EE/ECE Historical Series, Part 1: Profile of Professor Frank (Francis) Cary Caldwell

The first chair of the Ohio State EE Department had many interesting and important roles in the burgeoning field of electrical engineering around the turn of the century. Francis, or Frank, Cary Caldwell came to Ohio State in 1893 as an Assistant Professor of Physics, and in 1897 he became an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering.

In 1893 as a new professor, he helped light the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago’s World Fair) as the Chair of the subcommittee on electrical lighting and on the Committee of Awards in the Department of Electricity. The Fair chose Westinghouse’s AC system over Edison and GE’s low-voltage DC lights, which had been leading in the “war of the currents”. As detailed in Erik Larson‘s popular non-fiction historical novel The Devil in the White City, “The fair alone consumed three times as much electricity as the entire city of Chicago” and extraordinary effort was required to construct and hold the exposition. Although much of it was unfinished as of opening day, it was a commercial and cultural success. It was beset with controversy on many fronts (including an assassination and a serial killer who did his medical training at That School Up North), but from an electrical perspective, it was a technical marvel and the first time many of its visitors saw electrical lighting on a large scale. Commercial inventions from Edison and others were on display, and Nikola Tesla even made an appearance.

In 1903 as a full Professor, Caldwell became the first Chair of the newly-formed Department of Electrical Engineering at Ohio State. Archival documents note that he was charged with the responsibility “to decide upon and make contacts for a new power house and plant” and to supervise the electrical work of new buildings on campus.

Twenty years later, Professor Caldwell had a yearlong sabbatical in Prague, Czechoslovakia lecturing on electrical illumination and electrical transmission at the Czech Institute of Technology Polytechnicum. In recounting his adventures while lecturing before foreign students, Professor Caldwell said he had been assured the students would understand English. When he discovered that many understood the written word, but not his lectures, he then, as he recounted it, switched to his second language, German, only to find that the difficulties remained but were now “of his own making”.

During the period after this sabbatical, Professor Caldwell was appointed to the Ohio Committee on Motor Vehicle Lighting Legislation and to the Illuminating Engineers Society of America. In publications about automobile headlighting preserved by the Ohio State Archives and Google Books, he then wrote “The weight and speed of the present-day passenger car makes it necessary that the surface of the road be well illuminated to a distance of at least 200 feet, which corresponds to about 4 1/2 seconds run at 30 miles per hour.” In our modern day, with both higher speed limits but brighter headlamps, state laws mandate headlight use when one cannot see more than 400-1000 feet ahead.

Professor Caldwell was succeeded as the Chair by newly-arrived Professor Erwin Ernest Dreese on January 1, 1930. Caldwell retired in 1930 and later died in 1953, at age 84. He is best remembered as the first Chair of the EE Department at Ohio State and later the namesake of Caldwell Laboratory.

Read more by, and about, Frank (Francis) Cary Caldwell

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