The History of Electrical Engineering


by Prof. Dr. Walter Kaiser (former Chair of Historical Development of Technology)

Elektromagnetischer Zeigertelegraph Siemens-Pressebild Electromagnetic pointer telegraph by Werner Siemens, 1847; implemented by Johann Georg Halske

Roughly between 1790 and 1830, in physics the basics of electrodynamics- so called by Ampère -were discovered . Since 1820 , there have also been initial approaches to a theoretical description. Amazingly fast - and in the 19th Century only comparable to c hemistry - industrial electrical engineering developed on the basis of these new physical discoveries . Initialized by sophisticated optical telegraphs on the one hand and limited by the weak electrochemical power sources on the other , the focus of this early electrical engineering clearly was on telegraphy . Government users , i.e., military and administration, as well as wealthy individuals and corporations , however, were enabled to convey messages over great distances with unprecedented speed .

  “Zentrale“ der Deutschen Edison-Gesellschaft Bildrechte beim SiemensForum, München “Head office“ of the German Edison Society in Berlin (1885), used for illuminating the royal theater, the German Reichsbank, and some renowned restaurants. (Equipment by Siemens)

"Power Engineering" followed i n the second stage of the development of industrial electrical engineering, booming from 1880 onwards. Due to improved large generators which became independent of permanent magnets , electro-forming , electric motors, and lighting systems where able to finally enforce themselves. While arc lamps filled streets and squares with bright light , the incandescent bulb allowed electric lighting inside buildings . The achievements of electrical engineering became visible to the public not least through the construction of tramways since 1880.

  Electric tramway Bildrechte beim SiemensForum, München The first electric tramway operating on schedule in Lichterfelde/Berlin, Siemens 1881

Around 1900, the area of industrial electrical engineering was already extraordinarily diverse: in Germany, the companies Siemens and AEG competed , in Hungary there was Ganz & Co., in Switzerland Brown , Boveri & Cie . Electrical engineering in the United States was dominated by the internationally growing foundations of Edison , Westinghouse and Thomson and simultaneously shaped by the violent clashes in the transmission systems, i.e., the contrast between direct current and alternating current. As a medium of the electrical engineering industry and stage for the presentation of important innovations served the major international electrical engineering exhibitions . With the exhibition in Frankfurt in 1891, the three-phase AC current transmission system which dominates Central Europe until today, became available. Almost simultaneously with the onset of the boom in power engineering and in close interaction with industry, the new engineering discipline of electrical engineering has was created in a number of German technical universities .

A signal of the growing economic importance of electrical engineering and also of a lasting change in production was the use of phase current and three phase motors in heavy industry from about 1910 onwards. The electrification of the individual life was rather slow , however . For example, electric lighting had to prevail against the cheaper gas light . Despite early patents, electrical equipment found its way into private households in large numbers only from the 1920s and 1930s onwards .

  Photo: Bosch First refrigerator from Bosch, spring exhibition Leipzig 1933

" Weak current technology" had first developed world-embracing telegraph and telephone networks , with considerable sums having been invested in devices, switching systems, transmission lines and cables. It was not until around 1910 that it experienced its second heyday in the form of wireless communications technology. What is fascinating is that even with the simple transmitter and receiver technology of the early years, the Atlantic could be bridged . This development accelerated at the end of World War I and inbetween the two wars , with the general broadcast and early television technologies being in the foreground . Before the outbreak of World War II, however, especially radio broadcasting had become a major economic factor , the central medium, and an integral part of family life .

  Bildrechte beim SiemensForum, München    Siemens-Pressebild    Bildrechte bei Philips Communications   Bildrechte bei SiemensForum, München