In 1882 Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, wrote a letter to then-Columbia President Frederick A.P. Barnard, suggesting a course in electrical engineering. That same year Edison established his first central electric station in lower Manhattan, creating a need for young engineers who understood electrical science and its revolutionary applications for machinery, lighting and transportation.

Late 1800s: A Faculty of Two

Edison's idea, including the offer of a gift of equipment for a teaching museum, germinated for nearly a decade as Columbia officials considered how such a discipline would mesh with the physics and engineering taught at the School of Mines. Should the approach be practical or theoretical?

Finally, in 1889, Columbia's trustees decided to establish a department of electrical engineering, offering two years of graduate study to students who had completed the standard four-year mines curriculum.

The first two faculty members represented the opposite poles of theory and practice. Francis Bacon Crocker had a background in industry as founder of the Crocker-Wheeler Electric Motor Company while Michael Idvorsky Pupin was a brilliant Serbian immigrant and physicist by training.

Late 1900s: A Four-Year Program

Just three years later, in 1892, the fledgling department was offering a four-year undergraduate degree program, and over the next decade it flourished. From 1901 to 1904, class size grew from five to 30, and the faculty doubled to four.

By the early 20th century, the entire engineering school had moved to Morningside Heights along with the rest of the University, and Pupin set up his storied laboratory, the Marcellus Hartley Laboratory, in the basement of Philosophy Hall, where he oversaw the development of lasting contributions to electrical engineering. It was there that Edwin Howard Armstrong did most of his work, including creating a receiver and radio transmitter that resulted in FM.

The World Wars: Motors and Radio

Under the leadership of Walter Slichter, who chaired the department from 1910-1941, Columbia engineers played a key role in giving the U.S. an edge in radio communications and electrical technology. A core group of faculty led the way, including Slichter, Morton Arendt, John H. Morecroft and the legendary Armstrong. 

Armstrong and Radio Communications

Armstrong, CC'13 HON'29, completely revolutionized radio communications. When he died in 1954, the faculty's memorial resolution credited him with five “epoch-making” inventions. These included the regenerative detector, invented while he was still an undergraduate; the super-regenerative and super-heterodyne circuits; wideband FM radio; and FM multiplexing.

Armstrong's life was typical of that of a driven genius. He worked intensely and won many awards and honorary degrees throughout his life. For his contributions to the U.S. war effort during both world wars – he rose to the rank of major during World War I – he was honored by both the American and French governments.

The list of his inventions and major honors is long and includes the Medal of Honor from the Institute of Radio Engineering, 1917; the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1919 from the French government; the first-ever Armstrong Award from the Radio Club of America, named after him to honor his achievements in radio, in 1935; Columbia’s Egleston Medal in 1939; the Holley Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1940; the Franklin Medal from the Franklin Institute, 1941; the Edison Medal from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1942; and in 1947, the Medal for Merit with a presidential citation, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. government. 

Postwar Period: The Golden Era of Systems and Control Theory

The 1950s and '60s ushered in an era of explosive growth, with a strong surge of graduate instruction and doctoral research. For the first time, students could earn a PhD in engineering science, and Columbia doctoral students went on to become leaders in the field.

Among them was John R. Ragazzini, who joined the faculty in 1941 and also served as department chair. In 1945 Ragazzini and his colleagues demonstrated an "operational amplifier," which later became an indispensable building block of electronic circuits.

Other departmental stars included Ralph J. Schwarz, Lotfi A. Zadeh and Jacob Millman, author of a seminal textbook in electronics. Due largely to their efforts, this period became known as a golden age of activities in systems and controls. 

The 1970s: the Modern Era Emerges

The transistor, digital electronics, computers – all of these innovations were rapidly enlarging the universe of the electrical engineer in the 1970s. While Columbia had become known in the previous two decades for its theoretical contributions, the '70s saw a return to experimental aspects of electrical engineering, including research in solid state devices, plasma physics, millimeter waves and integrated circuits.

At the same time, the department began to develop important long-term relationships with industry, government and other academic institutions, especially in communications, electronics, modern radar engineering and related fields. Two key hires were S. A. Schelkunoff and W. R. Bennett, both of Bell Laboratories, who made significant contributions in electromagnetic theory and communication theory, respectively.

With the growth of digital computing, the department was renamed Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1968. It reverted to its original name in 1979 when the University created a new department of computer science.

One milestone of the modern era was the creation of the Center for Telecommunications Research (1985-97), funded by the National Science Foundation and industrial partners to conduct fundamental and applied research in high-speed communication systems. The center was the brainchild of Mischa Schwartz, who led a renewed burst of activity in telecommunications.

Teaching and Writing

Besides a rich legacy of technological innovations, faculty members have published more than 70 textbooks since Pupin himself wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, From Immigrant to Inventor. Together, Jacob Millman and Mischa Schwartz have a combined total of 16 best-selling texts. As their work and that of others has been translated into foreign languages, Columbia engineering has achieved global dominance.

In 1983, the centennial year of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a poll of the profession was taken to select the top 10 technical contributors, industrial contributors and educators for a centennial hall of fame. Of the 10 educators, three of them – more than at any other institution – were Columbia faculty: Pupin, Millman and Schwartz. And appearing at the top of the list of 10 all-time top technical contributors – in a tie with William B. Shockley, the inventor of the transistor – was Edwin Howard Armstrong.