Houghton might not be Harvard’s electrical engineers’ first choice for a research facility. The library’s focus on relatively old material is not conducive to work in a field that sees progress on a quasi-daily basis. However, as with most of the sciences, Houghton holds documents pivotal to the history of electricity and electrical engineering, and these items can shed light not only on the origin of the field and its development, but also on problems with which electrical engineers still have to grapple on a daily basis. Below is a selection of materials that might not light up physical bulbs but that will certainly spark intriguing ideas and connections in concentrators’ minds.
Students coming to Houghton can explore the history of electricity and appreciate its humble beginnings and subsequent exponential progress. The library owns a fourth edition dated 1769 of Experiments and Observations on Electricity, by Benjamin Franklin (Phys 80.3*, 001375857)—not only an important figure in American political history, but also a scientist ahead of his time. Houghton also possesses many contemporary pamphlets authored by Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. They include “On the Production and Reproduction of Sound by Light” (*74-372, 002274796), “The Multiple Telegraph” (Tec 433.7*, 004378354), and “Upon the Electrical Experiments to Determine the Location of the Bullet in the Body of the Late President Garfield” (Phys 3506.1*, 004170953), originally intended for private circulation only. Many of these tracts contain technical illustrations that are sure to delight Electrical Engineering concentrators.
Those pursuing research at Houghton can also work with primary sources such as the papers of Edwin Herbert Hall (MS Am 1734, 000601801), who taught physics at Harvard and discovered the Hall effect, a key electromagnetic phenomenon that has fundamental implications for electricity and electrical engineering.
Other less illustrious but equally fascinating items include a pamphlet explaining and diagramming “the Sprague system of electric railways” (Eng 866.1*, 007084408), an eighteenth-century publication explaining Edward Nairne’s electrostatic generator (Phys 420.18*, 002386458), and the first edition of “An Essay on the Application of Mathematical Analysis to the Theories of Electricity and Magnetism” (Phys 1030.31*, 002518886) by nineteenth-century British mathematician George Green.
Though Houghton’s electrical engineering gems predate the twentieth century, the library also owns more modern materials that should be of interest to students in the concentration. Particularly engrossing items are two essays by Daniel Clement Dennett contained in W. V. Quine’s papers (MS Am 2587, 008937558). Titled “Exploring the Space of the Turing Test” (1629) and “The Practical Requirements for Making a Conscious Robot” (1640), they discuss engineering issues but can also be of great use to Electrical Engineering concentrators with ties to the Computer Science department, a growing phenomenon.