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IEEE Spectrum Geek Life Channel

IEEE Spectrum
IEEE Spectrum

  1. When Lisa Su became CEO of Advanced Micro Devicesin 2014, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. Since then, AMD's stock has soared—from less than US $2 per share to more than $110. The company is now a leader in high-performance computing.

    Su received accolades for spearheading AMD's turnaround, appearing on the Barron's Top CEOs of 2021 list, Fortune's 2020 Most Powerful Women, and CNN's Risk Takers.

    She recently added another honor: the IEEE Robert N. Noyce Medal. Su is the first woman to receive the award, which recognizes her "leadership in groundbreaking semiconductor products and successful business strategies that contributed to the strength of the microelectronics industry." Sponsored by Intel, the Noyce Medal is considered to be one of the semiconductor industry's most prestigious honors.

    "To be honest, I would have never imagined that I would receive the Noyce award," the IEEE Fellow says. "It's an honor of a lifetime. To have that recognition from my peers in the technical community is a humbling experience. But I love what I do and being able to contribute to the semiconductor industry."


    Su has long had a practical bent. She decided to study electrical engineering, she says, because she was drawn to the prospect of building hardware.

    "I felt like I was actually building and making things," she says. She attended MIT, where she earned bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees, all in EE, in 1990, 1991, and 1994.

    "It might surprise people that my parents would have preferred that I became a medical doctor," she says, laughing. "That was the most well-respected profession when I was growing up. But I never really liked the sight of blood. I ended up getting a Ph.D., which I guess was the next best thing."

    Her interest in semiconductors was sparked at MIT. As a doctoral candidate, Su was one of the first researchers to look into silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology, according to an MIT Technology Review article about her. The then-unproven technique increased transistors' efficiency by building them atop layers of an insulating material. Today SOI is used either to boost the performance of microchips or to reduce their power requirements.

    Su has spent most of her career working on semiconductor projects for large companies. Along the way, she evolved from researcher to manager to top executive. Looking back, Lu divides her career path into two parts. The first 20 or so years she was involved in research and development; for the past 15 years, she has worked on the business side.

    Her first job was with Texas Instruments, in Dallas, where she was a member of the technical staff at the company's semiconductor process and device center. She joined in 1994, but after a year, she left for IBM, in New York. There, she was a staff member researching device physics. In 2000 she was assigned to be the technical assistant for IBM's chief executive. She later was promoted to director of emerging projects.

    She made the switch to management in 2006, when she was appointed vice president of IBM's semiconductor research and development center in New York.

    To better learn how to manage people, she took several leadership courses offered by the company.

    "I remember thinking after every class that I had learned something that I could apply going forward," she says.

    Su says she doesn't agree with the notion that leadership is an innate ability.

    "I really do believe that you can be trained to be a good leader," she says. "A lot of leadership isn't all that intuitive, but over time you develop an intuition for things to look for. Experience helps.

    "As engineers transition into business or management, you have to think about a different set of challenges that are not necessarily 'How do you make your transistor go faster?' but [instead] 'How do you motivate teams?' or 'How do you understand more about what customers want?' I've made my share of mistakes in those transitions, but I've also learned a lot.

    "I've also learned something from every boss I've ever worked for."

    "Great leaders can actually have their teams do 120 percent more than what they thought was possible."

    One of the first places she got a chance to put her training into action was at Freescale Semiconductor, in Austin, Texas. In 2007 she took over as chief technology officer and oversaw the company's research and development efforts. She was promoted to senior vice president and general manager of Freescale's networking and multimedia group. In that role, she was responsible for global strategy, marketing, and engineering for the embedded communications and applications processor business.

    She left in 2012 to join AMD, also in Austin, as senior vice president, overseeing the company's global business units. Two years later she was appointed president and CEO, the first woman to run a Fortune 500 semiconductor company.

    It took more than leadership skills to get to the top, she says.

