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The illumination engineering program was the brainchild of Professor John Otto Kraehenbuehl. Beginning in the 1930s, he developed and taught two courses; one taught the design of lighting systems for building interiors and the other the design of wiring systems to supply electricity to the lights and motors within buildings.

At the time, nearly all of the electric light sources were incandescent lamps. These were tungsten filament descendant of the carbon filament lamps developed by Thomas Edison in 1875. Other available light sources in the 1930s, used for specific purposes, were: the carbon arc lamp used for theatrical spot lighting, the mercury vapor discharge lamp used for street lighting, and the Cooper Hewitt mercury vapor lamp used for industrial lighting. At the New York World's Fair in 1939, the fluorescent lamp was unveiled for public view.

In 1945, Kraehenbuehl designed a curriculum for a program in illumination engineering. The first course in the program was Illumination and Wiring Design, a three-hour course that combined and strengthened the two original courses offered in the 1930s.

During the period following World War II, most of the students majored in electronics, a slightly smaller group majored in power, and a smaller group, about 20 to 30 students per year, chose to major in illumination. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, and Case Institute of Technology were the only other universities in the United States offered work in illumination, and they only offered two or three courses in the fields. None covered the range of material in Kraehenbuehl's curriculum.

As evidence of the program's success, the first graduates were able to compete successfully in industry with engineers who had been working in the illumination field for many years. Kraehenbuehl tracked the graduates and found that, five years after graduation, illumination majors were earning 50% to 100% more than their classmates with power or electronics majors.

The demise of the illumination program came in the early 1950s. The College of Engineering wanted a uniform program in all departments for the first two years so that students would not have to declare and area of specialization until the sophomore year was completed. The illumination course (E.E. 120) was an impediment to progress, so the committee decided to remove it from the list of requirements. With no input during the freshman and sophomore years and Kraehenbuehl's retirement, enrollment in the program dropped steadily. After students had graduated in 1956, the program was no longer offered. Since its inception, some 130 students majored in illumination engineering. It was also the major chosen by the first few women earning degrees in electrical engineering.

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Centennial History of the Department of ECE
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Electrical and Computer Engineering Department
ECE Publications