the history of electrical engineering and the choice to list him second behind Tesla was a difficult one, but perhaps the right one. Edison may not have invented the first light bulb but the work of him and his staff at the Menlo Park research and development facility led to the development of the world’s first long-lasting and commercially successful light bulb. Commercializing the electric light bulb required the building of electrical transmission utilities and his Edison Illuminating Company constructed the country’s earliest electrical grids. AC may be the main form of how energy is sent from power plants to buildings, but we still use AC/DC converters in the home and direct current in modern electronic devices. By the end of his life, Edison was listed as an inventor on 1,093 U.S. patents and while it’s accepted by many that Edison relied heavily on his “mucker” research staff to develop many of these patented inventions, his business success and futuristic vision make him an undoubted luminary in the early days of electrical engineering.
Charles Proteus Steinmetz and Alternating Current – There are so many giants of innovation involved in the early days of electrical engineering and despite any physical deformity, German-born inventor Charles Proteus Steinmetz may very well have had the biggest personality of anyone. Hunched and standing four feet tall because of a congenital affliction, Steinmetz first contributed to electrical engineering in the 1890s by solving problems associated with hysteresis, or power lost through magnetic resistance, in electricity systems. Over the decades which followed, the papers published by Steinmetz on his research into alternating current electric circuits made him an influential figure in the field’s early development. One incredible anecdote about Steinmetz surrounds a consulting job for Henry Ford in which Steinmetz spent two days and nights observing a faulty electric generator, made a chalk mark on the generator and instructed Ford’s engineers to remove the plate and replace windings from the field coil at that point; this fixed the generator. Upon receiving a $10,000 bill for his services, Ford asked for an itemized bill. Steinmetz obliged: $1 for making the chalk mark, $9,999 for knowing where to make the mark. When he passed in October 1923, Steinmetz held more than 200 U.S. patents.
Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain and the Transistor – William B. Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter H. Brattain are the trio credited with developing the first commercially successful transistor product in the 1940s at the widely heralded American research and development facility Bell Labs. It’s no understatement to say that modern electronic devices couldn’t function without a component that can process electrical signals in the manner accomplished by a transistor. Yesterday’s transistors have largely been replaced by today’s integrated circuits, which are capable of much more complex processing of electrical signals, but the discovery of the transistor was a huge turning point in the electronics industry of the mid-20th century. The invention of the transistor has been hailed as a milestone achievement by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). In 2011, state-of-the-art processing units contained as many as 2.9 billion transistors on a single chip. We recently profiled Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain in our Evolution of Technology Series. See Evolution of the Transistor.
William Stanley Jr. and the Power Transformer – The fact that AC transmission would replace DC transmission in larger electrical grids seems to make perfect sense from our vantage point more than a century later, but the higher voltage levels of AC electrical transmissions posed issues. Higher voltages were dangerous to transmit and couldn’t be reduced for lower voltage applications. Enter American inventor William Stanley Jr. and his development of the induction coil in the 1880s. Tesla may have pioneered the induction motor for AC electricity generation but Stanley’s induction coil enabled the introduction of electric transformers connected in parallel to distribute AC electricity safely. During his career, Stanley was listed as an inventor on 129 U.S. patents.
Thomas Murray and the Fuse Box – Thomas Murray is not just the electrical engineer who converted New York City power systems to AC systems, he’s also responsible for many of the devices that enable the safe transmission of electricity from the grid, including fuse boxes and fuse plugs. The series of AC power stations designed by Murray and constructed around NYC helped to reduce the price of electricity from 20 cents per kWh down to 10 cents per kWh between 1901 and 1911. Murray was listed as an inventor on a whopping 462 U.S. patents which reflected a wide range of innovative activity, including anti-skid vehicle tires.
Frank Sprague and the Electric Streetcar – The impact of electricity on urban development has been incredible and an important innovation in public transportation comes to us from American inventor Frank Sprague. During the 1880s, Sprague worked on developing a non-sparking motor with fixed brushes, the world’s first such motor to maintain constant revolutions under different loads, as well as techniques for regenerating power in the main supply systems of electric motor-driven equipment. Later on in that decade, Sprague helped to develop the first street railway in Richmond, VA, a line which stayed in operation until 1949; within two years of the Richmond line opening, 110 other electric streetcar lines using Sprague’s technologies began construction within two years. Although the exact number of patents held by Sprague is difficult to determine, records published by the New York Public Library show that Sprague and his companies held patents covering electric motors, automatic train control, electric elevators and electric traction technologies.
Zénobe Theophile Gramme and the DC Dynamo – Direct current was not the more efficient form of electrical transmissions but it was still useful to perform work. The first commercially successful direct current dynamo, or electrical generator producing direct current with the use of a mechanical commutator, was invented by Belgian inventor Zénobe Theophile Gramme. Dynamos were known technologies by the mid-1800s but produced low average power outputs and thus were difficult to adopt into industrial applications. Gramme’s dynamo had an improved magnetic flux path by filling air gaps in the magnetic field with iron cores, minimizing the amount of empty space between the stationary and the rotating components. At the 1873 Expo in Vienna, Gramme alighted on an accidental discovery when Hippolyte Fontaine, an electrical engineer and Gramme’s business partner, used copper wire to connect Gramme’s dynamo to another one situated 500 meters (1,640 feet) away; unexpectedly, Gramme’s dynamo powered the second dynamo which then operated a water pump, proving that electric energy was convertible and could be used in a location which was remote from the point of generation.
Charles Brush and Arc Lamps for Street Lighting – Edison may have brought light indoors but it would take the work of American inventor Charles F. Brush to shine electric light on city streets well after the sun set. Brush had an early interest in electrical engineering and constructed his first arc light while he was in high school during the 1860s. After Gramme’s work on the DC dynamo and the discovery of electricity’s convertibility, Brush set out to develop an arc lighting system to maintain a series of lights. Brush installed his first commercial arc lighting system in 1878 and by the early 1880s, many American cities had street lighting systems based on Brush’s designs. Although his wasn’t the first arc light, Brush’s system had a simple design, produced a longer service life in street lights and was easier to maintain. Brush’s engineering activities led to the development of more than 50 patented inventions in his lifetime.
Lee de Forest and the Audion Vacuum Tube – The amplification of electrical signals by processing equipment is a foundational aspect of modern electronics. That’s why it’s no understatement to say that the Audion vacuum tube developed by American inventor Lee de Forest has enabled the creation of all the electronic devices we know today. De Forest’s contribution was to take a vacuum tube having two electrodes and introduced a third electrode, giving the device the capability of amplifying an electrical signal traveling between the two other electrodes. He first created what became known as the Audion triode vacuum tube in 1906 and by the 1910s, American telephone company AT&T was using these Audions at strategic points along a transnational telephone line to boost telephone signals as they crossed the country. De Forest held 180 U.S. patents during his lifetime and was named defendant in a number of lawsuits during his life, including several patent infringement suits.