    "It's a little bit of you have to be good [at what you do], but you also have to be lucky and be in the right place at the right time," she says. "I was fortunate in that I had a lot of opportunities throughout my career."

    As CEO, she fosters a supportive and diverse culture at AMD.

    "What I try to do is ensure that we're giving people a lot of opportunities," she says. "We have some very strong technical leaders at AMD who are women, so we're making progress. But of course it's nowhere near enough and it's nowhere near fast enough. There's always much more that can be done."

    Motivating employees is part of her job, she says.

    "One of the things I believe is that great leaders can actually have their teams do 120 percent more than what they thought was possible," she says. "What we try to do is to really inspire phenomenal and exceptional results."

    AMD's business is booming, and Su is credited with expanding the market for the company's chips beyond PCs to game consoles and embedded devices. AMD released products in 2017 with its Ryzen desktop processors and Epyc server processors for data centers. They are based on its Zen microarchitecture, which enabled the chips to quickly process more instructions than the competition. The Radeon line of graphics cards for gaming consoles debuted in 2000.

    The company's net income for last year was nearly $2.5 billion, according to Investor's Business Daily.


    Today AMD is focused on building the next generation of supercomputers—which Su says will be "important in many aspects of research going forward."

    Last year the company announced its advanced CPUs, GPUs, and software will be powering Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's El Capitan exascale-class supercomputer. Predicted to be the world's fastest when it goes into service in 2023, El Capitan is expected to expand the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

    There currently is a tightness in the semiconductor supply chain, Su acknowledges, but she says she doesn't think the shortage will fundamentally change what the company does in terms of technology or product development.

    "The way to think about semiconductor technology and road maps," she says, "is that the decisions about the products that we're building today were really decisions that were made three to five years ago. And the products or technical decisions that we're making today will affect our products three to five years down the road."

    The semiconductor industry has never been more interesting, she says, even with Moore's Law slowing down. Moore's Law, she says, "requires all of us to think differently about how we get to that next level of innovation. And it's not just about silicon innovation. It's also about packaging innovation, system software, and bringing together all those disciplines. There's a whole aspect to our work about just how to make our tools and our technologies easier to adopt."

    The COVID-19 pandemic has brought technology into the center of how people work, live, learn, and play, she notes.

    "Our goal," she says, "is to continue to make technology that touches more people's lives."

    Su was recently appointed to serve on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, a group of external advisers tasked with making science, technology, and innovation policy recommendations to the White House and President Biden.


    Su joined IEEE while a student so she could access its technical content.

    "IEEE publications were just the most important," she says. "As a student, you wanted to publish in an IEEE journal or present at an IEEE conference. We all believed it was where people wanted to share their research.

    "I think IEEE is still the foremost organization for bringing researchers together to share their findings, to network, and to develop and build relationships," she says. "I've met many people through my IEEE connections, and they continue to be close colleagues. It's just a great organization to move the industry forward."

  2. Photo of Natarajan Chandrasekaran Tata Sons

    There was a time when managing the family farm in India would have been Natarajan "Chandra" Chandrasekaran's path, but his love of computer programming derailed that plan. After returning home from the Coimbatore Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in applied sciences, Chandra (as he likes to be called) tried his hand at farming but quickly realized it was not for him. His father—who had given up his own career as a lawyer to run the farm after his father died—encouraged Chandra to continue to pursue his passion for computers.

    Today the IEEE senior member is chairman of Tata Sons, in Mumbai, India, the holding company for the Tata Group, which encompasses more than 30 businesses. They include chemical plants and consultancy services as well as hotels and steel mills. Chandra chairs the boards of several of the companies including Tata Motors, Tata Power, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), and Tata Steel. The group employs more than 750,000 people around the world.

    The Tata Group trading company was launched in 1868 by Jamsetji Tata. Regarded as the "father of Indian industry," Tata had a vision: to create a responsible company that serves the community. Chandra continues to support that mission by helping to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in India and finding ways to use technology to solve societal problems such as access to health care and education.

