History of Walter Light Hall

November 21, 2007

As Walter Light Hall turns 20 years old this year we will be presenting some stories surrounding the building and dedication as well as some historical information about the Department. The first story we present is a history of our Department written in 1989.

The Department of Electrical Engineering:
Mirroring the Development of a Nation

More than ninety years ago, Queen's University awarded the first Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering. The recipient, Charles L.G. Fortesque, put his knowledge to work in a long and distinguished career in industry. Today, a prestigious international scholarship, awarded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, bears his name.

Since Fortesque's day, faculty and student alike have repeated the pattern of acquiring knowledge, then putting it to work in society's service. In fact, the history of the Department of Electrical Engineering mirrors Canada's development - its exploration of new opportunities, intellectual enquiry than knows no borders, its innovation and industry.


 As early as 1894, Queen's University offered electrical engineering courses. Though today the descriptions sound like ancient history, they convey the excitement of an era marked by discoveries, inventions and innovations which are now commonplace. These were the early days of telegraph, telephone, electrically-powered streetcars, central power stations, generators and transformers, induction motors and theories about something called alternating current - all ways to use electricity in society's service.



 From its earliest days, Queen's Department of Electrical Engineering kept pace with the times. As the 20th century was ushered in, the Department found a new home in Fleming Hall and expanded course offerings to include the latest developments such as alternating current motors and power transmission, arc and incandescent lighting, and related industrial applications.



Both during and after World War I, the expertise of the electrical engineer was in great demand to help create and maintain transportation, communications and industrial systems. In 1922, the Department of Electrical Engineering introduced courses in transmission and electronics. That same year, the Department's capabilities were demonstrated by the first university radio broadcast in Canada over station 9BT, the forerunner of today's CFRC Queen's station (1490 AM and 91.9 Stereo FM).

Throughout the 1930's - years of depression, dirigibles and a destructive fire that gutted parts of Fleming Hall - the Department managed to expand its physical space and equipment. Graduate studies were now part of the Electrical Engineering program.

The Department played a key role in training radio communications personnel in World War II, and by mid-war (1941), radio communications was added to the Department's curriculum. When the soldiers returned, so did renewed interest in electrical engineering for widespread peacetime application. By 1952, the Department's growth made it the sole occupant of Fleming Hall.

The growing use of radio and telephone communications, and computer technology opened new fields of enquiry for researchers at the Department of Electrical Engineering and their industriousness was rewarded.

The 1960's began with a Defence Research Board contract for studies in statistical communications, a subject which was already part of the Department's program. In 1963, Queen's teamed up with Bell Canada to create a communications program providing advance training at Queen's for Bell Engineers.

In 1967, Professor Robin Chisholm's work in signal processing made it possible to link radio telescopes thousands of miles apart, which yielded the most detailed views achieved to that time of quasi-stellar sources (quasars) at the edge of the observable universe.


The Department - and its achievements - have continued to grow in recent years. In the 1970's, combined undergraduate and graduate enrolment climbed to more than 250, prompting expansion into Carruthers Hall. The Department was also building a strong reputation in the design and analysis of communications systems and signal processing. An interdisciplinary approach to the study of communications (QUIST) brought faculty together from six Queen's departments to study how communications technology introduced into remote communities interacted with economic, social and cultural factors.

Faculty research interests helped create and support the Canadian Institute of Guided Ground Transport. The use of "leaky" coaxial cable to establish electrical fields for surveillance systems was pioneered at Queen's.

The prominence of the Department of Electrical Engineering has intensified in the 1980's. As its capabilities and reputation have grown, so has the attention it attracts from students and professional colleagues.

More than 400 students are currently enrolled in departmental programs, with the graduate program now one of the largest on campus.

For more than 50 years, the Department hosted Canada's premier communications conference, the Biennial Symposium on Communications. In 1988, more than 200 telecommunications experts from across the nation and abroad gathered at Queen's for the 14th Symposium.

The quality of the Department's faculty is high with many holding advanced degrees from the major North American universities. Two faculty members are Fellows of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

In recent years, the Department's continuing growth in size and diversity of activity continued to put strain on available space and equipment. Even the expansion of Electrical Engineering into the Jemmett and Stewart-Pollock Wings of Fleming Hall in 1982 proved a short-term measure. By 1984, plans for a new building were being developed.

Today, the *Technology Centre reflects both the capabilities of the Department and the Queen's commitment to the exploration of new technologies. The modern facilities equip the Department for today's teaching and research challenges and help prepare the Department for the 1990s and beyond.

* Editor's Note:
The Technology Centre was the original name given to Walter Light Hall. The Official Naming of Walter Light Hall occurred on Friday, May 10, 1991.