WPI Journal

Spring 1996

An Electric Century

by William R. Grogan '46

More than 100 years ago, a young, determined professor of physics rose to do battle with the giants of mechanical engineering at WPI. When the dust settled, a new department was born and WPI would never be the same again. Here is the story of the birth of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.

In 1907 the year WPI constructed its electrical engineering building, Harvard historian Henry Adams published his autobiography. Adams was interested in everything. He loved to attend the major international expositions where the great technical advances of the day were displayed to an awestruck public. Of all the wonders he saw at these dazzling showcases, nothing captured his imagination like the dynamo.

In The Education of Henry Adams, he wrote of the forces that drive civilization. Every force has its symbol, he noted. Just as the force that drove the age of the great European cathedrals was symbolized by the cross, the symbol of the more secular 20th century would be the dynamo. He saw the 40-foot-tall dynamos at the great Chicago Exposition of 1893 as a moral force and was dazzled by the sense of power that radiated from these scarcely humming wheels - wheels that seemed to make the old-fashioned, deliberate revolutions of the Earth itself pale in comparison. This silent, infinite force would transform the world, he wrote. How right he was.

As Adams wandered among those dynamos in Chicago, the Electric Age was about to dawn at WPI. And just as Adams might have predicted, the arrival of the upstart discipline of electrical engineering would shake things up there, as it did everywhere else. In the century since, WPI's Electrical Engineering Department (today the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department) has participated in a wild torrent of discovery, development and application that has steadily accelerated in its rate of diversification and social impact. And through it all, it has educated generations of brilliant young men and women. This is the story of how it all began.

Corollary: The Big E

Left, experimental work in high-voltage
electrical transmission was a focus of
research in the early days of the department.

As early as 1750, Ben Franklin, having survived flying kites into thunderstorms, put his empirical understanding of electricity into practice by inventing the lightning rod. But nearly a century would pass before electrophysicists appeared on the scene to begin to establish a scientific basis for electrical phenomena.

They were rewarded by having their names - Oersted, Ampere, Faraday, Ohm, Lagrange and Laplace - forever attached to the units of measure electrical engineers know so well.

Next came the age of the inventors, men like Carl Friedrich Gauss, Ernst Weber, Samuel Morse, Sir Charles Wheatstone, E.W. Siemens, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. A new technological explosion was about to occur, an era in which the discoveries of the electrophysicists and the industrial needs identified by the inventors would be formally linked through the yet undeveloped discipline of electrical engineering.

Chartered on May 10, 1865, the Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science opened its doors on Nov. 11, 1868, to 32 students. While programs in civil engineering and chemistry were offered, the Institute was essentially a mechanical engineering school, with heavy emphasis on shop work. In 1871, as the Institute graduated its first class, there quietly arrived on campus a 27-year-old A.B. graduate of Amherst College who was to create WPI's electrical engineering program. Alonzo Smith Kimball always had an intense interest in electrical phenomena. As a physics professor, he developed laboratories and courses in electricity.

After continuous effort, Professor Kimball was allowed to introduce the first graduate course in electrical engineering at WPI in 1889. His next proposal, to offer an undergraduate course, was met with fierce faculty opposition. The opponents were led by mechanical engineering giants Professors Milton Higgins and George I. Alden. Higgins, superintendent of the Washburn Shops, and Alden, first head of the Mechanical Engineering Department, were ardent supporters of the shop model of engineering education that WPI had pioneered and both had national reputations. Kimball withdrew his proposal, but interest in the field continued to grow. The force that Henry Adams predicted would dominate the coming century could not be denied.

Meanwhile, some alumni and trustees were becoming concerned that the Institute was requiring too much shop work and for too long. MIT (which graduated its first electrical engineering major in 1889) and Cornell had already begun to de-emphasize shop work and develop the scientific component of their academic programs. They had also lengthened their three-and-a-half-year program to four years. Despite a show of force from Alden and Higgins, the WPI trustees voted to extend WPI's program to four years.

Kimball saw his chance. He devised a program that came to be known as the "Kimball Plan." It consisted of two and a half years of mechanical engineering, a half year of "breadth" subjects, and a year of electrical engineering. Once again, Alden's protests that the college was becoming "too scientific" were overruled by the trustees, who quickly approved the plan. The electrical engineering program started when the first four-year term began in September 1893. It was directed by Kimball, who by then was head of the Department of Physics. Meanwhile, Kimball's health, never very good, was getting steadily worse.

A corner of the Boynton Hall basement became WPI's first electrical engineering laboratory. A dynamo was set up there, driven by shafting that passed through a tunnel from the Washburn Shops. Stephen Salisbury II, having become fascinated with electricity, was a strong supporter of the program, donating dynamos, motors and all sorts of measuring equipment to the college. He was also instrumental in the building of the magnetics laboratory (now Skull Tomb), which contained no iron in its construction. Later rendered useless for its primary purpose by the vibrations from the Boynton Street trolley line, the tiny building became an electrical engineering laboratory. When Salisbury died in 1884, his son, Stephen Salisbury III, honored his memory with a $100,000 gift, which the Institute used to construct Salisbury Laboratories, completed in 1889. The EE Department was granted limited space in the new building, which enabled it to abandon the Boynton basement room.