    Chandra says the ability for his company to make a difference is the single most important thing to him.

    "We make an impact on our employees, society, businesses, and—with our huge ecosystem—on the markets in which we operate," he says.

    He adds that he enjoys working with smart people and "thinking about the future, whether it is about creating our businesses or making contributions to a sustainable world."


    After graduating in 1986 from Coimbatore, in the state of Tamil Nadu, Chandra returned to run his family's farm in Mohanur, located in the state's Namakkal District. After breaking the news to his father that he would rather be a computer programmer than a farmer, Chandra entered a three-year postgraduate degree program to study computer science and its applications at the state's Regional Engineering College in Tiruchirappalli (now the National Institute of Technology).

    An internship was required during the last semester. Chandra applied for an opening at TCS, an IT services company, which in 1986 was an up-and-coming firm with about 500 employees. Two months into the internship, the company offered him a job as an engineer after he graduated. He started working for TCS in 1987 and has never left the Tata Group.

    During his nearly 35 years there, he rose through the ranks, switching from engineering to management in the 1990s. Since 1997 he has held senior-level positions in marketing and sales. From 1998 to 2007 he helped TCS grow its business around the world, including in China, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. In 2009 he was promoted to chief executive. He held that position until 2017, when he was appointed chairman of Tata Sons.

    "The company gave me a lot of different roles, and as you do better then you get lucky," he says, laughing. "Most of the knowledge I picked up was on the job and by taking on different projects."

    I believe very strongly that digital-physical integration is the way to solve societal problems

    He learned management skills from coworkers as well as clients, he says.

    "TCS not only has the smartest people working for it, but we also work with some of the best companies as clients," he says. "When you work with smart people, you learn. And when you work with demanding clients, you learn. Things rub off on you. My passion has always been to understand deeply what makes a difference to a customer."

    He says he has always been willing to take on new duties but also never hesitated to ask for help.

    "TCS has a very supportive culture," he says, "so whenever you have major issues with clients or businesses, you derive support."


    With India's under-resourced health care system, Chandra says, he knew 2019's novel coronavirus could have a devastating effect on the country. Since April 2020 the Tata Group, including its philanthropic trusts, has committed more than US $200 million for COVID-related activities. That money has been used in a variety of ways, including building hospitals and increasing the capacity of existing ones by setting up COVID-19 wards and intensive-care units.

    The oxygen that Tata Steel's mills use to convert iron and scrap metal into steel was diverted for medical use. At one point during the pandemic, Chandra says, the Tata Group provided 10 percent of the medical oxygen required in the country.

    Once COVID-19 vaccines became available, the group started a massive campaign to inoculate its employees and their families.

    "Helping is in our DNA," Chandra says of the affiliate companies in the group. "All of our CEOs have a culture of doing good for society."

    Chandra says he often is asked when business will return to normal after the pandemic. He says it won't.

    "We are not going back; we are going forward," he says. "While many things about COVID have been negative, there are many positives. COVID has moved the world forward in multiple dimensions. Number one is digital adoption. Number two: Everyone now recognizes the importance of sustainability, because we experienced how much we can dramatically change things, like air quality, in a relatively short period of time—especially in India.

    "The pandemic has brought to the fore the importance of addressing key global existential risks that we may have treated more theoretically in the past.

    "Also, the global supply chain cannot be concentrated in any one country. It must be designed for resilience."


    Chandra says artificial intelligence and related technologies can help mankind tackle societal issues such as universal access to health care and a quality education. He outlined his ideas in Bridgital Nation: Solving Technology's People Problem, a 2019 book he coauthored with Roopa Purushothaman.

    "I believe very strongly that digital-physical integration is the way to solve problems," he says. "Take a country like India—we have a shortage of everything. We have a shortage of doctors, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure. We neither have the time nor the money to be able to build all the capacity we need."

    For example, about two-thirds of India's citizens live in rural areas, he notes, but most of the doctors are in cities.

