Looking Back 125 Years

  On 13 May 1884 in New York City, a small group of electricity pioneers met to form the American Institute of Electrical Engineers

8 June 2009

Little could the founders—who included Thomas A. Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Norvin Green, president of Western Union Telegraph—have foreseen that they had sown the seeds for what is now the world’s largest technical professional association.

This year IEEE celebrates the 125th anniversary of that New York City meeting. The AIEE merged in 1963 with the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE)—which was founded in 1912 to deal with the up-and-coming field of radio—to form IEEE. Although much has changed over the years, one thing remains the same: IEEE retains the ambitious goal of fostering technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity. As we look to the future, the IEEE History Center helped The Institute remember the important events marking the path taken by IEEE to become what it is today.

The AIEE held its first technical meeting in October 1884 in Philadelphia. Green was the AIEE’s first president. Other notable presidents were Bell (1891–1892); Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1901–1902), who fostered the development of ac power; and Schuyler S. Wheeler (1905–1906), inventor of the two-blade electric fan.

Disseminating information among its members through technical meetings, standards, and publications was the primary way the AIEE went about its work. Accordingly, the organization had stringent procedures for approving papers for its three technical publications.

That wasn’t the AIEE’s only strict criteria. Its membership requirements recognized degrees only from the universities accredited by the Engineering Council for Professional Development, including Cornell, MIT, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

At the turn of the century, a new industry arose out of IRE Honorary Member Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless telegraphy experiments. What was originally called wireless became known as radio in some parts of the world. The technology was advanced by the electrical amplification possibilities of the vacuum tubes that evolved from John Fleming’s diode and IRE and AIEE Member Lee de Forest’s triode.

To focus on those technologies, a group of radio pioneers, including Alfred Goldsmith, inventor of the first commercial radio with two control knobs and a built-in speaker, established IRE in 1912 in New York City. Robert H. Marriott, who worked for the American Marconi Co., was its first president. The association was modeled on the AIEE, but it had a more international approach that included selecting officers from outside the United States. The IRE mission was “the advancement of the theory and practice of radio engineering and of the allied arts and sciences and the maintenance of high professional standing among its members.”

Notable presidents included Goldsmith (1928), Frederick E. Terman (1941), and Patrick E. Haggerty (1962). The IRE’s own list of “schools of recognized sciences” to qualify members included far more institutions than those recognized by the AIEE. The IRE’s flagship technical publication, Proceedings of the IRE, became well respected in the technical community for its timely peer-reviewed articles. Transactions of the AIEE was also well respected, but it was slower to publish papers because it printed them only after they’d been presented at an AIEE meeting.

IRE lagged behind the older organization in membership for many years. It wasn’t until after World War II that competition between the two organizations for members heated up. In 1947, the AIEE had almost 35 500 members, compared with the IRE’s 21 000. By 1956, each society had about 50 000, and by the time of the merger, the IRE was far larger.

With the rise of electronics, the sharp distinction between the two societies’ areas of interest blurred, leading to serious talks about a merger in 1961. The AIEE-IRE Merger Committee was formed to explore the challenges of uniting the two societies, both of which had student branches. Both shared a common objective—serving members—but there were hurdles to overcome.

It was a basic tenet that AIEE members—each one an electrical engineer—apply their scientific knowledge to serve humanity. The IRE did not have such a mission; it was more focused on theory. And unlike the AIEE, the IRE welcomed physicists, chemists, and others from related scientific disciplines, provided they were working in radio or electronics-related fields.

Two factors helped fuel the merger: the IRE’s successful system of technical professional groups, and the growing numbers of students involved with joint AIEE-IRE student branches at U.S. universities. In effect, the students merged before the societies did.

The IRE’s technical groups helped keep members informed about established and emerging fields. By 1955, there were 21 such groups; today all continue as IEEE societies.

College students had gotten a jump on the organizations’ eventual merger because each association levied separate membership dues, and the generally penurious students wanted a more affordable way to participate in AIEE and IRE activities. In 1950 the AIEE and the IRE authorized colleges to establish joint student branches to which a member of either society could belong. By 1962, there were 130 joint student branches. Today IEEE has almost 1700 student branches.

Also in 1962, merger talks between the two societies had gotten serious, and in the March 1962 issue of the Proceedings of the IRE, members were asked to vote on the merger. Articles in the issue explored the logistics of the 95 500-member IRE merging with the 57 000-member AIEE. (Nearly 20 000 people belonged to both societies.) AIEE members were also asked to vote.

AIEE and IRE formally merged in 1963. More than 60 percent of all eligible members voted, and 87 percent cast ballots favoring the merger. Today IEEE boasts 382 400 members, 324 sections in 10 geographic regions around the world, 38 societies, and 7 technical councils.

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