History of the Electrical Engineering Program

History of Electrical Engineering at NEBRASKA: 120+ Years of Excellence

  • Image of old-fashioned town
    Image of old-fashioned town
  • Pharmacy Hall, Grant Memorial Hall, the Library building, and Nebraska Hall
    Pharmacy Hall, Grant Memorial Hall, the Library building, and Nebraska Hall
  • Robert
    Robert "Bobby" Bowie Owens
  • The first electrical engineering building
    The first electrical engineering building
  • Early laboratory in the EE building from 1904
    Early laboratory in the EE building from 1904
  • Early laboratory in the EE building from 1904
    Early laboratory in the EE building from 1904
  • Early lab equipment in the EE building
    Early lab equipment in the EE building
  • People working inside the early EE building
    People working inside the early EE building
  • Early EE lab around 1904
    Early EE lab around 1904
  • Lab equipment from around 1904
    Lab equipment from around 1904
  • The lab in the EE building around 1904
    The lab in the EE building around 1904
  • Early lab equipment from the EE lab around 1904
    Early lab equipment from the EE lab around 1904
  • Early lab equipment from the EE lab around 1904
    Early lab equipment from the EE lab around 1904
  • Early lab equipment in the EE lab from around 1904
    Early lab equipment in the EE lab from around 1904
  • Ferguson Hall building from around 1950
    Ferguson Hall building from around 1950
  • Ferguson Hall building from around 1950
    Ferguson Hall building from around 1950
  • Sketch of NEC buidling
    Sketch of NEC buidling
  • Construction of the NEC building
    Construction of the NEC building
  • Completed NEC building
    Completed NEC building
  • Sketch of the Walter Scott Engineering Center link
    Sketch of the Walter Scott Engineering Center link
  • Graph of Electrical Engineering graduates
    Graph of Electrical Engineering graduates

"One Hundred Years of Excellence"

by A. John Boye, Professor
For more information about his book, click here.

Background: On July 2, 1862, there was an act of the United States Congress to establish colleges (Morrill Act or "Land Grant" Act). A leading purpose for these colleges was "to teach those branches of learning which are related to Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts." The University of Nebraska was established on February 15, 1869, when the legislature of the State of Nebraska accepted a donation of 90,000 acres of land granted by the Congress of the United States for this purpose.

figure 1 - Image of old-fashioned town In 1871 the first university building, University Hall, located at 11th and S Street, was completed. And on September 7, 1871 the university opened its doors for the first time to 20 students at the college level. The faculty was comprised of the chancellor and five professors. (The chancellor taught back then!)

In 1875 the Board of Regents combined the engineering and mechanics areas into the "Industrial College." The Industrial College taught the first engineering class on campus in 1877 - a Civil Engineering course, with an enrollment of one. That year the entire university had an enrollment of 67 students and a faculty of 15, including the chancellor. The first engineering degree awarded by the university was a Bachelor of Civil Engineering degree in 1882. By 1884 there were only 13 students in the entire Industrial College: "six in Agriculture and seven in Engineering."

The First Electrical Engineering Classes
The Department of Physics (which at that time was a branch of the Department of Chemistry and Physics) taught the first Electrical Engineering courses. A description of the first Electrical Engineering course, other than the regular physics course dealing with electricity and magnetism, first appeared in the 1885-1886 University of Nebraska Catalogue (or Bulletin). It was listed as Physics XII.

Physics XII
Study of Dynamos, Electro-motors, and other practical applications of Electricity. Senior Year: third term, five hours.

figure 2. Pharmacy Hall, Grant Memorial Hall, the Library building, and Nebraska Hall The mid to late 1880's saw the construction of four more buildings on the university campus: Pharmacy Hall (or Chemistry Laboratory), Grant Memorial Hall (or the Armory), the Library building (which is the current Architecture building - not shown in Figure 2), and Nebraska Hall (which has since torn down, not the current Nebraska Hall).

The campus included only the ground bounded by R and T, and 10th and 12th streets. At that time it was a barren, unprotected prairie. In the blizzard of 1888 a man nearly lost his life crossing the campus. At that time cows and horses were picketed on the campus at night. A little later, when plants and shrubs were placed on the grounds, an iron fence (since moved to surround Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln) was built to keep the townspeople and their animals off of the campus.

During this time there was a high demand for the special electrical courses taught in physics. In May 1888, Dr. D. B. Brace, chairman of the Physics Department, requested that an electrical "course" (or major) be started. The Board of Regents agreed and the electrical engineering major was begun in the fall of 1888. Then there were three courses offered within the Physics Department (other than the regular physics course dealing with electricity and magnetism) that dealt exclusively with electrical issues: (1) Mathematical Theory of Electricity and Magnetism, (2) Applied Electricity, and (3) Advanced Laboratory Course (in Electricity). Also an advanced physics course included some material on electricity.

