Timeline: IEEE’s Efforts to Elevate the Engineering Profession

The organization has been working to enhance the field for more than 40 years

8 November 2017

In celebration of The Institute’s 40th anniversary year, we’re presenting a series of timelines highlighting topics and technologies that have moved forward significantly during the past four decades.

From its inception, IEEE has supported its members’ careers. Its two predecessor societies, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) and the Institute of Radio Engineers, helped further their members’ careers through technical meetings, publications, and the promotion of standards. In the first few years after the two societies merged in 1963 to form IEEE, the organization focused primarily on advancing technology, although one of the new organization’s first acts was to issue its Canons of Ethics of Engineers, the forerunner of today’s Code of Ethics.

The wars that took place during the 20th century and the role members played in developing weapons of mass destruction began raising concerns about engineers’ professionalism, according to The Making of a Profession: A Century of Electrical Engineering in America. Written by A. Michael McMahon, the book was published by IEEE in 1984 to mark the 100th anniversary of the AIEE.

“The initial force that drove the institute down the road to professionalism had … come in 1969, borne by the moral and political reaction to the Vietnam War and the reliance of electronics engineering on the design and development of military weaponry,” McMahon wrote.

IEEE started down the professionalism path with its 1968 membership attitude survey, in which it asked members what the organization’s objectives should be. Upgrading the profession ranked second only to the dissemination of information. Articles about professionalism appeared regularly in IEEE Spectrum. The July 1969 issue, for example, ran an editorial by IEEE Fellow J.J. Gerald McCue, a research engineer at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, exploring the ranking of various professions. He found law and medicine at the top of the spectrum, professors somewhere in the middle, and engineers toward the bottom.

“The marks of a profession are … discipline, devotion to an ideal, and complete dedication of self,” McCue wrote. Engineers, he said, could claim those attributes, but engineering was not universally regarded as a profession because engineers lacked independence. He said that because they generally were salaried employees, in service to company management, they lacked the freedom of action characteristic of professionals “at the high end of the spectrum.” He concluded that many engineers would like to see a “strong drive—spearheaded, perhaps, by IEEE—toward organizing the profession along lines similar to those of the American Medical Association.”

The IEEE Board of Directors asked members in 1972 to vote on an amendment to the IEEE Constitution to add professional interests as a major interest behind scientific and technical interests. It passed and went into effect in 1973. As a result, that same year, IEEE-USA was formed to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. Over the years, other IEEE groups have provided career assistance as well.

Check out our timeline to learn how IEEE has helped members with career-related issues during the past 40 years.

This article was written with assistance from the IEEE History Center, which is partially funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

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