    He says the solution is to use AI, machine learning, the Internet of Things, and cloud computing to create a network of services that can be delivered where they are needed most. That would include telehealth and remote learning for people in rural areas.

    Poverty could be reduced dramatically, he says, by using AI to increase the capabilities of low-skilled workers so they could perform higher-level jobs. He estimates more than 30 million jobs could be created by 2025. To help make that possible, in 2019 the Tata Group unveiled the Indian Institute of Skills, a joint initiative with the Ministry of Skills Development and the Indian government that provides vocational training.

    The Tata Group also offers programs that encourage students to pursue STEM careers around the world, and it has launched worldwide adult literacy programs. There are also programs focused on encouraging more women to become entrepreneurs and enter the tech field.

    Chandra says he is concerned about his employees' well-being. An avid runner, he was the inspiration behind the company's Fit4Life program. It encourages employees to be physically active and give back to their community.

    "One is for the body, the other one is for the soul," he says.


    Now is the most exciting time to be an engineer, he says.

    "There are so many opportunities," he says, "because the pace of change is huge and technology development is huge."

    He encourages those starting out to "go after what you're passionate about and what excites you. People will live longer, so careers are not going to be over at the age of 60." What's more, he says, "people will probably have two, three, or four careers in their lifetime, so it's a long game. If you're going to work 30, 40, 50 years or even longer, you should enjoy the process."

    The top skill he says everyone should have is the ability to continue to learn. That's why he renews his IEEE membership, he says.

    Chandra became a member in 1987 because TCS required its professional employees to join a society. His colleagues recommended IEEE because, they said, he would become more knowledgeable about engineering and cutting-edge technology by reading its publications.

    "Even reading just one article could go a long way," they told him.

    He remains a member, he says with a laugh, "because I still have to learn."

    "It's not about just learning what skills I need," he says. "It is about opening up my mind."

  3. Engineering education has evolved during the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges and universities to close classrooms and shift to remote learning, prompting instructors to adapt their curricula and teaching style. As schools reopen this year using in-person, hybrid, and remote learning models, it has become crucial for teachers to adjust.

    To help them, in May IEEE launched its Teaching Excellence Hub, a resource for university-level educators who are teaching engineering, computer science, and technology courses online or in person. The website offers tools they can use to improve their curriculum, manage student teams, and more. The hub is a collaboration between the IEEE Education Society and the IEEE Educational Activities Board.

    '"IEEE quickly observed that university faculty did not have the resources or support they needed during the COVID-19 pandemic as they transitioned to remote learning," says Burton Dicht, director of student and academic programs for IEEE Educational Activities. "The IEEE Teaching Excellence Hub is meant to help all university staff access resources and tools they can use in the ever-adapting world of education."

    Here is an overview of what the hub offers.


    Best practices. The IEEE Education Society and the IEEE Educational Activities Board co-sponsored the Engineering Education 2.0 interactive four-part virtual-event series to equip engineering educators with best practices. IEEE Senior Member Arnold Pears, an engineering education expert and current vice president of publications for the IEEE Education Society, is the featured speaker.

    Distance learning series.The four webinars in this series cover technologies to facilitate student-teacher communication.

    IEEE accreditation series. This series presents behind-the-scenes experiences from IEEE/ABET program evaluators and global accreditation experts. The first event, How an IEEE Program Evaluator Prepares for a University Visit, is available on demand.

    Teaching remotely. The Effective Remote Instruction virtual conference, held in April, brought together faculty members from across the globe to share real-world examples and best practices. Five webcasts from the conference are available, offering continuing-education units and professional development hour credits.

    • Ditching the Traditional College Lecture in Remote Instruction.
    • Making Labs Effective With Remote Learning.
    • Managing Remote Student Teams.
    • Student Assessments for Remote Delivery.
    • Student and Data Privacy When Offering Remote Instruction.

    Registration is free for all the events. Attendees can earn a digital certificate of participation.


