Family represents nine decades of electrical engineering at UD

When Eugene Cain graduated from the University of Delawarewith an electrical engineering degree during the Great Depression in 1932, close to 15 million people in the United States were unemployed.

One skill saved Cain from joining their ranks — he was an excellent baseball player and was hired as a stevedore so that he could join the semi-pro team sponsored by his company.

By the time his son, Donald, enrolled at UD more than 30 years later, the economy had turned around, and the second electrical engineer in the family found work in the power industry when he graduated in 1968.

Don’s son Bradley made it three generations when he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1995.

“We all earned the same degree but went in different directions,” Don Cain says. “My father eventually found work in the power industry, where he spent his entire career designing lines and hooking up customers. I was more of an engineer turned manager but still working in the power industry.”

The youngest Cain, who went on to earn a master’s degree in 1997, has followed the industry in a new direction, designing Internet data center products for a series of startups.

The world of computing

Both Don and Brad Cain had the opportunity to learn from the “giants” of the department. Don worked with early computer expert Dave Robinson, and Brad worked on several projects with internet pioneer David Mills, who became his graduate school adviser.

In Eugene Cain’s time, computers hadn’t yet been invented. By the time Don arrived at UD, one of the first commercially viable computers, the PDP8, was available, but the Internet wasn’t even a concept yet. Don worked with Robinson on the PDP8, and Brad then went on to help develop protocols for the emerging Internet.

“David Mills introduced me to all of the heavyweights in the Internet world, and my master’s thesis ended up becoming an Internet standard,” Brad Cain says. “When I graduated, I started working in this area immediately because there were very few people coming out of college with my level of knowledge at that time. My success was due largely to what Mills had taught me and the connections he made for me.”

Neither of the younger Cains felt pressured to follow in their respective fathers’ footsteps but rather saw them as role models.

“Whenever there was a storm and the power was out, my father had to work,” Don says. “He could fix anything, and he could make anything work. That fascinated me.”

Brad recalls growing up in the 1980s, when personal computers were starting to become commonplace. “I was hooked from the age of 10,” he says. “When it came time to choose a major, I was actually torn between electrical engineering and computer science. Engineering turned out to be a good choice because although I work primarily on the software side, my background enables me to interface effectively with the hardware folks.”

Ken Barner, professor and chair of UD’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, notes that the Cain family has spanned a period of tremendous change in the fields of electrical and computer engineering since the 1920s.

“The discipline has followed a phenomenal arc and continues to impact society in tremendous ways,” he says. “You can see that from the changes that the three members of this family have observed and contributed to.”

From agriculture to engineering

The Cains represent not only multiple generations of Blue Hen EEs but also many generations of Delawareans — they’re related to the Reybolds of Delaware City.

According to a passage in John Munroe’s History of Delaware, “Maj. Philip Reybold of near Delaware City was the acknowledged ‘peach king’ at his death in 1854.” His family reportedly owned more than 100,000 peach trees and shipped the fruit to ports from New York to Baltimore.

Just as the Cains didn’t follow in their ancestors’ agricultural footsteps, Bradley isn’t sure whether the next generation will yield another electrical engineer. His sons, Matthew, 6, and Ryan, 4, are still a bit young to be choosing careers.

But Brad has no doubt he made the right choice.

“The creative aspect of building something to solve a problem is the coolest part of being an engineer,” he says. “Even though my grandfather, my father and I followed different paths with the same degree, we were all part of building an infrastructure and making things work behind the scenes.”

Article by Diane Kukich