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National Science Foundation
under Grant No. DUE-0336493

STEP- Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program


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 Electronics Technology -Turning Dreams into Reality 

 What is it and how did it get started?

Links from this page include:

Electronics at Northwest-Shoals

Introduction to DC Theory

Basic Electronics Terms and Definitions

Circuit Solutions

Electronics Symbols

The E word , today we here so many terms that start that way:  E-mail, E-commerce, E-trade, E-business, E-magazine, E-news, E-learning, E-cards, E-museum, E-Zoo, E-nature, etc..  The fact is that electronic devices and systems are around us everywhere. Even before we eat our breakfast in the morning we have most likely interacted with numerous devices containing electronics. So just what is electronics?   To some it's what is in the background that makes those E-word functions work, the internet.  To others it's devices like televisions, radios, stereos, calculators, personal computers, digital cameras, CD and DVD players, cell phones, and PDAs.  Some would go farther and say that it's the computers in automobiles and the controls in microwave ovens, or what makes the telephone and cable TV work.  Others would include the controls systems in industry and robotics.  To and educator in might mean a new way of delivering education.   So who is right and what really is electronics?  Actually, electronics is about all of these things. 

From and occupational view, electronics is a very broad field with many different but related occupations.  Persons with knowledge and skills in electronics technology find employment in radio frequency (rf) and digital communications, business machines, broadcasting, sound engineering, industrial controls, computers, consumer electronics,  biomedical electronics, robotics, aerospace industries,  military applications, and many other related fields.

They work as manufacturing test technicians, engineering techs, field service techs or customer engineers, and maintenance techs. The field is growing so fast that many soon become managers or salespersons. Who better to manage a technical assembly line or sale a technical product than a tech who understands the technology.

Since the electronics field is so broad and the types of positions so varied, starting salaries also vary tremendously. While a bench technician in manufacturing generally starts around $25,000 to $30,000 per year, it is not uncommon for a entry level technician to start at $40,000 per year in this industry. It may even be more if travel is required, as in the field service areas.  Twenty-five thousand ($25,000) may not sound like much, but experience is rewarded in the electronics field.  After five years, techs can expect to make one-and-a-half to double their entry salaries.

From a more scientific approach, electronics is a branch of physics and a field of technology concerned with the behavior of electrons in electronic devices and equipment.  The science related to the development and application of devices and systems involving the flow of electrons in a vacuum, in gaseous media, and in semiconductors.  It is very closely related to electricity, the science dealing with electric charges and currents, and shares many of the same principles, laws, and terms.

As a science, electronics is fairly young and as an industry even younger. The word electronics has its root in the Greek word "elektron", which means amber. This amber was the yellow fossilized resin of evergreen trees, which acted like a natural plastic material. It was known that when amber was rubbed with dry cloth it produced what now is called static electricity.  William Gilbert (1544-1603) an English court physician noted for his studies of electricity and magnetism, studied the attraction produced when materials such as amber were rubbed, and named it the "electric" attraction. From that came the word "electricity" and all others derived from it.

One might well ask how many European scientists it takes to turn on a light bulb. If we think in terms of the names used for various units in the International, or meter-kilogram-second, System, a fair number are involved. Alphabetically arranged, these units are the ampere, named for the French scientist André Marie Ampère (1775-1836); the coulomb, after the French scientist Charles A. de Coulomb (1736-1806); the farad and the faraday, after the British scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867); the joule, after the British scientist James P. Joule (1818-1889); the newton, after the British scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727); the ohm, after the German scientist Georg S. Ohm (1789-1854); the volt, after the Italian scientist Count Alessandro Volta (1745-1827); and the watt, after the British scientist James Watt (1736-1819). Definitions such as that of ohm, “ a unit of electrical resistance equal to that of a conductor in which a current of one ampere is produced by a potential of one volt across its terminals, ” take on more human connotations when we think of how human contributions to the study of electricity are memorialized in them. The dates of first recorded use of the terms in English are as follows: ampere, 1881; coulomb, 1881; farad, 1861; faraday, 1904; joule, 1882; newton, 1904; ohm, 1870 (suggested in 1861); volt, 1873; and watt, 1882.

There were many in the 1700's and 1800's, like the French physicist Charles Coulomb (1736-1806), who pioneered research into magnetism and electricity, but the word electron was not introduced until much latter by Irish scientist George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911).  Stoney investigated electricity as an energy source for chemical reactions. As early as 1874,  using data obtained from the electrolysis of water and the kinetic theory of gases,  he suggested that electrical current was the result of moving particles. From this he proposed the particle or atom of electricity and in 1891 he suggested these should be called "electrons".  He even estimated the actual amount of this most remarkable fundamental unit of electricity and this value later became known as a coulomb.

The actual discovery of the electron is attributed to English physicist Joseph John (J.J.) Thomson.  In 1897, J.J. Thomson, along with a group of his graduate students, performed experiments with tubes he designed containing electrodes and which the air had been evacuated.  These tubes named "Crookes Tubes" from the original inventor are what we now call cathode ray tubes.  High voltage electrical current was passed between the two electrodes.  Ray like emissions proceeded from the Cathode electrode to the Anode electrode, and were thus called cathode rays.



