A Century of Achievements

One Hundred Years of Electrical Engineering

at Penn State University


The snowstorm of '93 made traveling to State College treacherous that February day. The roads were nearly impassable; if it hadn't been for the railroad, many of the visiting dignitaries and returning alumni may not have made it at all. They made the journey, though, because this was an important day for Penn State - this was the day when the brand new Main Engineering Building (on the sight where Sackett building now stands) was dedicated.
Class of 1898

It was February 22, 1893. Keynote speakers included College President . George Atherton and General James A. Beaver. Beaver, perhaps something of a visionary (could he have known that his name would be applied to the future shrine of 100,000 screaming Lion fans?) gave his prediction for what he thought the twentieth century would need most. "Where is the Electrician," asked Beaver, "Where is the Engineer."

The century between this dedication, and the hundredth anniversary of the Department of Electrical Engineering, has seen many changes.

In the early days, all engineering students had class in the Main Engineering Building. As enrollment grew, conditions became more and more crowded. By 1904, 453 engineering students were taught by a full-time staff of eleven; of these, only two were electrical engineering professors. E. E. students could choose from four different disciplines: general electrical engineering; electric railways (see " Penn State Trolleys" by Charles DuBois); electrical energy (applying electricity to industry); and electrochemical engineering.

Class of 1903

Conditions were crowded in the Main Engineering Building - at times, entire classes were held in the hallways. In 1908, E. E. moved most of its equipment and personnel to the new Engineering Annex, located to the rear of the President's house. At that time many department people voiced objections over being housed in an old wooden building because of potential fire.

The Department entered the age of modern communication, in 1910, when the first wireless telegraph station was installed. The station could communicate within a two-hundred mile radius far enough to reach Wanamaker's department store in Philadelphia where a twin tower relayed back to State College periodic updates on the University of Pennsylvania-Penn State football game. The Department's interest in radio telegraphy would pay off during the troubled years of World War I.

As America's students became doughboys, Penn State experienced a drop in enrollment. The College became a learning ground for young soldiers as many professors conducted classes for the U. S. Army. Department Head Charles Kinsloe conducted classes in radio telegraphy. When the boys returned home, Penn State was rewarded for its service with the thing it needed most, increased funding.

An Electrical Engineering class room -- 1945

The department was now housed in several different units, including the wooden Engineering Annex. Ironically, the fears of the Department for the fire safety of the building were somewhat misplaced. In 1918, the Main Engineering Building would experience the most destructive fire Penn State has ever seen. The whole building was gutted by the early morning, blaze that severely hurt the Departments of Civil and Mechanical Engineering housed there.

The Roaring Twenties brought about several advancements within the department. Chief among these was the installation of the College's first radio tower. WPAB, the new radio station, had a 500 watt output and could be heard throughout Pennsylvania. Technical difficulties caused continual snags in the program. Then, in 1927, most of the transmitting gear was replaced with newer technology, and the newly renamed WPSC began regular radio broadcasts. Also during the 1920's, Eta Kappa Nu established itself as the honorary society for E. E. majors.

With the 1930's came the Great Depression, and with that came a hard ship that Penn State experienced with the rest of the country. State and federal funding virtually dried up in those years. Private donations also dwindled as everyone in the country checked the bottom of his or her wallet and found little there. During this time, no big technical changes occurred within the department. A bright spot came in 1934 when the Department welcomed its first female student, Olga Smith, of Philadelphia.

The forties brought with it another world conflict. As the students of Penn State marched off to war, a new group of engineers was marching in. The Ordnance Research Laboratory (ORL) brought with it such notables as Dr. Eric A. Walker, and Dr. Arthur H. Waynick. Originally located at Harvard University, the Lab moved to Penn State to set up facilities for developing homing torpedoes. Much of the technology of today's torpedoes, and hence, much of what we know about underwater propulsion, can be traced back to the Lab, according to Dr. Walker. The ORL is still in operation at Penn State and has changed its name to the Applied Research Lab (ARL).

After the war, many of the Lab's engineers stayed on at Penn State. Though some would continue to work almost exclusively for the ORL, a few, like Walker and Waynick, would become faculty members. This infusion of new talent should be recognized as one of the turning points of the department, and Penn State.

The fifties brought with it such diverse creations as Sputnik and rock and roll, Senator Joe McCarthy and Howdy-Doody. Here at Penn State, we were launching space exploration. The two new programs at Penn State PENNSTAC Penn State Automated Computer) and the Ionospheric Laboratory (IRL.)

The IRL (see article) actually began in the 1940's as an effort to study the effect of the ionosphere on low-frequency radio waves. By the end of the 1950's it was being funded by the National Science Foundation, as well as other civilian and military agencies, as one of the leading centers for studying the physics of the upper atmosphere. Today the Lab has been renamed the CSSL and is studying, among other things, the extent of the ozone depletion over Antarctica.

PENNSTAC came to the University in 1956. The machine was a ground breaker in the area of computer engineering. Though computers become obsolete almost as quickly as they are introduced, PENNSTAC retains its importance because it gave so many young engineers their first look at a working digital computer.

The world of 1993 is very different from the world of 1893. True, we still get bogged down by blizzards, and we still look inquisitively into the future.

What will this coming century need most? The electrical engineer will be hard pressed to repeat the magnitude of accomplishments in this century, but his or her talents and skills are still essential for advancements in the one to come. When the department celebrates its Bicentennial at Penn State, in 2093, what will the history say? And, who will program it- the electrical engineer?

Information taken from
Engineering Education at Penn State -
A Century in the Land Grant Tradition,
by Michael Bezilla.