IEEE 125th Anniversary: How It All Got Started (Part 2)

As mentioned yesterday, the IEEE is celebrating its 125th anniversary. The modern institute is a descendant of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, founded in 1884. So let's take a look at how it all began.

The idea for such an enterprise was proposed in the spring of 1884 by N. S. Keith, of Philadelphia, an inventor and electrometallurgical engineer. Aware of the impending International Electrical Exhibition in Philadelphia in the fall, Keith reasoned that professionals working in the electrical field should organize in time to officially welcome visitors from other nations on behalf of the United States. So he mailed a notice to others who shared an interest in electrical inventions.

This first call for participation read in part:

"The rapidly growing art of producing and utilizing electricity has no assistance from any American national scientific society. There is no legitimate excuse for this implied absence of scientific interest, except that it be the short-sighted plea that everyone is too busy to give time to scientific, practical and social intercourse which, in other professions, have been found so conducive to advancement."

It continued by stating that such an organization should be open to "electrical engineers, electricians, instructors in electricity in schools and colleges, inventors and manufacturers of electrical apparatus, officers of telegraph, telephone, electric light, burglar alarm, district messenger, electric time, and of all companies based upon electrical inventions."

To form such a group, Keith organized a formal meeting on 13 May 1884 at the offices of the American Society of Civil Engineers at 127 East 23rd Street in New York City. The attendees drew up a charter and named themselves the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. They then elected a slate of officers, headed by Norvin Green, who was the president of the Western Union Telegraph Co. Supporting him were six distinguished vice presidents: Alexander Graham Bell, of Washington, D.C.; Charles A. Cross, of Boston; Thomas A. Edison, of New York City; George A. Hamilton, of New York City; Charles H. Haskins, of Milwaukee; and Frank L. Pope, of Elizabeth, N.J. Other institute officers elected that day included industry leaders such as: Charles Brush, of Cleveland; Elisha Gray, of Chicago; Edwin J. Houston, of Philadelphia; and Theodore N. Vail, of Boston.

These first managers of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers were giants in the new field of electrical machinery, representing almost every aspect of its success to that time. Some had already founded major corporations that exist, in one form or another, to this time, such as AT&T and General Electric. The officers were so top-heavy with men (yes, only men) who had invented themselves into prominence that the leading trade publication of the era, Electrical World, described the new institute simply as a "group of electricians and capitalists."

Still, they charted a course for electrical engineering in America that has grown with the country as much as it has helped the country to grow -- and extended that success to the world.

For that, we thank them for their foresight.

[Material for this column provided by Engineers and Electrons by John D. Ryder and Donald G. Fink, IEEE Press, New York, 1984.]

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