Engineering the Future

What are the top engineering breakthroughs for the next 125 years?

6 March 2009

This Month’s Question
Engineering the Future

Responding to December's question, IEEE members chose dozens of engineering breakthroughs they regarded as No. 1–including the transistor, electric power, and the Internet–since IEEE's birth 125 years ago. Now let's look to the future. Experts and science-fiction writers have suggested that the next century could see technology for controlling the weather, unlimited renewable energy, a space elevator, and the oft-predicted flying car and teleportation of human beings.

What do you see as the top engineering breakthrough during the next 125 years? Why?

Responses to December’s question
Greatest Engineering Breakthroughs

IEEE, which traces its origins to the founding of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1884, celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. The organization has seen many important engineering breakthroughs over the years, including the development of electric power, radio, television, computers, earth satellites, space probes, health-care devices, and the Internet.

What do you believe is the most important engineering breakthrough of the past 125 years? Why?

The Vacuum Tube

As the first device to allow dynamic control of electric current, the vacuum tube was a seminal invention, even though it was displaced by semiconductors.

Arlington, Texas


The Transistor

It led the way by making it possible to shrink the size of electronics that once used vacuum tubes. This mini­aturization allowed for the development of ICs and active LCDs, which are enabling technologies in innumerable applications.


The transistor changed everything, leading to the practical implementation of the computer. It also enabled the development of sophisticated control systems, communication devices, and consumer electronics. Without it, very little of what we use at the start of the 21st century would be affordable or even possible.

Huntsville, Ala.


Alternating Current

Nikola Tesla’s invention and practical application of ac power was—and is—a profoundly important contribution. It has greatly benefited mankind and led to the development of innumerable other inventions, such as the fractional horsepower electric motor.

Fallbrook, Calif.


The Internet

My vote is for the Internet. It impacts everyone, even people in rural villages in India. With the mobile phone, people are able to reach only those they know, but with the Internet, they can reach across the globe to anyone in a very personal way.

Bangalore, India

With the development of the Internet and its open standards, you can now search the Web and get almost instantaneous results on nearly any subject. There is no longer an excuse for anyone to remain ignorant.

D.P. Bannon
Westbrook, Conn.



The field of telecommunications—which includes radio, television, and the telephone—is my pick because of its real-time nature. In my tiny village in Nigeria, I watch activities taking place in the United States at the same time U.S. citizens do.

Abuja, Nigeria


There Are Just Too Many

I can’t pick just one. Information theory was a breakthrough that made recording and communication of information a new discipline. FORTRAN, a high-level computer language, made programming possible. The airplane was also a pivotal invention, and the transistor and the operational amplifier helped advance tech­nology immensely.

Dahlgren, Va.

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