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What is Electrical Engineering?

Electrical engineering is one of the newer branches of engineering, and dates back to the late 19th century. It is the branch of engineering that deals with the technology of electricity. Electrical engineers work on a wide range of components, devices, and systems from tiny microchips to huge power station generators.

Early experiments with electricity include primitive batteries and static charges. However, the actual design, construction and manufacturing of useful devices and systems began with the implementation of Michael Farady's Law of Induction, which essentially states that the voltage in a circuit is proportional to the rate of change in the magnetic field through the circuit. This law applies to the basic principles of the electric generator, the electric motor and the transformer. The advent of the modern age is marked by the introduction of electricity to homes, businesses and industry, all of which were made possible by electrical engineers. 

Some of the most prominent pioneers in electrical engineering include Thomas Edison (electric lightbulb), George Westinghouse (alternating current), Nikola Tesla (induction motor), Guglielmo Marconi (radio), and Philo T. Farnsworth (television). These innovators turned ideas and concepts about electricity into practical devices and systems that ushered in the modern age.
Since its early beginnings, the field of electrical engineering has grown and branched out into a number of specialized categories, including power generation and transmission systems, motors, batteries, and control systems. Electrical engineering also includes electronics, which has itself branched into an even greater number of subcategories, such as radio frequency (RF) systems, telecommunications, remote sensing, signal processing, digital circuits, instrumentation, audio, video and optoelectronics. 

The field of electronics was born with the invention of the thermionic valve diode vacuum tube in 1904 by John Ambrose Fleming. The vacuum tube basically acts as a current amplifier but outputting a multiple of its input current. It was the foundation of all electronics, including radios, television, and radar, until the mid-20th century. It was largely supplanted by the transistor, which was developed in 1947 at AT&T's Bell Laboratories by William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, for which they received the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics. 

What does an electrical engineer do?

"Electrical engineers design, develop, test, and supervise the manufacturing of electrical equipment, such as electric motors, radar, and navigation systems, communication systems and power generation equipment," states the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Electronic engineers design and develop electronic equipment, such as broadcast and communication systems -  from portable muscle players to global positioning systems (GPS)."

If it's a practical, real-world device that produces, conducts or uses electricity, in all likelihood, it was designed by an electrical engineer. Additionally, engineers may conduct or write the specifications for destructive or nondestructive testing of the performance, reliability and long-term durability or devices and components. 

Today's electrical engineers design electrical devices and systems using basic components such as conductors, coils, magnets, batteries, switches, resistors, capacitors, inductors, diodes and transistors. Nearly all of electrical and electronic devices, from the generators at an electrical power plant to the microprocessors in your phone, use these few basic components. 

Critical skills needed in electrical engineering include an in-depth understanding of electrical and electronic theory, mathematics, and materials. This knowledge allows engineers to design circuits to perform specific functions and meet requirements for safety, reliability and energy efficiency, and to predict how they will behave, before a hardware design is implemented. Sometimes, though, circuits are constructed on 'breadboards,' or prototype circuit boards made on computer numeric controlled (CNC) machines for testing before they are put into production.

Electrical engineers are increasingly relying on computer-aided design (CAD) systems to create schematics and lay out circuits. They also use computers to stimulate how electrical devices and systems will function. Computer simulations can be used to model a national power grid or a microprocessor; therefore, proficiency with computers is essential for electrical engineers. In addition to speeding up the process of drafting schematics, "printed circuit board (PCB) layouts and blueprints for electrical and electronic devices, CAD systems, allow for quick and easy modifications of designs and rapid prototyping using CNC machines. 

The Future of Electrical Engineering:

Employment of electrical and electronics engineers is projected to grow by 4% between now and 2022, because of these professionals' versatility in developing and applying emerging technologies.

The applications for these emerging technologies include studying red electrical flashes, called sprites, which hover above some thunderstorms. Victor Pasko, an electrical engineer at Penn State, and his colleagues have developed a model for how the strange lightning evolves and disappears.

Another electrical engineer, Andrea Alu, of the University of Texas at Austin, is studying sound waves and has developed a one-way sound machine. "I can listen to you, but you cannot detect me back; you cannot hear my presence," Alu told LiveScience in a 2014 article. 

And Michael Maharbiz, an electrical engineer at the University of California, Berkley is exploring ways to communicate with the brain wirelessly. 

The BLS states, "The rapid pace of technological innovation and development will likely drive demand for electrical and electronics engineers in research and development, an area in which engineering expertise will be needed to develop distribution systems related to new technologies. 


By Jim Lucas, Live Science Contributor