What's the difference between an electronic system and an electric system? Find out.

Do you know the difference between an electric system and an electronic system? Many people don't, even those who should. Oftentimes these terms are conflated when discussing a project or a recent purchase. Let's discuss what the commonly accepted distinctions are between the two words and when they should be used.

Many hobbyists, lay people, and engineers alike have never looked into the definition of each term and might even consider the words electronic and electric to be synonymous. They may shrug or stutter their way through describing their work: “It's an electric motor. No, I guess it's more of an electronic motor, because...” If people with engineering degrees in the subject can't make a distinction between "electric" and "electronic," then why would anyone else bother to learn the difference?

Understanding the difference matters because these two terms do have different meanings both inside and outside of technical discussions. In the everyday world, knowing the distinction can mostly be overcome by taking the time to be unnecessarily specific or wordy in describing that which already has a term associated with it. To engineers, however, and to anyone who interfaces between technical and non-technical discussion, the distinction is important because we use very particular language that is frequently abstract or abbreviated during technical conversation. Clear communication can prevent you from building, buying, or designing the wrong device. Misusing the terms could lead to a harmful and otherwise avoidable break in productivity because someone had the wrong idea of the product being designed.

It also matters to the consumer. An electric toaster is nothing special in the modern era; the vast majority of people who toast their bread do so with an electric toaster. An electronic toaster, however, is one that can give you the status of your toast or play a beep when the toast is ready because it has an electronic circuit that controls these operations in addition to the electric heating element. The design process for this sort of product is quite different than for an electric toaster, and has different considerations. Similarly, an electrical switch is different from an electronic switch, and someone who can design electrical objects is different from someone who can design electronics.



An electric device is one that directly uses electrical energy to perform a task. The motion and energy of electrons within the conducting wires and interconnected components is primary to the operation of the device. On the other hand, an electronic device is defined as a device that operates on electrical energy in order to fulfill a task. The information carried by the electrons is operated on and used by the device to perform its function. Typically, electronic devices also have an integrated electrical section, the power supply, that appropriates voltage and current to the electronic components of the rest of the device. In this case, we would usually denote the product as electronic according to its principal purpose, although the distinction is blurred when looking at large, complex systems.

For example, early cars were entirely mechanical devices, but became electrical machines upon the advent of the internal combustion engine, which required a spark plug and a magneto. Later, once digital clocks and dashboard notification systems became commonplace, cars included an integrated package of electronics, such as on-board computers to help control the car, provide information to the driver, and serve auxiliary functions. Today, cars involve a mix of electrical and electronic systems that are seamlessly integrated. Referring to a car in its entirety as electronic or electrical betrays the fact that cars are complex machines with many subsystems that cannot be so easily categorized (note that the term "electric car" falls outside of this type of discussion because it refers to a car principally powered by electricity rather than a gasoline-based engine).

Stereotypical degree-holding electrical engineers are usually better with electronics such as communication systems, power supplies, computers, and microelectronics. The topic of electric systems, on the other hand, including transmission lines, motors, heaters, switches, circuit breakers, and electromagnetics, are within the domain of electrical engineering, but are usually more familiar to mechanical and electromechanical engineers. Consideration of electrical transmission power lines is a purely electrical engineering topic that is nonetheless so different from designing classical electronic systems that the two skill sets barely intersect. Even though engineers with the same degrees can design either system, the set of people who excel at designing electronics (stereotypical electrical engineers) is different than the set of people who design electric systems (some electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, and other niche types of engineers). We have specific words for each type of device and specific words for the engineers who design them. Even our professional society and standards association, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), makes a prominent distinction between electrical engineers and an electronic engineers in their title because they are two different but overlapping categories.

The distinction between 'electric' and 'electronic' is subtle, which leads to frequent confusion of the two terms. Knowing the difference is important for many specific applications in the engineering and consumer marketing world. While this distinction is not the most important piece of information you might pick up as an engineer, it can help facilitate good communication not only with your friends and family in conversation about consumer topics, but also with your coworkers, superiors, and customers in your career.



1 Comment

  • NPN-1 2016-12-22

    The topic of electric systems ... more familiar to mechanical and electromechanical engineers”
    What do mechanical engineering students learn about electric systems here? Do they have to learn about electromechanical energy conversion, mmfs and emfs, and the like?
    And also why are these aspects of electric systems not in the electrical engineering curriculum?

    PS: Great article. Thank you.