Robert "Bobby" Bowie Owens

figure 3. Robert Bowie Owens In 1891, with the first two graduates, the new electrical engineering major became more and more popular. Subsequently, Dr. Brace requested hiring someone for the "school of electrical engineering." At their June 1891 meeting, the Board of Regents gave approval for the appointment of an instructor in electrical engineering. And on August 19, 1891, Robert Bowie Owens, known as "Bobby," was appointed as "Adjunct Professor in Electrical Engineering" at a salary of $1200 for the academic year (about nine months). Professor Owens was a graduate of the Industrial College of Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University. He was a slight, youthful man (born October 29, 1870) who grew a mustache to distinguish himself from students here at the University of Nebraska.

He became a close friend of Nebraska's famous General John J. Pershing, who was then a lieutenant and appointed "commandant of cadets" at the University of Nebraska on the same date as Professor Owens' appointment to the staff on the Physics department. Besides being lifelong friends the two men served together as officers in World War I.

Owens rapidly built up a program that had equipment and instruction that was better than many Electrical Engineering Departments of that time in the older institutions of the Eastern states. Some of the graduates of his day occupied leading positions in Electrical Engineering in this country, and a few of them became distinguished practitioners in other countries.

Even during those early years, Owens was involved in publishing. In the American Society of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) Transactions of 1894 there is a paper by Owens and a graduate student reporting on the testing of a closed-coil arc dynamo, which was done in the University of Nebraska laboratories. This particular machine now rests in the Ford Museum at Dearborn, Mich. (Charles P.) Steinmetz got in on the discussion of this paper.

In 1898 Owens resigned to take the MacDonald Chair of Electrical Engineering at McGill University in Montreal.

The First Electrical Engineering Building

In 1891 some manufacturers of electrical apparatus and machinery were ready to make large reductions in cost (which amounted to gifts) on some machinery, provided that work with them could be undertaken at once. Otherwise the machinery would go to other institutions, and they could not duplicate the discounts. However, there was no building to house the equipment. As rumor had it at the time, Dr. Brace, promised the manufacturers that the buildings would be ready, and had the equipment on the way and liable to be dumped on the campus without shelter, before the Regents could be induced to take any action. At any rate the Regents came through and did authorize the erection of a suitable building. The university ended up with a building and contents valued at $40,000, yet costing the state only about $6,500.

figure 4. The first electrical engineering building. This frame building was 50 feet by 85 or 90 feet and stood immediately north of the present north wing of Ferguson Hall. To the south of this frame building was added an addition in 1892 and a second addition in 1894.

The south end of this three-section building stood about where the electrical distribution board now stands in room 102 Ferguson Hall. In late 1901 a brick veneer for this three-section building was added, improving its appearance considerably.
Figures 5-14, taken about 1904, show some of the laboratories inside the EE building, as well as some of the early equipment used.

figure 5. Early laboratory in the EE building from 1904. figure 6. Early laboratory of the EE building around 1904. figure 7. Early lab equipment in the EE building.
figure 8. People working inside the early EE building. figure 9. Early EE lab around 1904. figure 10. Lab equipment from around 1904.
figure 11. The lab in the EE building around 1904. figure 12. Early lab equipment from the EE lab around 1904.
figure 13. Early lab equipment from the EE lab around 1904. figure 14. Early lab equipment in the EE lab from around 1904.

The New Department

The electrical engineering program grew rapidly. In April 1894 Professor Owens requested that Electrical Engineering be separated from Physics and made a separate department. He also requested a raise in salary to $1750 (was $1360) and that he be made the chairman of the new department with the title of Professor of Electrical Engineering. (In those days, there was only one full Professor in any one department, who was the chairman of the department.) Dr. Brace, however, did not agree with this. The chancellor and the Board of Regents agreed with Brace and did not separate electrical engineering from Physics at this time, but Owens did get his raise and the ground work was set up for separating the two departments.

The following year Owens' desired separation of electrical engineering from Physics took place. At the April 10, 1895 Board of Regents meeting, the regents approved that Electrical Engineering be separated from Physics. And at the June 11, 1895 Board of Regents meeting, Professor Owens was given the title "Professor of Electrical and Steam Engineering." Steam Engineering was a part of Electrical Engineering until 1898, when it was moved to the new Mechanical Engineering program.