From his experiments he concluded that these rays were not just light rays because they could be deflected with electric and magnetic fields.  In the presence of another field consisting of negative and positive plates, the beam was deflected from the negative field toward the positive field.  From this he concluded that the rays must be made of many small particles and that they were negatively charged. No matter what gas he put in the tube or what metal he made the electrodes of, he always got the same result.  From  this he determined that these particles must be part of all matter.  He performed other experiments that indicated that the rays had momentum and if they had momentum they would also have to have mass.  If the "rays" possessed mass that would mean that they were not rays at all but particles with a finite mass.  The name "electron" was applied to Thomson's lightweight negative particles that Stoney's had proposed earlier. Thomson was awarded the 1906 Nobel Prize for his research.


 There were other very notable events in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1901, Italian engineer and inventor Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) transmitted  signals across the Atlantic Ocean using what was then called wireless telegraphy.  These were actually long wave radio signals.  Today we use the term radio or radio frequency (rf) to refer to these signals.  In 1906, American inventor Lee DeForest (1873-1961) invented the audion vacuum tube, the word audion being related to its use in making audio louder.  In 1907 he patented  this triode electron tube which for the first time made possible amplification and detection of radio waves.  He is considered to be "the Father of Radio" and actually originated radio news broadcast in 1916.

Courtesy of Mike Schultz, UV201.COM


Westinghouse Radio Station KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is considered the world's first official radio station.  Its first broadcast was November 2, 1920 and covered the Harding-Cox presidential election returns using 100 watts of power on 360 meters.  They asked for anyone hearing them to please let them know how far away they where and how well they were being received.


Another notable event that  impacted the electronics field was the creation of ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator Analyzer and Computer) at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at University of Pennsylvania.   This gigantic machine, with its 17,468 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 1,500 relays, and 6,000 manual switches,  is credited with starting the modern computer age.  Before ENIAC, computing devices were electromechanical and used mostly relays for switches, but relays are very slow.  To compute faster the developers of ENIAC used the vacuum tube as "lightning fast" switches.  ENIAC was a product of World War II, because the military commissioned it to being built in 1943 to develop firing tables for its artillery.  It took months for human computers to develop each set of tables. It took a year to design ENIAC, and 18 months to build it. By the time it was completed in November 1945, the war had been over for three months.  Due to the interest created here, commercial vacuum tube computers were soon to become available.



Many devices were made from vacuum tubes, including televisions, radios, and various other audio equipment.  For circuits that only used a few, they worked fairly well and are still preferred today in some audio equipment like guitar amps. The problem was that when you needed thousands, the equipment became very large, expensive, and power hungry, as well as, there were many failures to deal with.  It is said that ENIAC would dim the city lights when it was turned on and that it averaged  working only about seven minutes at a time. This seems very unreasonable but the fact was that it could do thousands of calculations every second, when it was working, and that was incredible for its era. Obviously, for electronics growth to really take off something better than a tube was needed. That big breakthrough for electronics came in 1947 when three scientist working for Bell Laboratories created the first transistor.  This development revolutionized electronics and for their contribution to this field these three American physicist, Bardeen, Brittain, and Shockley were awarded the Nobel Prize.  Transistors led to many circuits improvements in that they were smaller, used less power, were less expensive, and more reliable. The solid state era had arrived.


Photos of the first transistor and the inventors courtesy of Lucent Technologies, Bell Labs Innovations.


The next big breakthrough and what many describes as starting the microelectronics revolution occurred in 1958 when Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments performed experiments that led to the development of the integrated circuit (IC).  This development allowed for multiple transistors, as well as, other components such as diodes, resistors, and capacitors to be built on the same silicon chip and then placed in a single package.
Photos of Jack Kilby and the first IC courtesy of Texas Instruments.


In the beginning ICs could contain only a few  transistors, but developments quickly caused that number to increase to a thousand or more. In 1971, another great milestone was reached when Intel Corporation announced the development of the first central processing unit (CPU) to be built entirely in one IC.  It was called a microprocessor because of its computing power relative to the much larger main frame computers of that day.  Intel's announcement was soon followed by other chip manufacturers such as Motorola, who called one of their first chips the 6800 because that's how many transistors it had.   Today's modern microprocessors contain tens of millions of transistors and are many more time faster than the large mainframes of the past.


Today we see electronics technology expanding at a dizzying pace.  New products and more breakthroughs are very commonplace.   It is easy to see why electronics truly is a field of dreamers, turning their dreams into reality through lifetime devotion to this field.  To learn more of the history of the electron and electronics check out the sites listed below.  To learn more about how to enter this exciting field go to Electronics at Northwest-Shoals.  To see introductory material that a person would study in electronics technology and  example circuits go to Introduction to DC Theory and after that check out Circuit Solutions to see the problems solved.

Thanks to artist Rand Kruback and Agilent Technologies for the use of the cartoons used on the technology home page and throughout the electronics technology presentation pages.  See more of Rand's cartoons at:


Links to History of Electronics:


Educational Outreach from the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University      


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Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the
National Science Foundation.