The program in electrical engineering proved extremely popular and grew rapidly. Space became a critical problem, and the program needed full-time management. In 1896, electrical engineering was established as a full department; Harold B. Smith, a human dynamo then just 27 years old, was named its head. That same year, Professors Higgins and Alden left WPI to pursue their immensely profitable commercial interests, amassing fortunes in the process. Alonzo Kimball, possibly one of the greatest unsung heroes of WPI, died a year later, at the age of 53.

Corollary: Testing the Rails

Harold Smith (right) was dynamic and determined. A graduate of Cornell and already recognized for his brilliant work in the field of transformers and insulators, he served as director of the new school of electrical engineering at Purdue for two years before he came to WPI. Smith seemed to be everywhere - teaching, recruiting students, actively consulting on transformers with Westinghouse, and diligently courting Edmund Engler, WPI's fourth president, and the Board of Trustees, impressing on them the fact that his visionary plans were limited by a terrible lack of space. Thus, when Stephen Salisbury III's legacy arrived in 1905, the trustees had no problem deciding what to do with it. Smith wanted the new electrical building to be the largest and finest in America - and it was. Larger than any college engineering building ever built, it was big enough to accommodate WPI's 1907 Commencement. The building's equipment included the renowned WPI Electric Test Car, the Institute's regional trademark for 20 years.

In 1910, Smith's wife drowned in a swimming accident. He remarried the following year, took a two-year leave of absence, and embarked on a cruise around the world. Upon his return, he pursued the development of the department with even more energy, and his reputation (and that of WPI) in high-voltage power transmission soared. A 100-kV line was constructed along Boynton Street. This was later replaced by a 500-kV line supplied by a transformer designed and built at WPI. The work involved cutting-edge research on insulators and transformer insulating oils. The citizens of Worcester came to Boynton Street at night to gasp in wonder at the sparks and corona the line produced.

Left, Electricals pose before one
of the large electrical panels
in the EE Building.

Smith insisted, based upon his industrial experience, that every EE major devote half of his senior year to the study of business methods, and he required a course in engineering economy (the course would continue to be offered in the department until the 1960s). During World War I he worked on submarine development in New London, Conn. Meanwhile, WPI's EE graduates were populating every corner of electrical engineering, and the EE industry responded. Westinghouse donated an elaborate high-voltage lab to WPI and paid for its complete installation, while General Electric donated an array of rotating machines.

At least half of the EE program remained in mechanical engineering, since it was generally thought at the time (by Smith and by leaders at most engineering colleges) that one could not master the concepts of electrical design until one had become quite familiar with the principles of the established mechanical design process. That assumption would not change until World War II.

Right, Harold Smith at the podium
in the lecture hall in the EE building
that would later be named for Hobart Newell '18.

In 1927, EE Professor Clarence Pierce became the first faculty member at WPI to be granted a one-year sabbatical leave; he received a stipend of $1,000. The WPI test car was sold that year, victim of the decline of the electric trolley lines. As a sign of the changing times, a communications lab, with Professor Hobart Newell (who brought WPI into the age of electronics) in charge, was established through a grant from AT&T, and the Radio Corporation of America gave the department a complete radio station.

Newell was a radio pioneer who helped develop the nation's first commercial radio station and the first FM transmitter. Two WPI alumni would make major contributions to the emerging radio industry: Atwater Kent '00, who designed and manufactured a popular line of radio receivers (and who gave his name to WPI's EE building), and Harold Davis '18, who was the first board chairman of NBC.

Left, Hobart Newell '18 (standing),
a pioneer in radio who would go on to create WPI's
educational and research programs in electronics.

The department was at a zenith of educational achievement and was nationally recognized for its excellence. Smith was elected president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (forerunner of IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), and for two years he traveled the country extensively, speaking to a wide variety of engineering and business groups. Growing weary, he retired on July 1, 1931, after serving as department head for 35 years. Theodore H. Morgan from Stanford University took over. Smith died on Feb. 9, 1932, marking the end of a golden age for the Institute.

The era of electronics slowly (perhaps too slowly) supplanted the era of the dynamo. In turn, it was supplanted by the era of computers and computer communications. Today, in fact, the symbol that best defines the state of electrical engineering is the computer screen. One might ask what awesome new force will appear in the 21st century to take the place of this ubiquitous flickering presence. Will it lift humanity to greater heights of grace and understanding, or will it drive us all to the wall of frustration and isolation? The only certainty is that it will not take another 100 years before we discover the answer.

Corollary: The Father of Negative Feedback

Grogan is professor emeritus of electrical engineering and dean of undergraduate studies emeritus at WPI.

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