Early Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington

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In the early decades of the twentieth century, UW electrical engineering faculty members made significant innovations in their field, especially relating to transmission line design and electrical transients. Their close working relationship with industry yielded many benefits for education and research at the institution. And they devoted much of their time and energy to the development of regional utilities.

In 1904, Carl Edward Magnusson became an associate professor of electrical engineering at the UW. His appointment a year later as a full professor and head of the department is widely considered as marking the start of the Department of Electrical Engineering as a separate and independent unit on campus.

Magnusson set ambitious goals for building up the department. And he believed in a close working relationship with industry. In 1905, he began to involve practicing engineers in teaching classes. J. D. Ross, chief engineer of Seattle City Light, lectured on central station power; Mr. Allen of the Seattle Electric Company discussed electric traction systems; John Harisberger of the Seattle-Tacoma Power Company (which operated the Snoqualmie Falls Hydro Plant) lectured on electric power transmission.footnote 1

In about 1910, Magnusson took a leave of absence of two years to work at the General Electric Company. When he returned to the UW, he applied his new knowledge and experience in the academic setting. Having learned how electrical transients due to faults could adversely affect transmission lines, he incorporated that experience into the curriculum over the next decade. Those efforts culminated in an authoritative book on the subject. As a result of his working relationship with GE, in 1913 the company donated an electric oscillograph, which led to the development of a course in electric transients, probably the first such course ever to be offered in an American college.footnote 1

Meanwhile, Edgar A. Loew joined the UW electrical engineering department in 1909. He became a frequent consultant for civic and regional projects of the City of Seattle, Puget Power, and the U.S. Engineer's Seattle office. He authored a textbook, Direct and Alternating Current, which was both popular on campus and used by other institutions.

In 1925, Loew published with professor Frederick Kirsten a series of bulletins on characteristics of line design. And Loew's textbook, Electric Power Transmission, published in 1928, was highly regarded by other engineering colleges. Professor L. V. Bewley, then Dean of Engineering at Lehigh University, pronounced it the best available text on that subject.footnote 1 Loew and Kirsten along with George S. Smith made significant advances in basic theory of electric power transmission. For example, they established the rule of thumb that a power line of maximum economy was one with the percentage of energy loss equal to the percentage of interest on the investment.

During the early 1930s, Magnusson won recognition for his work on Lichtenberg figures, which are imprints of a spark formed upon the surface of a plate which is dusted with sulfur powder, or formed when the electrical discharge occurs near a photographic plate. The spark ionizes air at the surface, creating interesting patterns. They were first observed by Lichtenberg in 1777. Magnusson placed the photographic plates in a magnetic field in order to study the effect of the field on the movement of the electrons that produced the patterns. A February 1932 issue of the UW newspaper, the Daily, announced: "Magnusson wins international fame with studies in Lichtenberg figures. He disproves theories of European scientists that the positive ions are projected from the positive electrode in such figures. Magnusson proved by using the effects in a magnetic field that the reverse is true."

Magnusson in the 1920s had published a bulletin on Hydro Power in Washington, a comprehensive volume which included sites on the Columbia River. During the 1930s, Magnusson served as advisor on the construction of the Grand Coulee Project on the Columbia. He conducted and published studies on a transmission grid similar to the actual grid system now in operation. And he led field trips for engineering students to observe the project in action.

  1. From a draft of History of the Department of Electrical Engineering, provided by Myron L. White, College of Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195.

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