- The Beginnings
- Late 1800s: A Faculty of Two
- Early 1900s: A Four-Year Program
- The World Wars: Motors and Radio
- Armstrong and Radio Communications
- Edwin Howard Armstrong: Inventions and Major Honors
- Postwar Period: The Golden Era of Systems and Control Theory
- The 1970s: The Modern Era Emerges
- The Department Today
- Teaching and Writing
The first suggestion for a course in electrical engineering at Columbia came in a letter from Thomas Edison to President Barnard. The year was 1882, and Edison's light bulb was just beginning to transform the nighttime activities of Lower Manhattan. This was also the year that Edison's first central electric station was established on Pearl Street. More widespread use of this source of power—for machinery, lights, and transportation—would require vigorous and enterprising young engineers who thoroughly understood electrical science. The term electrical science was coined by Michael Idvorsky Pupin, a professor in our deparment, in his autobiography. Referring to the claims of other scientific departments on the newly developing field, he states, "Crocker and I maintained that there is an 'electrical science' which is the real soul of electrical engineering." That emphasis on scientific foundation continues at Columbia to this day.back to top
Late 1800s: A Faculty of Two
Edison's suggestion, including the offer of a gift of equipment for a teaching museum, germinated for nearly a decade. The relevance of this new discipline to the science of physics and engineering taught in the School of Mines had to be weighed and evaluated. Further, with little precedent to guide the process, a decision on faculty composition had to be made and actual faculty candidates located. Would the best course be practical, or did the subject's scientific basis suggest a more theoretical approach?
Crocker was the perfect choice to bring Columbia's department into the practical work of electrical industry. Prior to coming to Columbia, he had founded the Crocker-Wheeler Electric Motor Company, an early leader in electric machinery. Once at Columbia, he became a prominent figure in electrical engineering professional organizations, including a predecessor to today's Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. He was among the AIEE's first presidents. Because of his industrial experience he understood keenly the role of standards in the growing use of electrical equipment, and chaired the first industrial standards committee. He was a Columbia graduate; the wide-ranging education he received broadened his professional outlook. After retirement, he contributed greatly to the U.S. defense effort, and was coinventor (and test pilot!) of the first helicopter. When Crocker died, Edison reportedly said, "His death removes one of the outstanding pioneers of the electrical industry."
Early 1900s: A Four-Year Program
A full four-year undergraduate course was instituted in 1892 for a degree in electrical engineering. Columbia benefited greatly from the excitement generated by the faculty and their accomplishments. By 1909, when Crocker retired from Columbia, the department had grown and prospered. From 1901 to 1904 the class size grew from five to thirty, and the faculty from two to four. The department, along with the entire engineering school, had moved to Morningside Heights. For the next sixty years, the Electrical Engineering Department was housed in what is now the Mathematics Building.
Pupin served briefly as department chair, before relinquishing this position to Walter Slichter in 1910. Thereafter Pupin's work at Columbia focused on his laboratory, the Marcellus Hartley Laboratory, located in the basement of Philosophy Hall. From this laboratory came some of Columbia's most lasting contributions to electrical engineering. Under Pupin's guidance his students created an entirely new technology in radio communications. back to top
The World Wars: Motors and Radio
Slichter's leadership of electrical engineering lasted until 1941. This era spanned the First World War and the emergence of radio as a communications and entertainment vehicle. The electrification of New York City was completed, and electrically powered industries dominated manufacturing. During the First World War the department played a critical role in giving the United States first-rate electrical technology. Virtually the entire department volunteered to teach in the Navy Submarine School in New London. Both Crocker and Pupin were effective senior consultants. Later, Edwin Howard Armstrong (see below) played a critical role in bringing radio communications to the army in France.
