How would you like to rub elbows at a meeting with Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla? You could have had that opportunity in October 1884, when these three giants of the electrical world met in Philadelphia with other prominent electrical engineers at the first technical meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, one of IEEE's predecessor societies. The gathering marked the first electrical engineering conference to be held in the United States.
This historic meeting was named an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing. Administered by the IEEE History Center, the Milestone program recognizes important developments with a ceremony and a plaque.
Several months before the meeting, chemist and inventor Nathaniel S. Keith advertised in Electrical World, a monthly magazine published by McGraw-Hill, for electrical engineers in the New York area to meet and organize a society to represent the United States to foreign dignitaries attending the International Electrical Exhibition [see poster]. That exhibition lauding the wonders of electricity was to take place in Philadelphia from 2 September to 11 October, at a temporary building built to house the exhibits.
Those who also answered the call included well-known inventors and innovators in the field, such as Elihu Thomson and Edwin J. Houston, founders of Thomson-Houston Electric Co., in Lynn, Mass. (now General Electric), and Edward Weston, cofounder of Weston Electric Light Co., in Newark, N.J.—the company that illuminated New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge in 1883.
They met for the first time in New York City on 13 May, which led to the formation of the AIEE. The organization’s mission was to “promote the arts and sciences connected with the production and utilization of electricity and the welfare of those employed in these industries: by means of social intercourse, the reading and discussion of professional papers, and the circulation by means of publication among members and associates of information thus obtained.”
Its first president was Norvin Green, who was also president of Western Union Telegraph, in New York City. The AIEE had 71 members in 1884.
MEETING OF THE MINDS
AIEE’s first technical meeting was held on 7 and 8 October at the building where the exhibition was held. Ten papers were presented, discussed, and later published in the society’s new journal, Transactions of the AIEE. Topics included advances in incandescent lamps, wireless telegraphy, and the chemistry of the carbon filament. This format set the precedent for future AIEE meetings and conferences.
A ceremony for the Milestone was held on 15 December 2013 at the Franklin Institute science museum, in Philadelphia. The plaque reads:
As part of the landmark International Electrical Exhibition organized by the Franklin Institute and held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1884, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, a predecessor of IEEE, held its first conference on 7–8 October 1884. This meeting was the first formal technical conference on electrical engineering held in the United States.