Electrical engineering is an engineering discipline that deals with the study and application of electricity and electromagnetism. Its practitioners are called electrical engineers. Electrical engineering is a broad field that encompasses many subfields including those that deal with power, control systems, electronics, and telecommunications.


Electricity is a subject of scientific interest since at least the 17th century. However, it was not until the 19th century that research into the subject started to intensify. Notable developments in this century include the work of Georg Ohm, who in 1827 quantified the relationship between the electric current and potential difference in a conductor, and the work of Michael Faraday, who in 1831 discovered electromagnetic induction.

However, during these years the study of electricity was largely considered to be a subfield of physics and hence the domain of physicists. It was not until the late 19th century that universities started to offer degrees in electrical engineering. The Darmstadt University of Technology established the first chair of electrical engineering worldwide in 1882 and offered a quadrennial study course of electrical engineering in 1883. In 1882, MIT offered the first course on electrical engineering in the United States. This course was organized by Professor Charles Cross who was head of the Physics department and who later became a founder of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (which later became the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). The University College London founded the first chair of electrical engineering in the United Kingdom in 1885. In 1886, the University of Missouri established the first department of electrical engineering in the United States. [1]

During this period, work in the area increased dramatically. Of particular note was the work of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. In 1882, Edison switched on the world's first large-scale electrical supply network that provided 110 volts direct current to fifty-nine customers in lower Manhattan. In 1887, Tesla filed patents related to a competing form of power distribution known as alternating current. In the following years a bitter rivalry between the two, known as the "War of Currents", took place over the preferred method of distribution.

Tesla's work on induction motors and polyphase systems would influence electrical engineering for years to come. Edison's work on telegraphy and his development of the stock ticker would prove lucrative for his company (which would eventually become one of the world's largest companies, General Electric). As well as the contributions of Edison and Tesla, a number of other figures would play an equally important role in the progress of electrical engineering at this time. Alexander Bell would influence electrical engineering with his work in telecommunications, Lee de Forest with his work on the Audion (a predecessor to the transistor) and Guglielmo Marconi with his popularization of radio.

Beyond this period, the single most important invention in electrical engineering would probably come from John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain, who in 1947 invented the transistor. This device would go on to revolutionize electrical engineering by paving the way for powerful integrated circuits. Today, much of the wonder of the electronic world today is due to the capabilities of these circuits.

Training and certification[]

Electrical engineers typically possess an academic degree with a major in electrical engineering. The length of study for such a degree is usually three or four years and the completed degree may be designated as a Bachelor of Engineering, Bachelor of Science, or Bachelor of Applied Science depending upon the university.

The degree generally includes units covering physics, mathematics, project management, and specific topics in electrical engineering. Initially such topics cover most, if not all, of the subfields of electrical engineering. Students then choose to specialize in one or more subfields towards the end of the degree.

Some electrical engineers also choose to pursue a postgraduate degree such as a Master of Engineering, a Doctor of Philosophy in Engineering, or an Engineer's degree. The Master and Engineer's degree may consist of research, or coursework, or a mixture of the two. The Doctor of Philosophy consists of a significant research component and is often viewed as the entry point to academia. In the United Kingdom, the Master of Engineering is often considered an undegraduate degree of slightly longer duration than the Bachelor of Engineering.

In most countries, a Bachelor's degree in engineering represents the first step towards certification and the degree program itself is certified by a professional body. After completing a certified degree program the engineer must satisfy a range of requirements (including work experience requirements) before being certified. Once certified the engineer is designated the title of Professional Engineer (in the United States and Canada), Chartered Engineer (in the United Kingdom, Ireland, India, South Africa, and Zimbabwe), Chartered Professional Engineer (in Australia), or European Engineer (in much of the European Union).

The advantages of certification vary depending upon location. For example, in the United States and Canada "only a licensed engineer may...seal engineering work for public and private clients". [2] This requirement is enforced by state and provincial legislation such as Quebec's Engineers Act. [3] In other countries, such as Australia, no such legislation exists. Practically all certifying bodies maintain a code of ethics that they expect all members to abide by or risk expulsion. [4] In this way these organizations play an important role in maintaining ethical standards for the profession. Even in jurisdictions where certification has little or no legal bearing on work, engineers are subject to the law. For example, much engineering work is done by contract and is therefore covered by contract law. In cases where an engineer's work fails he or she may be subject to the tort of negligence and, in extreme cases, the charge of criminal negligence. [5] An engineer's work must also comply with numerous other rules and regulations such as building codes and legislation pertaining to environmental law.