Throughout the Slichter era, the department evolved along two dominant technical tracks: electrical motors and power, and radio. Morton Arendt and Slichter, who trained at General Electric under Steinmetz, were masters of the art of designing and engineering electrical motors, and perhaps could be viewed as Crocker's successors. In radio communications, Armstrong and Morecroft were the dominant forces. Armstrong was the inventor par excellence, but it was Morecroft who first put the technology of radio on paper. In 1921, Morecroft published his ground-breaking book, The Principles of Radio Communications. Clearly, this area of departmental interest can be traced directly to Michael Pupin's deep involvement in electrodynamics. During World War Two, where mobile military communications made effective use of Armstrong's FM system, many students in the Navy V-12 program were taught by electrical engineering faculty, including Professor Morton Arendt, who was completing a long inventive and constructive career that featured variable-speed commutating pole DC motors, storage batteries, and other components used in modern diesel-electric submarine vessels.back to top
Armstrong and Radio Communications
Edwin Howard Armstrong was the most inventive of this talented group. In his full and vibrant life, he completely revolutionized radio communications; these innovations are listed in the attached table and show clearly the truth of the faculty's memorial resolution on the occasion of Armstrong's death: "The gift of a single outstanding invention has been granted to few men but it has been seldom indeed that is has been given to one man to add successively five such epoch-making advances as those of [Armstrong]."
Edwin Howard Armstrong: Inventions and Major Honors
|1912–13||Invention of the regenerative detector and the triode oscillator|
|1917 ||Medal of Honor, Institute of Radio Engineering|
|1917||Invention of the super-heterodyne receiver|
|1919 ||Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur|
|1922 ||Invention of the super-regenerative circuit|
|1929 ||Doctor of Science, Columbia University|
|1933 ||Invention of wideband frequency modulation|
|1935 ||Armstrong Medal, Radio Club of America |
|1939||Egleston Medal, Columbia University|
|1940||Holly Medal, American Society of Mechanical Engineers|
|1940||Modern Pioneer Award, National Association of Manufacturing|
|1941||Doctor of Science, Muhlenberg University|
|1941||Medal, Class of 1889, School of Mines, Columbia University|
|1941||Franklin Medal, Franklin Institute|
|1942||Edison Medal, American Institute of Electrical Engineers|
|1947||Medal of Merit, United States of America with Presidential Citation|
|1948||Doctor of Science, L'Universite Laval|
|1950||Armstrong Medal, Radio Club of America|
|1953||Invention of FM multiplexing|
Postwar Period: The Golden Era of Systems and Control Theory
The 1950s and '60s saw an explosive postwar growth of students and faculty in the department and a strong surge of graduate instruction and doctoral research. Professor John R. Ragazzini, who joined the faculty after completing his doctorate at Columbia in 1941, chaired the department at mid-century after wartime research in UHF techniques, analog computers, and control systems. In 1945 Ragazzini and his colleagues had demonstrated an "operational amplifier," which later became an indispensable building block of electronic circuits. Motivated by the emergence of the digital computer, his seminal work on sampled-data systems and early digital control continued into the 1950s.
The 1970s: The Modern Era Emerges
During this period, the transistor, digital electronics, and computers were rapidly enlarging the universe of the electrical engineer. The number and fields of expertise of the faculty grew correspondingly. While Columbia had become known in the '50s and '60s for its theoretical contributions, the '70s saw a return to the experimental aspects of electrical engineering. Research in solid state devices, plasma physics, millimeter waves, and integrated circuits assumed an important place in the department.
The Department Today
An important milestone in the more recent history of the department was the operation, over a 12-year period (1985–97), of the Center for Telecommunications Research. The center, funded by NSF and a large number of industrial partners, was originally created and led by Professor Mischa Schwartz. It performed fundamental as well as applied research on all aspects of high-speed communication systems and applications.
Teaching and Writing
The teaching activities of the department have produced an astonishing list of over seventy textbooks authored by the faculty since the days of Pupin. The tradition was inaugurated by Pupin himself, who wrote the Pulitzer prize-winning autobiography, From Immigrant to Inventor. Professors Jacob Millman and Mischa Schwartz are our stars with a combined total of 16 best-selling texts to their credit. Through these works, translated into eight foreign languages, our leadership has been extended to the world at large.