History of electronic engineering

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The history of electronic engineering is a long one.[citation needed] Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1972) defines electronics as "The science and technology of the conduction of electricity in a vacuum, a gas, or a semiconductor, and devices based thereon".[1]

Electronic engineering as a profession sprang from technological improvements in the telegraph industry during the late 19th century and in the radio and telephone industries during the early 20th century. People gravitated to radio, attracted by the technical fascination it inspired, first in receiving and then in transmitting. Many who went into broadcasting in the 1920s had become "amateurs" in the period before World War I.[2] The modern discipline of electronic engineering was to a large extent born out of telephone-, radio-, and television-equipment development and the large amount of electronic-systems development during World War II of radar, sonar, communication systems, and advanced munitions and weapon systems. In the interwar years, the subject was known as radio engineering. The word electronics began to be used in the 1940s[3] In the late 1950s the term electronic engineering started to emerge.[4]

The electronic laboratories (Bell Labs in the United States for instance) created and subsidized by large corporations in the industries of radio, television, and telephone equipment, began churning out a series of electronic advances. In 1948 came the transistor and in 1960 the integrated circuit, which would revolutionize the electronic industry.[5][6] In the UK, the subject of electronic engineering became distinct from electrical engineering as a university-degree subject around 1960. (Before this time, students of electronics and related subjects like radio and telecommunications had to enroll in the electrical engineering department of the university as no university had departments of electronics. Electrical engineering was the nearest subject with which electronic engineering could be aligned, although the similarities in subjects covered (except mathematics and electromagnetism) lasted only for the first year of three-year courses.)

Electronic engineering (even before it acquired the name) facilitated the development of many technologies including wireless telegraphy, radio, television, radar, computers and microprocessors.

Wireless telegraphy and radio[edit]

Some of the devices which would enable wireless telegraphy were invented before 1900. These include the spark-gap transmitter and the coherer with early demonstrations and published findings by David Edward Hughes (1880)[7] and Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1887 to 1890)[8] and further additions to the field by Édouard Branly, Nikola Tesla, Oliver Lodge, Jagadish Chandra Bose, and Ferdinand Braun. In 1896, Guglielmo Marconi went on to develop a practical and widely used radio system.[9][10]

In 1904, John Ambrose Fleming, the first professor of electrical Engineering at University College London, invented the first radio tube, the diode. Then, in 1906, Robert von Lieben and Lee De Forest independently developed the amplifier tube, called the triode. Electronics is often considered to have begun with the invention of the triode. Within 10 years, the device was used in radio transmitters and receivers as well as systems for long distance telephone calls.

The invention of the triode amplifier, generator, and detector made audio communication by radio practical. (Reginald Fessenden's 1906 transmissions used an electro-mechanical alternator.) In 1912, Edwin H. Armstrong invented the regenerative feedback amplifier and oscillator; he also invented the superheterodyne radio receiver and could be considered the father of modern radio.[11]

The first known radio news program was broadcast 31 August 1920 by station 8MK, the unlicensed predecessor of WWJ (AM) in Detroit, Michigan. Regular wireless broadcasts for entertainment commenced in 1922 from the Marconi Research Centre at Writtle near Chelmsford, England. The station was known as 2MT and was followed by 2LO, broadcasting from Strand, London.

While some early radios used some type of amplification through electric current or battery, through the mid-1920s the most common type of receiver was the crystal set. In the 1920s, amplifying vacuum tubes revolutionized both radio receivers and transmitters.

Vacuum tubes remained the preferred amplifying device for 40 years, until researchers working for William Shockley at Bell Labs invented the transistor in 1947. In the following years, transistors made small portable radios, or transistor radios, possible as well as allowing more powerful mainframe computers to be built. Transistors were smaller and required lower voltages than vacuum tubes to work.

Before the invention of the integrated circuit in 1959, electronic circuits were constructed from discrete components that could be manipulated by hand. These non-integrated circuits consumed much space and power, were prone to failure and were limited in speed although they are still common in simple applications. By contrast, integrated circuits packed a large number — often millions — of tiny electrical components, mainly transistors, into a small chip around the size of a coin.[12]


In 1928 Philo Farnsworth made the first public demonstration of a purely electronic television.[13] During the 1930s several countries began broadcasting, and after World War II it spread to millions of receivers, eventually worldwide. Ever since then, electronics have been fully present in television devices.

