The University of Alberta opened its doors in 1908, welcoming 45 students into the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Of those 45, five were engineers studying under William Muir Edwards, a civil engineer and the first engineering professor on campus. As the student body grew, so did the demand for more programs, and in 1913, the Faculty of Applied Sciences was founded. The first electrical engineering professor, Hector J. MacLeod, was hired in 1914. There was no Department of Electrical Engineering at the time, so MacLeod was appointed to the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Applied Sciences. Electrical engineering was recognized as a “division” of the Department of Physics. The same year the First World War broke out, most students of Applied Science were enlisted. Between 1914 and 1922 there were never more than five students enrolled in electrical engineering courses.
Engineering students worked very hard then: in 1922, Dean of the Faculty of Applied Sciences Robert William Boyle reported that 62 hours of study a week was rather a heavy load for these students. Despite this, third-year electrical engineering courses were well established by the end of 1922, and in 1923, fourth-year courses were finally introduced. By 1924, 13 students were enrolled in electrical engineering courses offered through the physics department, and the first class of six electrical engineers finally graduated from the University in 1924. On September 1, 1925, the Department of Electrical Engineering was officially founded and professor MacLeod was appointed head of the department.
Few records were kept during the first ten years of the department, but it maintained a faculty of three or four and graduated seven students in 1931. With a budget of $500, students continued to rely heavily on the Physics Department’s facilities, but had their own labs in the form of the CKUA radio station and an electric machine in the basement of Assiniboia Hall.
The 1930s were an eventful time for the young department. In 1933, Ward Porteous joined the faculty after earning the department’s first Master of Science degree. He would teach and conduct research in electrical engineering until the 1970s. By the end of the decade, electronic design courses were added to the curriculum and a well-rounded mix of courses were offered. Electrical Engineering had not only established itself as a fixture of the U of A, but it was one of the fastest growing departments on campus.
First Electrical Engineering graduating class, 1924
World War II
The breakout of World War II in 1939 changed the role of the University. Departments united and shared resources to train troops and civilians to support the war effort. In 1941, the Department of Electrical Engineering began offering courses in short wave and ultra-short wave radio, and, along with the staff from physics, were training 200 radio mechanics at a time by the end of the year. The war presented an opportunity for the University to grow, and the department began preparing for an influx of students in the 1950s. Power and electronics/communications were offered as third- and fourth-year options, and Ward Porteous became the head of the department in 1945. By the end of the decade there were roughly 60 graduates a year and a staff of nine.
Surprisingly, the post-war growth that the department had planned for did not occur. In fact, enrollment numbers declined to 43 students during the 1951/52 academic year, though many returning servicemen did enroll to continue studying radio electronics. It wasn’t until 1958 that enrollment started to increase again. By the mid 1960s, Electrical Engineering had over 100 students and ten staff. The following years would see the most substantial growth of any electrical engineering department in Canada.
In 1970, the faculty had more than doubled to 23, and all aspects of electrical engineering — power, controls, and electronics, along with an emerging emphasis on plasma and laser physics — were taught in either graduate or undergraduate courses. The department began publishing numerous research papers and journal articles, and new connections and partnerships were formed with governments and industry. Electrical engineering at the U of A had come into its own.
Part of the KrF laser system, 1970s
A modern school for a modern science
The department received its first major grant in 1972: $638,000 for laser and plasma physics. By the 1980s, research funding had tripled, and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) assistance grew from half-a-million dollars in 1978 to over $1.5 million by 1986. This decade also saw the founding of three important centres: the Alberta Laser Institute, the Alberta Microelectronics Centre, and the Alberta Telecommunications Research Centre. All three helped forge relationships with industry and allowed the department to contribute ground-breaking research. By the end of the 1980s, Electrical Engineering was graduating around 100 students each year.
However, the recession of the early 1990s saw budget cuts across the University, the department’s growth stalled for the first time in 70 years. This didn’t last long, though. Funding began flowing again by the mid-1990s thanks to the booming high-tech sector and higher oil prizes. The department was inundated with research partnerships and spin-off companies.
Today the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering is home to 60 faculty members. Research is vigorous and covers all major areas of electrical and computer engineering and engineering physics. Our graduate program attracts outstanding students from the best schools worldwide and presently has an enrollment of over 400 masters and PhD students. The undergraduate programs in electrical engineering (which includes options in biomedical engineering and nanoengineering), computer engineering (which includes options in software engineering and nanoscale systems design), and engineering physics (with an option in nanoengineering) enroll over 600 students. Research and teaching needs are served by two new buildings with a total area of 340,000 square feet. Facilities include a state of the art machine shop, and a unique world-class nano and microfabrication facility. Located nearby, the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) offers unique opportunities for collaboration with faculty, industry, and government. The undergraduate and graduate laboratories are equipped with state of the art equipment and excellent computing facilities are available. Extensive funding opportunities are available through a variety of national and provincial sources.
From our humble roots of radio transmitters and dimly lit physics labs, to miniaturization and clean rooms, ECE has come a long way.
And there's a lot further to go.
A technician in the NanoFab clean room