Engineering Hall of Fame: John W. Lieb

Engineering Hall of Fame: John W. Lieb

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Readers of Today’s Engineer may already have read elsewhere that, effective at the end of this month the IEEE History Center is re-locating to the campus of the Stevens Institute of Technology, which will replace Rutgers University as our strategic educational partner. What you may not realize is that IEEE and Stevens have a “history” together that goes back almost to the beginning of each institution in the person of John W. Lieb.

Stevens Institute of Technology, a private university, was founded in 1870 as the first U.S. school to use a science-based engineering curriculum. Funded by a bequest from Edwin Stevens of the Stevens engineering and railroad family (his father, Robert, had designed the first American-built locomotive) it established a curriculum that the administration termed “mechanical engineering,” as opposed to the “mechanical arts” taught elsewhere.

John William Lieb, Jr., was born in Newark, New Jersey, on 12 February 1860, the son of John W. Lieb, Sr., a leather worker. Encouraged by his father, he pursued technical studies eventually enrolling in the mechanical engineering program at Stevens, from which Lieb graduated in 1880. In his senior year, a number of prominent engineers, including Stevens professor Robert H. Thurston, gathered on the campus of Stevens to found the American Society of Mechanical engineers. Thurston became its first president.

Perhaps Lieb got involved with ASME around that time. With some undergraduate experience with the emerging field of electrical technology, however, he obtained his first job not with a traditional mechanical firm, but as a draftsman with the Brush Electric Company in Cleveland. He was soon able to move back in New Jersey with a similar position at the Edison Electric Light Company. Lieb was then moved to the development team working on the Pearl Street central generating station, and ultimately was the chief engineer for the plant when it opened in March 1883. His success led Thomas Edison to send him to Italy to supervise the construction of a central station for the Italian Edison Company in Milan. He became an important technological influence throughout Europe.

In 1894, Lieb returned to the U.S. to work for another Edison spin-off, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York (later New York Edison), where he rose to Vice President. Throughout his professional career, Lieb was a firm believer in the value of associations of professionals, and he was an inveterate joiner and leader. He stayed active at his alma mater, and was a trustee of Stevens for many years. He kept up his activities for ASME, eventually serving as a vice president, and he joined the oldest — and at that time largest — American engineering association, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

In addition, he joined, and ultimately served as president of, The National Electric Light Association, the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies, the Edison Pioneers, and the New York Electrical Society. Most importantly, however, he joined a new association for the upstart “electricians” that his boss and mentor Thomas Edison had helped to found in 1884–the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), predecessor to IEEE. In 1904 IEEE rewarded his service by electing him its president! AIEE further recognized his achievements by making him a Fellow in 1913, and awarding him the Edison Medal in 1923.

After long years of service to the industry and the profession, Lieb died at his home in New Rochelle, NY, on 1 November 1929.

You can read more about John W. Lieb, and view some of his papers, on the IEEE Global History Network. However, it is worth noting one final fact. While in Italy, Lieb became intrigued (his wife would say obsessed) with Leonardo da Vinci as mechanical genius and founder of the engineering profession, and he began to collect Leonardo memorabilia. On his death he donated his collection to his alma mater, and Stevens maintains the collection to this day.


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