History of ECE, 1895-1970

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The academic year 1895-96 marked the beginning of the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Michigan.  As early as 1888-89 a course in dynamo-electric machinery had been given at the University, but it was offered through the Department of Physics.

The man who taught this pioneering course was Professor Henry Smith Carhart.  The laboratory equipment  that he had to work with, installed in the east basement room of the Physics Laboratory, was meager indeed.  It consisted of a 25-hoursepower high-speed steam engine driving a line shaft, an Edison dynamo with arc lamps, a 5-horsepower constant potential motor, and a Brackett cradle dynamometer.  Adjacent to the Laboratory were a small photometric room and a battery room containing a 31-cell storage battery.

Carhart's machinery course was soon followed by courses in electric distribution, photometry, transformers, and the design of electric machinery--all offered through the Physics Department.  George Washington Patterson was appointed an Instructor in Electrical Engineering in 1889, and the next year the first three degrees in this specialization were granted.  Five years later, in 1895, there were enough courses and staff members to warrant an important change.  The University's offerings in Electrical Engineering were separated from its offerings in Physics, and the Department of Electrical Engineering came into being.  Patterson was its first chairman, serving until 1915.

Benjamin Franklin Bailey was a student under Carhart in those early days, and later served as Chairman of the EE Department for 22 years.  Writing in 1944 shortly after his retirement, Ben Bailey has left us some lively recollections.  Those regarding Carhart are among the liveliest:

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The founder of the Electrical Engineering Department was Professor H. S. Carhart.  He never held the title of Head or Chairman of the department but remained Professor of Physics as long as he was here.  I remember that he once told me that no one was ever authorized to start such a department, but like Topsy, it "just grew."  I think it is safe to say that no one who studied under Carhart will ever forget him.  He was a small, nervous man, full of energy and "pep."  He was a good lecturer, but not very profound.  It was rumored among the students that he had stomach trouble and that this was why he was so sour.  His pet aversion was blown fuses and each case called for a thorough investigation.  The poor culprit did not hear the last of it for many a long day.  In his laboratory classes, we lined up outside the door.  Promptly at one o'clock the doors opened and we filed in.  Everything was "hooked up" and we were each assigned to read an instrument.  When we were all set, "hydrogen sulfide" as he was called (for obvious reasons), started the motor and the experiment proceeded.  It is a fact that I was the only student in my class who ever even started a motor and that was because I sneaked in at night to see if I could do it.

Most of us are prone to look back with nostalgia to the "good old days."  By comparison with modern standards, however, this description of early electrical engineering could hardly be called good.  Back in 1885, equipment replacement in the student laboratories must have been a sore point!  Students have not changed very much, and today it is not unusual for them to burn out an occasional meter.  The difference is that teachers today have come to accept this as part of the process of learning.  It is significant that Bailey, "the only student in his class to ever start a motor," invented the capacitor motor in the middle 1920s.  This invention, one of the major advances in single-phase motor development, proved to be a milestone in electrical engineering progress.


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