Since Electrical Engineering had been part of Physics, the equipment needed for the new department had to be separated out of Physics. Therefore, the regents ordered that the apparatus for the use of the departments of Physics and Electrical Engineering be separated before July 1, 1895, under the general direction of the chancellor. On May 15, 1895 Brace and Owens produced a 17 page list of items "which shall in the future belong to the Department of Electrical Engineering."

Some of these first electrical engineering items inventoried on this list included: a steam boiler, a 500-light Westinghouse Alternator, two 25-light arc machines, five "constant potential" machines (DC generators), one 3-phase motor, 13 transformers, 12 voltmeters, seven watt meters, 15 ammeters. Also included were switchboard equipment, assortment of tools, arc circuits to various buildings on campus, arc lamps on campus mounted on poles, even the poles on campus carrying the arc lines. Also portraits of Volta, Faraday, Newton and others as well as pictures of various alternators and generators, steam pumps, etc.

The description of the newly independent Electrical Engineering program from the 1895-96 University Bulletin, gives an idea of what the program was like in those days.

. . . In the electrical engineering course, . . . are considered the theory and practice of electrical measurements, continuous, single and multiphase dynamos, motors and transformers, incandescent and arc lamps, electric lighting and power distributing systems, long distance power transmission, electric railways for cities and interurban service, primary and secondary batteries, electro- metallurgy, telephone and telegraph systems, and the special applications of electricity in mining, hoisting, and ventilating.
There were 22 Electrical and Steam Engineering courses primarily for undergraduates and 6 more courses for undergraduates or graduates listed for the newly independent Department in the 1895-96 University Bulletin.

Also in those early years (late 1890's) the new EE Department furnished electric light and power to the University (for a savings of at least $1750 per year). The equipment, however, was adapted for experimentation, and so this was only a temporary arrangement.

The Society of Electrical Engineers

The oldest engineering organization on the University of Nebraska campus, is "The Society of Electrical Engineers of the University of Nebraska," later to become the student branch of the American Society of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) and finally the student branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). It was probably founded in the fall of 1893, maybe a little earlier. The exact date of founding is unknown, the first constitution of the organization having been lost at an early date. A second constitution was adopted March 2, 1895.

From the start this new organization planned to give two public programs each year to help educate the public concerning this new "magic" area of electricity.

The Open House

Students in the growing electrical engineering program are accredited with starting, at the University of Nebraska, what is now known as E-week. In 1894, the electrical engineers "decided to put on a little exhibition for Charter Day (February 15). They amazed crowds that visited their Electrical Engineering building with their displays. The show was quite novel and made a lasting impression. This first open house was considered a success, though those involved proclaimed "never again." One class was closed for over a month while students worked day and night on their projects. However, the Charter Day's exhibition was continued and made a regular event. Some of the biggest were in 1896 and 1897. It was not until 1913, when other departments got involved, that the open house evolved into "E-Week." Concerning these early "electrical shows," Dean Ferguson (a June 1903 graduate) commented in a May 1943 article that:

Electrical phenomena were so little understood and even so little known, that the whole program resulted in mystifying the public, whether or not the items were designed to do so. The displays gave spectators thrills previously unknown.

