Forensic Electrical Engineering
Past – Present – Future
By Jim Phillips, P.E.
History of Forensic Electrical Engineering
Some historical articles suggest the field of electrical investigations began hundreds of years ago when early attempts were made to provide a scientific understand lightning. Of course lightning has been around since the beginning of time and was usually explained using philosophical and religious views before scientific explanations were first made.
Prior to modern technical explanations regarding lighting were developed (and accepted) some religious views where that ringing church bells could “drive away… the stroke of lighting and harm of thunder;” however, ringing bells during a thunderstorm could prove fatal. In Germany, a 1784 publication titled “A Proof That the Ringing of Bells During Thunderstorms May Be More Dangerous Than Useful” stated that since the year 1750, 386 church towers had been struck by lightning and 121 bell ringers had been killed. 
During this time, several people began to study and experiment with lighting. One of the better known investigators of the electrical phenomena was by Benjamin Franklin and during the summer of 1747 he conducted a series of experiments with electricity. His attention began to move away from studying lighting and shifted towards attempting to protect people and buildings from it. His work lead to the development of the lighting rod which was described as an iron rod about 8 to 10 feet long and was pointed at one end.
Decades after the development of the lighting rod, its use ultimately lead to a legal challenge, in France during the summer of 1783, One M. de Vissery was involved in a trial where he was attempting to appeal a decision by the local alderman who was requiring him to remove a lightning rod that he placed on his chimney. The alderman’s concerns were “that the lighting rod attracts thunder from the clouds, how can one be certain it will not deposit that thunder on buildings and people” One of his legal representatives posed two technical questions regarding the case. Whether lighting rods were dangerous or advantageous and was this lighting rod well constructed. Since the alderman failed to consult with experts concerning lighting rods he was accused of using incorrect physics. 
During the 1800’s the field of electricity was beginning to spawn a new technical discipline. In 1831 Michael Faraday developed the law of electromagnetic induction. Building on Faraday’s work, Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, which used electricity to communicate over long distances. Unknown to Morse, two English scientists were also conducting experiments with electricity and the telegraph. Although their work began after Morse’s work, they achieved success before Morse and received a British patent for a telegraph system that used multiple wires to transmit a single message.
Morse’s system used a single wire system and was first demonstrated in public on January 6, 1838. Many refused to acknowledge that Morse was the inventor of the telegraph, which lead him to take his legal case regarding the patent all the way to the Supreme Court. The court found in favor of Morse and that his telegraph was unique in using a single circuit battery powered machine. 
The field of electrical engineering did not really develop into a discipline until the mid 1800’s. Some cite it’s beginning with James Clerk Maxwell who summarized the basic laws of electricity in 1864 in a mathematical form. The need for Electrical Engineers also began to grow in the later part of the 1800’s following with the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 and Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb in 1878 and ultimately the first central electric generating station on Pearl Street in New York in 1882.
Although not directly a technical issue, a major event that ultimately was responsible for some early forensic cases occurred long before the telegraph. It was the creation of the U.S. patent statute that was signed into law by President George Washington on April 10, 1790. A few months later on July 31, 1790, Samuel Hopkins was issued the first patent for a process of making potash, an ingredient used in fertilizer. This patent was signed by President Washington.  The creation of the U.S. Patent Office would lead to many of the early legal cases regarding electrical technology such as Morse’s patent dispute.
With rapid advancements in developing new devices and uses for electricity, there became a need for expert witnesses and forensic investigations. This required a need for electrical experts to answer legal questions about electrical designs, patents, contracts, personal injury and damage.
One of the first expert witnesses in patent litigation was Howard Latimer. His background was a drafter and in 1876 he worked for Alexander Graham Bell to draft the drawings for Bell’s telephone patent. In 1881 he received his own patent for the “Process of Manufacturing Carbons” for carbon filaments and in 1884 he was hired by the Edison Electric Light Company in New York City as an expert witness for patent litigation regarding the electric light. In 1890 Latimer transferred to the legal department of Edison General Electric where he testified as an expert on Edison patents in a number of court cases involving patent lawsuits. [ 8 ]
One of the first modern day forensic investigations was about lightning and telephones. On May 26, 1926, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided the case of Sinkovich versus Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania. The case involved a death due to a lightning strike. [ 9 ]
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[ 4 ] Philip Dray, “Stealing God’s thunder : Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod and the invention of
America” Random House 2005
[ 5 ] Jessica Riskin, The Lawyer and the Lightning Rod, Science in Context 1999 pp 60-76
[ 6 ] Barbara Maranzani, 6 Things You May Not Know About Samuel Morse, History.com, January 4, 2013
[ 7 ] Department of Commerce’s United States Patent and Trademark Office: www.uspto.gov
[ 8 ] Lewis Howard Latimer – A Biography and Related Experiments You can Do, 1993 Edison Electric
[ 9 ] Thomas P. Shefchick, Electrical Engineering, Wiley Encyclopedia of Forensic Science, John Wiley and
Sons, September 15, 2009