Modern televisions and video displays have evolved from bulky electron tube technology to use more compact devices, such as plasma and Liquid-crystal displays. The trend is for even lower power devices such as the organic light-emitting diode displays, and it is most likely to replace the LCD and plasma technologies.[14]

Radar and radio location[edit]

During World War II many efforts were expended in the electronic location of enemy targets and aircraft. These included radio beam guidance of bombers, electronic counter measures, early radar systems etc. During this time very little if any effort was expended on consumer electronics developments.[15]


A computer is a programmable machine that receives input, stores and manipulates data, and provides output in a useful format.

Although mechanical examples of computers have existed through much of recorded human history, the first electronic computers were developed in the mid-20th century (1940–1945). These were the size of a large room, consuming as much power as several hundred modern personal computers (PCs).[1] Modern computers based on integrated circuits are millions to billions of times more capable than the early machines, and occupy a fraction of the space.[2] Simple computers are small enough to fit into small pocket devices, and can be powered by a small battery. Personal computers in their various forms are icons of the Information Age and are what most people think of as "computers". However, the embedded computers found in many devices from MP3 players to fighter aircraft and from toys to industrial robots are the most numerous.

The ability to store and execute lists of instructions called programs makes computers extremely versatile, distinguishing them from calculators. The Church–Turing thesis is a mathematical statement of this versatility: any computer with a certain minimum capability is, in principle, capable of performing the same tasks that any other computer can perform. Therefore, computers ranging from a netbook to a supercomputer are all able to perform the same computational tasks, given enough time and storage capacity.


In 1969, Ted Hoff conceived the commercial microprocessor at Intel and thus ignited the development of the personal computer. Hoff's invention was part of an order by a Japanese company for a desktop programmable electronic calculator, which Hoff wanted to build as cheaply as possible. The first realization of the microprocessor was the Intel 4004, a 4-bit processor, in 1969, but only in 1973 did the Intel 8080, an 8-bit processor, make the building of the first personal computer, the MITS Altair 8800, possible. The first PC was announced to the general public on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics.

Many electronics engineers today specialize in the development of programs for microprocessor based electronic systems, known as embedded systems. Hybrid specializations such as Computer Engineering have emerged due to the detailed knowledge of the hardware that is required for working on such systems.[16] Software engineers typically do not study microprocessors at the same level as computer and electronics engineers. Engineers who exclusively carry out the role of programming embedded systems or microprocessors are referred to as "embedded systems engineers", or "firmware engineers".


  1. ^ Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, W & R Chambers, Edinburgh, 1972, page 417, ISBN 055010206X
  2. ^ Erik Barnouw A Tower in Babel, p. 28, Oxford University Press US, 1966 ISBN 978-0195004748
  3. ^ Department of Defense appropriations for ... - United States. Congress. House. Committee on Appropriations - Google Books. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-03-14. 
  4. ^ Radio Engineering Principles. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-03-14. 
  5. ^ Daniel Todd The World Electronics Industry, p. 55, Taylor & Francis, 1990 ISBN 978-0415024976
  6. ^ Silicon Destiny. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-03-14. 
  7. ^ Prof. D. E. Hughes' Research in Wireless Telegraphy, The Electrician, Volume 43, 1899, pages 35, 40-41, 93, 143-144, 167, 217, 401, 403, 767
  8. ^ Massie, W. W., & Underhill, C. R. (1911). Wireless telegraphy and telephony popularly explained. New York: D. Van Nostrand
  9. ^ Bryan H. Bunch/Alexander Hellemans The History of Science and Technology, p. 436, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004 ISBN 978-0618221233
  10. ^ Wireless TelegraphyProceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers pp. 101-5
  11. ^ Paul J. Nahin The Science of Radio, pp. xxxv-vi, Springer, 2001 ISBN 978-0387951508
  12. ^ David A. Hodges/Horace G. Jackson/Resve A. Saleh Analysis and Design of Digital Integrated Circuits, p. 2, McGraw-Hill Professional, 2003 ISBN 978-0072283655
  13. ^ "Philo Taylor Farnsworth (1906-1971)". The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. Archived from the original on 2011-06-22. Retrieved 2010-12-20. 
  14. ^ Joseph Shinar Organic Light-Emitting Devices, p. 45, 2003 ISBN 978-0387953434
  15. ^ Martin L. Van Creveld Technology and War, pp. 267-8, Simon and Schuster, 1991 ISBN 978-0029331538
  16. ^ "Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Undergraduate Programs" (PDF). UMBC. Retrieved 2015-12-04.