    The hub offers reading material on the following topics.

    Academic integrity. The ethical behavior expected in an educational setting.

    Assessment techniques. Ways to measure formative and summative levels of student learning.

    Career development.Activities for personal and professional improvement through continuing education, skill acquisition, experience, and curated mentorship.

    Cooperative learning. Peer-to-peer learning and support where students work together to solve a problem or complete a task.

    Educational research. The systematic study of how people learn and teach, and how people experience education.

    Equality, diversity, and inclusion. Ensuring equal access to engineering, computing, and technology education and careers, as well as the inclusion of viewpoints that reflect the diversity of the community.

    Flipped classroom learning.A technique that requires students to study material before class and then apply their knowledge through problem-solving exercises in class.

    Learning technologies. Technology-based tools that enable information delivery and assessment of students, including networks, applications, learning management systems, and computer-aided learning software.

    Remote instruction. How students learn through online content and interaction.

    The hub's content is reviewed by an editorial board, which includes members from all 10 IEEE regions, reflecting the global nature of the organization.

    Vist the hub to find more resources.

    Johanna Perez is a digital marketing specialist for IEEE Educational Activities.

  4. When David Nahamoo was a high school student in Iran, he wanted to pursue a career in mathematics or physics. But after talking over career options with his friends, he says, he was "pointed in the direction of a good career in Iran" and instead decided to become an electrical engineer. Today the IEEE Life Fellow is CTO of Pryon, a startup in Raleigh, N.C., that is developing a natural-language-processing AI system for businesses. The company's programs aim to make companies more productive, reducing costs and eliminating inefficiencies.


    Nahamoo is an expert in speech and language technologies. He spent almost 35 years at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., developing innovative AI technologies such as Watson. The supercomputer won a game on Jeopardy! in 2011 against two of the U.S. TV show's most successful contestants. Watson answers questions using advanced natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation, automated reasoning, and machine learning technologies.

    "I love taking a problem, sitting down, and figuring out how I can solve it," Nahamoo says. "And when I do [solve the problem], I get a rush of joy."

    He received this year's IEEE James L. Flanagan Speech and Audio Processing Award "for contributions to and leadership in research and deployment of spoken-language technologies." The speech and audio-processing award is sponsored by the IEEE Signal Processing Society and Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs.

    Nahamoo worked with Flanagan throughout his career. Flanagan, who died in 2015, worked at Bell Labs in Holmdel, N.J., for 33 years before he joined Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., as vice president for research. He was a pioneer in the field of acoustics and provided the technical foundation for speech recognition, teleconferencing, MP3 music files, and the efficient digital transmission of human conversation.

    "I was very happy and thankful that I got an award that honors a person I knew very well," Nahamoo says.


    Nahamoo grew up in Hamadan, and when he was 12 years old, he moved to Tehran. After graduating from high school at the top of his class, he earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1975 from the University of Tehran, then a master's degree in EE from Imperial College London in 1976. He left England to pursue a doctorate in electrical, electronics, and communications engineering at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind. He conducted his doctoral thesis research at Purdue in ultrasound diffraction imaging. He developed a technique that allowed for tomographic medical imaging using diffracted projections—images created when waves bend around objects.

    After graduating in 1982, he switched his interests and joined the continuous speech recognition team at IBM Research.

    "I just fell in love [with the group] because I thought that they were solving problems that appeared to be impossible to solve," he says. "And I love that challenge of impossibility."

    Looking back, he says, he can divide his career at IBM into three parts. For the first 10 years, he was a "pure technologist" who solely worked to improve the technology being developed. During his second decade, he became more interested in the delivery of speech recognition products to the market. For the last 10 years, as CTO of speech technology, his interests centered more on the strategic impact that spoken language technologies have on businesses.


    Nahamoo was dedicated to expanding the capabilities of speech recognition technologies. He wanted to develop a machine that could interact like humans with other humans.