Professional bodies of note for electrical engineers include the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). The IEEE claims to produce 30 percent of the world's literature in electrical engineering, has over 360,000 members worldwide and holds over 300 conferences anually. [6] The IEE publishes 14 journals, has a worldwide membership of 120,000, certifies Chartered Engineers in the United Kingdom and claims to be the largest professional engineering society in Europe. [7] [8]

Tools and work[]

From the global positioning system to electric power generation, electrical engineers are responsible for a wide range of technologies. They design, develop, test, and supervise the deployment of electrical systems and electronic devices. For example, they may work on the design of telecommunication systems, the operation of electric power stations, the lighting and wiring of buildings, the design of household appliances, or the electrical control of industrial machinery. [9]

Fundamental to the discipline are the sciences of physics and mathematics as these help to obtain both a qualitative and quantitative description of how such systems will work. Today most engineering work involves the use of computers and it is commonplace to use computer-aided design programs when designing electrical systems. That said, the ability to sketch ideas is still invaluable for quickly communicating with others.

Although most electrical engineers will understand basic circuit theory, the theories employed by engineers generally depend upon the work they do. For example, quantum mechanics and solid state physics might be relevant to an engineer working on VLSI but are largely irrelevant to engineers working with macroscopic electrical systems. Even circuit theory may not be relevant to a person designing telecommunication systems that use off-the-shelf components. Perhaps the most important technical skills for electrical engineers are reflected in university programs, which emphasize strong numerical skills, computer literacy and the ability to understand the technical language and concepts that relate to electrical engineering.

For most engineers technical work accounts for only a fraction of the work they do. A lot of time is also spent on tasks such as discussing proposals with clients, preparing budgets and determining project schedules. [10] Many senior engineers manage a team of technicians or other engineers and for this reason project management skills are important. Most engineering projects involve some form of documentation and strong written communication skills are therefore very important.

The workplaces of electrical engineers are just as varied as the types of work they do. Electrical engineers may be found in the pristine lab environment of a fabrication plant, or in the offices of a consulting firm, or on site at a mine. During their working life, electrical engineers may find themselves supervising a wide range of individuals including scientists, electricians, computer programmers, and other engineers.

Obsolescence of technical skills is a serious concern for electrical engineers. Membership and participation in technical societies, regular reviews of periodicals in the field and a habit of continued learning are therefore essential to maintaining proficiency. [11]


There are around 366,000 people working as electrical engineers in the United States constituting 0.25% of the labour force (2002). This makes electrical engineering the largest engineering discipline in the United States with the exception of software engineering. [12] In Australia there are around 24,000, constituting 0.23% of the labour force (2005), and in Canada there are around 34,600, constituting 0.21% of the labour force (2001). [13] [14] All of these countries expect employment in the field to grow, but not rapidly, in the near future.

Outside of these countries, it is difficult to gauge the demographics of the profession due to less meticulous reporting on labour statistics. One way to estimate the relative size of the profession in each country is to compare graduation statistics. In 2002, the National Science Foundation published statistics on the number of degrees granted in engineering by various countries. A summary of these statistics is shown on the right though the foundation notes that the numbers "may not be strictly comparable". [15]

In the United States and, to a lesser extent, throughout the western world there is a perception that a large number of technical jobs including those concerned with electrical engineering are being outsourced to countries such as India and China. To illustrate this claim statistics are often misrepresented (see note). Overall probably one of the best summaries of the effect of outsourcing on the United States is given by the U.S. Department of Labor which notes that "increasing use of engineering services performed in other countries will act to limit employment growth" but that overall the profession "is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2012". [16]

Other statements on the profession are less controversial. In the United States, the number of electrical engineers graduating has fallen from a peak in the mid-1980's. [17] In 2000, engineering degrees formed less than 20% of the degrees granted in the United States and Australia, compared to just over 25% for the United Kingdom and Japan and over 30% for Germany and South Korea. [18] Also widely accepted is that the profession is male dominated. This is illustrated by the statistical sources in the first paragraph that show 96% of electrical engineers in Australia and 89% of electrical engineers in Canada are male.

