The first electrical engineer
Who was the first electrical engineer? Thomas Edison, James Clerk Maxwell, William Gilbert? None of the above.
Miletus, near Turkey’s west coast, today lies in ruins but it was the birthplace, in 624 BC, of the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales. He broke with the prevailing notion that supernatural forces underlay all worldly phenomena. His declaration that water is the first principle and fundamental essence of all things seems naïve to us, living as we do in a cyber matrix of digital data and elementary particles.
Thales, the first electrical engineer
But Thales’s insight was relevant for his time, and he initiated a new kind of discourse that prevailed for centuries. Like other ancients, he undoubtedly observed electrical phenomena in nature. The most spectacular of these was lightning. Other electrical manifestations would have included the strange properties of electric eels and static electrical discharge indoors when the outside air was cold and dry.
The phenomenon that intrigued Thales was the odd behavior of lodestone, which attracts iron. This simple observation set the stage for our electric motors, generators, relays and all sorts of actuators in the industrial setting of a later age.
Thales described a variety of forces and their effects in nature and in human affairs. He predicted eclipses, took note of economic cycles and rerouted a river to facilitate a military march. It is also said he once predicted favorable weather and a bountiful olive harvest, whereupon in advance he leased all available olive presses and amassed a fortune.
His interests went beyond the mundane. Considered the first of the Seven Sages, Thales believed all matter was alive. He thought the earth, a spherical body, floated on water, whose waves and perturbations accounted for earthquakes.
While many of Thales’s specific beliefs appear to be primitive and ill-informed from our advanced point of view, we must recognize that his decisive break with an animistic tradition was one of the great steps forward in our knowledge of the cosmos. His observations of the real world established a methodology that has endured these many centuries.