    That idea led to a one-year study by IBM that gave birth to the Watson Group, Nahamoo says. The study examined market needs for cognitive computing technologies and business opportunities surrounding automating human sensory, language, learning, and reasoning capabilities.

    The supercomputer's data analytics processor analyzed human speech for meaning and syntax so that it could answer questions posed to the machine, similar to how Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri now work.

    Nahamoo says the Watson project was all about making progress on programming machines with the cognitive abilities of humans. The supercomputer was the first step to creating an AI machine that people could interact with as if they were speaking to another person, he says.

    One day, he says, AI machines will be able to understand physical cues such as head nodding and posture changes, as well as mimic human emotions. That would enable machines to interact more closely and could let them form connections with humans, he says.

    Building such a machine, Nahamoo says, is "my interest, my love."


    Nahamoo now has an opportunity to take his work forward. In 2018 Igor Jablokov, founder and CEO of Pryon, offered Nahamoo the CTO position. The two had worked together at IBM in the early 2000s, when Jablokov led the development of IBM Watson Assistant—a forerunner to IBM Watson. The two collaborated again in the late 2000s, when Jablokov, founder and CEO of tech company Yap, licensed IBM's Attila speech-recognition engine.

    Nahamoo says he took the offer because he wanted to go back to working at the "cross section of deep technology innovation and business impact."

    Pryon has about 30 employees and aims to help companies use AI to improve their operations. One of its products, Answer, is a question-answering platform that companies can add to their AI assistants, chatbots, and help desks.

    An employee can ask via text or voice how many vacation days she has available, for example. The platform organizes, reads, and searches a company's applications and documents to find the answer. Unlike other AI assistants and chatbots that can respond only to a limited set of requests, Pryon attempts to retrieve responses to any company-related questions. The system also collects user feedback and monitors usage in order to improve the quality of the answers.

    "We are trying to build the best question-answering system out there," Nahamoo says. "One that can filter content from different kinds of files—from PDFs, HTML, and Microsoft Word or Google documents to PowerPoint presentations."

    The company has one customer using Answers and others that are interested in implementing the system, he says.


    Nahamoo joined IEEE in 1978 as a student. He wanted to be able to read the organization's publications, take part in its activities, and connect with other engineers, he says.

    "I appreciate the insight and greatness of those who started IEEE and of those who have helped the [engineering] community," Nahamoo says. "I believe our community would have been a lot less effective and capable of making the impact that it has made without IEEE."

  5. In 1820, the Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted threw electromagnetic theory into a state of confusion. Natural philosophers of the day believed that electricity and magnetism were two distinct phenomena, but Ørsted suggested that the flow of electricity through a wire created a magnetic field around it. The French physicist André-Marie Ampère saw a demonstration of Ørsted's experiment in which an electric current deflected a magnetic needle, and he then developed a mathematical theory to explain the relationship.

    English scientist Michael Faraday soon entered the fray, when Richard Phillips, editor of the Annals of Philosophy,asked him to write a historical account of electromagnetism, a field that was only about two years old and clearly in a state of flux.

    Faraday was an interesting choice for this task, as Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon recount in their 2014 book Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field. Born in 1791, he received only a barebones education at church school in his village of Newington, Surrey (now part of South London). At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a bookbinder. He read many of the books he bound and continued to look for opportunities to learn more. In a fateful turn of events, just as Faraday's apprenticeship was coming to an end in 1812, one of the bookbinder's clients offered Faraday a ticket to Humphry Davy's farewell lecture series at the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

    Davy, just 13 years older than Faraday, had already made a name for himself as a chemist. He had discovered sodium, potassium, and several compounds and invented the miner's safety lamp. Plus he was a charismatic speaker. Faraday took detailed notes of the lectures and sent a copy to Davy with a request for employment. When a position opened as a chemistry assistant at the Royal Institution, Davy hired Faraday.