Related disciplines[]

One notable discipline related to electrical engineering is that of mechatronics. Mechatronics is an engineering discipline, which deals with the convergence of electrical and mechanical systems. Such combined systems are known as electromechanical systems and have widespread adoption. Examples include automated manufacturing systems, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems and various subsystems of aircrafts and automobiles.

Mechatronics is typically used to refer to macroscopic systems but futurists have predicted the emergence of very small electromechanical devices. Already such small devices, known as micro electromechanical systems (MEMS), are used in automobiles to tell airbags when to deploy, in digital projectors to create sharper images and inkjet printers to create nozzles for high-definition printing. In the future it is hoped the devices will help build tiny implantable medical devices and improve optical communication. [19]

Since the 1950s, some electrical engineers and defence scientists developped Electronic warfare engineering which is the application of scientific and mathematical principles to develop the best use of the electromagnetic spectrum to deny its effective use by an adversary. It comprises radar theory, electro-optics, computer engineering and systems engineering.

Another related discipline is that of biomedical engineering, which is concerned with the design of medical equipment. This includes fixed equipment such as ventilators, MRI scanners and electrocardiograph monitors as well as mobile equipment such as cochlear implants, artificial pacemakers and artificial hearts.



Note I - In October 2002, Cadence Design Systems CEO Ray Bingham announced that "China produces 600,000 engineers a year, and 200,000 are electrical engineers." The United States branch of the IEEE disputed this pointing out that it was triple the figure reported for 1999 by the National Science Foundation. [20] Other sources draw comparisons using the number of engineering graduates reported by the All India Council for Technical Education (350,000) [21] with that reported by the National Science Foundation (60,000) [22]. But this comparison is dubious because the National Science Foundation excludes software engineers from its statstics. A more reasonable comparison is probably given by U.S. News who suggest the Indian figure is around 82,000. [23]


  1. ^  Ryder, John and Fink, Donald; (1984) Engineers and Electrons, IEEE Press. ISBN 087942172X
  2. ^  "Why Should You Get Licensed?". National Society of Professional Engineers. URL accessed on July 11, 2005.
  3. ^  "Engineers Act". Quebec Statutes and Regulations (CanLII). URL accessed on July 24, 2005.
  4. ^  Template:Citenewsauthor
  5. ^  "Codes of Ethics and Conduct". Online Ethics Center. URL accessed on July 24, 2005.
  6. ^  "About the IEEE". IEEE. URL accessed on July 11, 2005.
  7. ^  "About the IEE". The IEE. URL accessed on July 11, 2005.
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  10. ^  Trevelyan, James; (2005). What Do Engineers Really Do?. University of Western Australia. (seminar with slides)
  11. ^  "Electrical and Electronics Engineers, except Computer". Occupational Outlook Handbook. URL accessed on July 16, 2005.
  12. ^  "Electrical and Electronics Engineers, except Computer". Occupational Outlook Handbook. URL accessed on August 27, 2005. and "Computer Hardware Engineers". Occupational Outlook Handbook. URL accessed on August 27, 2005.
  13. ^  "Electrical and Electronics Engineers". Australian Careers. URL accessed on August 27, 2005.
  14. ^  "Electrical and Electronics Engineers (NOC 2133)". Job Futures (National Edition). URL accessed on August 27, 2005.
  15. ^  National Science Foundation (2002), Science and Engineering Indicators 2002, Appendix 2-18.
  16. ^  "Electrical and Electronics Engineers, except Computer". Occupational Outlook Handbook. URL accessed on July 16, 2005.
  17. ^  "Electrical engineering degrees awarded, by degree level and sex of recipient: 1966–2001". Science and Engineering Degrees: 1966-2001. URL accessed on August 27, 2005.
  18. ^  Department of Education, Science and Training (2004), Australian Australian Science and Technology at a glance 2004 - Human Resources in Science and Technology, slide 10.
  19. ^  "MEMS the world!". IntelliSense Software Corporation. URL accessed on July 17, 2005.
  20. ^  IEEE-USA, IEEE-USA Seeks to Substantiate Information in the H-1B Guest Worker Visa Policy Debate, January 30, 2003.
  21. ^  Template:Citepaper version
  22. ^  "Engineering degrees awarded, by degree level and sex of recipient: 1966–2001". Science and Engineering Degrees: 1966-2001. URL accessed on August 27, 2005.
  23. ^  Template:Citenewsauthor

See also[]

External links[]

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