Some displays during these early "open houses" included:
  • An artificial coin tester
  • The production of calcium chloride in an electric furnace and its reaction with water
  • Electrolysis
  • An electromagnet that weighed 33 lbs but could lift 2.5 tons
  • An electric heating display
  • A telephone display
  • A display of a Thomas Hutson arc machine belted to a line shaft made to operate some six to eight open arc lights
  • An electric welding machine that joined pairs of nails together
  • An electrolytic plating process in which pennies were silver plated
  • A traveling "electric-light man" with bulbs fastened to his clothing
  • An arc furnace
  • The straight operation of dynamos, arc lamps and other equipment
  • A water-pail forge
  • Glowing Crookes tubes
  • Electrolytic decomposition of water
  • Photographs or cathodographs "which were taken by the new process that has startled the world lately"
These were quite impressive as seen by comments from local newspapers of the events:
  • The exhibit will consist largely of experiments showing the practical uses to which the electrical fluid may be put, and the subdivisions of plating, heating, lighting and electro-chemistry will have their apparatus on exhibition.
  • The heating and cooking committee will distribute hot cakes and cocoa, while popcorn, popped in an electric popper will be furnished to all.
  • Iron will be welded by the same powerful, invisible force, and in fact every effort will be made to instill into the minds of visitors some conception of the ways in which Edison's favorite toy can be utilized.
  • In the gymnasium there was a fine exhibit of electrical apparatus, in fact, there is not another university in the west that could produce such a display.
  • Electric welding, cooking, ironing and all sorts of labor saving devices were found.
  • Two young men in red, white and blue uniforms had glow lamps of the same color projecting from shoulders and helmet. As they stepped on wires laid on the floor, the lamps glowed, while a step off caused them to go out.
  • In the southwest corner, young ladies climbed on a platform supported by the electric magnet; to be dropped with a thud when the current was turned off.
One of the most mystifying and popular displays was the Water Pail Forge:
This (was) one of the most satisfactory and seemingly impossible performances. . . . An ordinary wooden water bucket was lead lined about half way up and a lead brought out. This was connected to the positive side of a 220 volt D.C. circuit. The negative side of the circuit was connected through a heavy flexible conductor to a pair of ordinary blacksmith tongs suitable for forging work. The bucket was filled about three-fourths full with acidulated water. All this was set up in the forge shop to give a realistic tone and because it was convenient. A piece of iron the size of a small chisel was gripped in the tongs and then dipped in the water. The iron would very promptly redden, and if held there too long, would melt off and fall into the bucket. . . . A chap with some blacksmithing skill attended the bucket. He would heat a piece of iron in the water, bring it out, and forge it on the anvil; then put it back into the water to cool it off so he could handle it. This again seemed impossible and would have been except for a footswitch he had opened unnoticed. After inspecting the tool which needed more forging, it was again inserted in the water to become hot and he forged and again cooled off. Of course, at each time the footswitch was properly manipulated.
With such displays as the water pail forge and the traveling "electric-light man" with bulbs fastened to his clothing, one wonders if the spectators were the only ones that experienced "thrills previously unknown!"

Growth of the Department

Eventually as the number of EE students grew in size, one by one the classes were moved to other buildings around campus. However the original building still housed the laboratories. For classes, there was even use of "temporary buildings" set up around campus during the war years (1940's). These were on the mall where Love Library North is now located and near Bancroft Hall.

figure 15. Ferguson Hall building from around 1950. There was talk of a new EE building as early as the late 1910's. Building plans had been made and remade several times, until 1948 when approval was received to start construction on a new building - Ferguson Hall. The first laboratory classes were held in Ferguson Hall in September 1950 and the first classes were held in December 1950. The building was dedicated in April 1951.

figure 16. Ferguson Hall. In 1970 and 71 a new building was being built as Phase I of a construction project that would house several engineering departments under one roof. Phase I involved the construction of the laboratory part of the complex, to be called the Nebraska Engineering Center (NEC).

figure 17. Sketch of NEC buidling figure 18. Construction of the NEC building. figure 19. Completed NEC building.

Labs and some classes were first held in the new building in September 1971. At that time the EE offices and classes were moved to the present Nebraska Hall. This was to be a temporary location, until the completion of Phase II of this project. Phase II of this project was to be a multistory engineering office and classroom building just south of the laboratory building (where the car is located in Figure 19). However, it was never done.

figure 20. Sketch of the Walter Scott Engineering Center link. In 1984, upon the completion of the "link" joining NEC and Nebraska Hall the building was renamed the Walter Scott Engineering Center (WSEC) in honor of Walter Scott, Sr. The EE offices were moved to the top floor of this link, where they are located today.


Since its beginning in 1895, the following individuals have served as chairs:
  • Robert Bowie Owens, chair: September 1895 - August 1898
  • Morgan Brooks, chair: September 1898 - August 1902
  • George Hart Morse, chair: September 1902 - August 1912
  • Olin J. Ferguson, chair: September 1912 - August 1949
  • Oskar E. Edison, acting chair: July 1920- July 1945
  • Ferris W. Norris, chair: September 1949 - June 1960
  • Clyde M. Hyde, chair: July 1960 - June 1964
  • Allen R. Edison, acting chair: June 1964 - November 1965; chair: November 1965 - August 1970
  • Wendall C. Robison, acting chair: September 1970 - June 1971
  • John E. Lagerstrom, chair: July 1971 - November 1973
  • William L. Brogan, acting chair: November 1973 - April 1975; chair: May 1975 - December 1977
  • Rodney J. Soukup, acting chair: January 1978 - June 1978; chair: July 1978 - June 2000
  • A. John Boye, interim chair: July 2000 - December 2002
  • P. Frazer Williams, interim chair: January 2003 - December 2003
  • Jerry L. Hudgins, chair: January 2004 - present

figure 21. Graph of Electrical Engineering graduates. We sure have come a long way since the Department of Electrical Engineering began some 100 years ago! We will be looking forward to see what the next one hundred years will bring.