    Images of Faraday and Davy After Faraday [left] failed to acknowledge his mentor, Humphry Davy [right], in an 1821 paper on the electric motor, Davy accused him of plagiarism.LEFT: ULLSTEIN BILD/GETTY IMAGES; RIGHT: BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

    Davy mentored Faraday and taught him the principles of chemistry. Faraday had an insatiable curiosity, and his reputation at the Royal Institution grew. But when Phillips asked Faraday to write the review article for the Annals, he had only dabbled in electromagnetism and was a bit daunted by Ampère's mathematics.

    At heart, Faraday was an experimentalist, so in order to write a thorough account, he re-created Ørsted's experiments and tried to follow Ampère's reasoning. His "Historical Sketch of Electro-Magnetism," published anonymously in the Annals, described the state of the field, the current research questions and experimental apparatus, the theoretical developments, and the major players. (For a good summary of Faraday's article, see Aaron D. Cobb's "Michael Faraday's 'Historical Sketch of Electro-Magnetism' and the Theory-Dependence of Experimentation," in the December 2009 issue of Philosophy of Science.)

    While reconstructing Ørsted's experiments, Faraday was not entirely convinced that electricity acted like a fluid, running through wires just as water runs through pipes. Instead, he thought of electricity as vibrations resulting from tension between conducting materials. These thoughts kept him experimenting.

    Faraday observed the circular rotation of a wire as it was attracted and repelled by magnetic poles. "Very satisfactory," he wrote in his notebook.

    On 3 September 1821, Faraday observed the circular rotation of a wire as it was attracted and repelled by magnetic poles. He sketched in his notebook a clockwise rotation around the south pole of the magnet, and the reverse around the north pole. "Very satisfactory," he wrote in his entry on the day's experiment, "but make more sensible apparatus."

    The next day, he got it right. He took a deep glass vessel, secured a magnet upright in it with some wax, and then filled the vessel with mercury until the magnetic pole was just above the surface. He floated a stiff wire in the mercury and connected the apparatus to a battery. When a current ran through the circuit, it generated a circular magnetic field around the wire. As the current in the wire interacted with the permanent magnet fixed to the bottom of the dish, the wire rotated clockwise. On the other side of the apparatus, the wire was fixed and the magnet was allowed to move freely, which it did in a circle around the wire.

    For a helpful animation of Faraday's apparatus, see this tutorial created by the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. And if you'd like to build your own Faraday motor, this video will walk you through it:

    Although a great proof of concept, Faraday's device was not exactly useful, except as a parlor trick. Soon, people were snatching up pocket-size motors as novelty gifts. Although Faraday's original motor no longer exists, one that he built the following year does; it's in the collections of the Royal Institution and pictured at top. This simple-looking contraption is the earliest example of an electric motor, the first device to turn electrical energy into mechanical motion.

    The fallout from Faraday's invention

    Faraday knew the power of quick publication, and in less than a month he wrote an article, "On Some New Electromagnetic Motions and the Theory of Electromagnetism," which was published in the next issue of the Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature, and the Arts.Unfortunately, Faraday did not appreciate the necessity of fully acknowledging others' contributions to the discovery.

    Within a week of publication, Humphry Davy dealt his mentee a devastating blow by accusing Faraday of plagiarism.

    Davy had a notoriously sensitive ego. He was also upset that Faraday failed to adequately credit his friend William Hyde Wollaston, who had been studying the problem of rotary motion with currents and magnets for more than a year. Faraday mentions both men in his article, as well as Ampère, Ørsted, and some others. But he doesn't credit anyone as a collaborator, influencer, or codiscoverer. Faraday didn't work directly with Davy and Wollaston on their experiments, but he did overhear a conversation between them and understood the direction of their work. Plus it was (and still is) a common practice to credit your adviser in early publications.

    When Faraday's reputation began to eclipse that of his mentor's, Faraday made several missteps while navigating the cutthroat, time-sensitive world of academic publishing.

    Faraday fought to clear his name against the charge of plagiarism and mostly succeeded, although his relationship with Davy remained strained. When Faraday was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1824, the sole dissenting vote was cast by the society's president, Humphry Davy.

