To Laymen, these two words are often used interchangeably - with many conflating electronic devices as electrical and vice versa. But even an amateur engineer knows that there is a fundamental difference between the two. Electrical and electronic components have a variety of mechanisms of action and are used in different ways. Knowing how these devices function is important because it allows you to know what is needed and were. To get the most out of these devices it's first best to get a brief history of them, followed by how they work and what machines they are found, how they work together, and the difference between the two engineering disciplines.

History of Electrical and Electronic Devices

The history of electrical and electronic devices is an important one because it gives a better understanding of how they function. For example, the first electrical battery was invented by Alessandro Volta in 1800, but it wouldn't be until near the end of the century, in 1883, that the field of electronics was said to exist. Much of this has to do with the creation of components that help delegate how the electricity is used was invented around this time. Electrical machines like the electric telegraph, lightbulb, and vacuum cleaner - which had existed up to this point, where simple devices that relied on only a few moving parts for use.

One of the biggest jumps in the field of electronics was the creation of the transistor. This device gave complicated but smaller electronic components the ability to manipulate electrical devices. Whereas electrical engineering was said to have been invented in the late 19th century, electronic engineering came about in 1948 with the creation of this transistor. Prior to this, the immediate predecessor to electronic engineering was simply referred to as radio engineering, as this was the most common use of electronic equipment - along with other devices such as the television and telephone. Today the difference between the two types of devices have become blurred, as many household and industrial machines use both electrical and electronic components within the same machine. In fact, the synergy of these two components is the reason for all the technology there is today.

Electrical vs Electronic

nikola tesla
Nikola Tesla

The primary difference between the two types is that electrical devices are much simpler than their electronic cousins. Electrical components are primarily found in uncomplicated machines or machines that typically only have one use. For example, a toaster only needs its heating element turned on or vacuum cleaner only needs its suction motor to function. In short, these electrical devices have no decision capabilities nor pass any information. Electrical also relies mostly on alternate current - meaning it usually uses much more power than electronic devices. There's, of course, an exception to this rule, such as a TV remote control which uses batteries. Nonetheless, electrical components are often considered more of a brute force type of device, with extreme examples of them found in factories with machines.

Electronic devices, on the other hand, do much more and have many different parts that allow them to pursue a variety of useful capabilities. The biggest difference is the inclusion of a particular kind of circuit or processor. This component works in varying ways depending on the device, but ultimately includes information to become directly embedded into electrical current. For example, a radio works by adding audio to the electricity, thus creating sound. A video camera uses its components to add a series of images. Even something like a microwave can be considered electronic because it beeps to let you know when it is done the cooking. Electronic components are able to do this because they are many times more complicated than their electrical cousins. Things like microprocessors are extremely tiny - having thousands of individual parts that can be only a few atoms wide at times. Despite their intricate movements and programs, these electronic components usually pull on much less power compared to electrical ones.

How They Work Together

As mentioned before, recent decades have made these differences between electrical and electronic devices to become much more blurry. This is a result of the integration of more electronic circuits into electrical devices. Not all devices are made equal though, with the variation being best visualized with a straight line, with machines with fewer electronic parts on one end and more on the other extreme. For example, a computer functions almost completely on electronic components, while something like industrial machines is made with one of a few electronic components if any at all. A washing machine, for instance, uses electrical components powered directly from the socket to power its motor, allowing it to spin the barrel inside. The control panel of the same washing machine is made up almost entirely of electronic parts, and controls the electrical circuit, allowing users to control the length of the wash, the spin cycle, and so forth.

In the past, the only way the two types could interact was through relays. These intermediaries were controlled by the electronic circuit, turning on and off to control the larger current to power the electrical components. These devices were particularly notable for being large and unreliable - being particularly inefficient to function as they needed a lot of electricity to do so. They also had a tendency to break down from repeated use, requiring constant replacement and upkeep. Today the link between the two types of circuits is determined by a transistor. These devices are effectively like small switches that turn on and off as needed by the electronic circuit. This is how something small like a processor or circuit can control much larger devices. The fusion of electrical and electronic devices have made households much safer and commercial machines many times more efficient.

Different Job Titles

Just like the confusion between electrical and electronic components, there is also a sort of puzzlement between electrical and electronic engineering. Roughly, electrical engineering is a broad field that focuses on electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism, along with their varying applications. Electrical engineering is best understood as an umbrella term that encompasses many sub-disciplines that interact and overlap one another. A few of these sub-disciplines are things like computer engineering, power engineering, telecommunications, robotics, and electronic engineering.

Electronic engineering, being a part of the electrical engineering discipline, focuses on things related to electronics like circuits, resistors, transistors, and processors. Originally called just radio engineering, the usefulness for this discipline exploded with the creation of the transistor in 1948. This allowed for much more efficient machines, leading to the home appliance boom of the 50s. The integrated circuit in 1959 allowed for computers to become more viable. The field of electronic engineering has expanded rapidly since then and actually has many sub-disciplines underneath it like analogue electronics, consumer electronics, and embedded systems.

Final Thoughts

While many devices today have an integration of electrical and electronic equipment, the variation between the two couldn't be larger. Electrical components and devices are much simpler and often require more energy. Electronic components, on the other hand, are much more complicated, yet incredibly small. Electronic devices have information relayed via electricity and are often able to do much more than electrical devices. With the use of transistors and other mechanisms, these more complicated processors are able to control larger devices. When it comes to engineering, electrical and electronic are also often used interchangeably, but actually, refer to two different things.

As you can see there is a world of difference between the two, despite them having a similar sounding description. Using these components effectively allowed for the creation of consumer electronics such as kitchen appliances, televisions, computer, and smartphones. Using them together allows for devices that a safer, more viable, and many times more energy efficient.