    Faraday avoided working in the field of electromagnetism for the next few years. Whether that was his own choice or a choice thrust upon him by Davy's assigning him time-consuming duties within the Royal Institution is an open question.

    One of Faraday's assignments was to salvage the finances of the Royal Institution, which he did by reinvigorating the lecture series and introducing a popular Christmas lecture. Then in 1825 the Royal Society asked him to lead the Committee for the Improvement of Glass for Optical Purposes, an attempt to revive the British glass industry, which had lost ground to French and German lens makers. This was tedious, bureaucratic work that Faraday undertook as a patriotic duty, but the drudgery and relentless failures took a mental toll.

    Faraday's experiments of 1831 yield the transformer and the dynamo

    In 1831, two years after Davy's death and after the completion of Faraday's work on the glass committee, he returned to experimenting with electricity, by way of acoustics. He teamed up with Charles Wheatstone to study sound vibrations. Faraday was particularly interested in how sound vibrations could be seen when a violin bow is pulled across a metal plate lightly covered with sand, creating distinct patterns known as Chladni figures. This video shows the phenomenon in action:

    Resonance Experiment! (Full Version - With Tones) www.youtube.com

    Faraday looked at nonlinear standing waves that form on liquid surfaces, which are now known as Faraday waves or Faraday ripples. He published his research, "On a peculiar class of acoustical figures; and on certain forms assumed by groups of particles upon vibrating elastic surfaces," in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions.

    Still convinced that electricity was somehow vibratory, Faraday wondered if electric current passing through a conductor could induce a current in an adjacent conductor. This led him to one of his most famous inventions and experiments: the induction ring. On 29 August 1831, Faraday detailed in his notebook his experiment with a specially prepared iron ring. He wrapped one side of the ring with three lengths of insulated copper wire, each about 24 feet (7 meters) long. The other side, he wrapped with about 60 feet (18 meters) of insulated copper wire. (Although he only describes the assembled ring, it likely took him many days to wrap the wire. Modern experimenters who built a replica spent 10 days on it.) He then began charging one side of the ring and looking at the effects on a magnetic needle a short distance away. To his delight, he was able to induce an electric current from one set of wires to the other, thus creating the first electric transformer.

    Faraday\u2019s 29 August 1831 notebook entry describes his experiment with a wire-bound iron induction ring\u2014the first electric transformer. Faraday's 29 August 1831 notebook entry describes his experiment with a wire-bound iron induction ring—the first electric transformer.HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

    Faraday continued experimenting into the fall of 1831, this time with a permanent magnet. He discovered that he could produce a constant current by rotating a copper disk between the two poles of a permanent magnet. This was the first dynamo, and the direct ancestor of truly useful electric motors.

    Two hundred years after the discovery of the electric motor, Michael Faraday is rightfully remembered for all of his work in electromagnetism, as well as his skills as a chemist, lecturer, and experimentalist. But Faraday's complex relationship with Davy also speaks to the challenges of mentoring (and being mentored), publishing, and holding (or not) personal grudges. It is sometimes said that Faraday was Davy's greatest discovery, which is a little unfair to Davy, a worthy scientist in his own right. When Faraday's reputation began to eclipse that of his mentor's, Faraday made several missteps while navigating the cutthroat, time-sensitive world of academic publishing. But he continued to do his job—and do it well—creating lasting contributions to the Royal Institution. A decade after his first breakthrough in electromagnetism, he surpassed himself with another. Not bad for a self-taught man with a shaky grasp of mathematics.

    Part of acontinuing series looking at photographs of historical artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of technology.

    An abridged version of this article appears in the September 2021 print issue as "The Electric Motor at 200."


  • Materiale del corso Accertamento di Abilità Informatiche Progredite (REL @SPES): Ariel
  • Materiale del Laboratorio di Informatica (CES @SPES): jli!

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