History Column

Your Engineering Heritage: 125 Years of IEEE History

By Sheldon Hochheiser, Ph.D., IEEE History Center

Today, IEEE is the world’s largest technical professional society. It serves professionals around the world involved in all aspects of the electrical, electronic and computing fields and related areas of science and technology. IEEE’s roots, however, go back 125 years to 1884 when electricity was just beginning to become a major force in society. There was one major established electrical industry, the telegraph, which — beginning in the 1840s — had come to connect the world with a communications system faster than the speed of transportation. A second major area had only barely gotten underway — electric power and light, originating in Thomas Edison’s inventions and his pioneering Pearl Street Station in New York.

Program of the 1884 International Electrical Exhibition, Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, where the AIEE held its first technical meeting

In the spring of 1884, a small group of individuals in the electrical professions met in New York. They formed a new organization to support professionals in their nascent field and to aid them in their efforts to apply innovation — the American Institute of Electrical Engineers or AIEE for short. That October the AIEE held its first technical meeting in Philadelphia, in conjunction with an international electrical exhibition hosted by the Franklin Institute. Many early leaders, such as founding President Norvin Green of Western Union, came from telegraphy. Others, such as Thomas Edison, came from power, while Alexander Graham Bell represented the newer telephone industry. As electric power spread rapidly across the land–enhanced by innovations such as Nikola Tesla’s AC Induction Motor, long distance AC transmission and large-scale power plants, and commercialized by industries such as Westinghouse and General Electric–the AIEE became increasingly focused on electrical power. There was a secondary focus on wired communication, both the telegraph and the telephone. Through technical meetings, publications, and promotion of standards, the AIEE led the growth of the electrical engineering profession, while through local sections and student branches, it brought its benefits to engineers in widespread places.

Invitation to the AIEE organizational meeting, Electrical World, 5 April 1884

A new industry arose beginning with Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless telegraphy experiments at the turn of the century. What was originally called “wireless” became radio with the electrical amplification possibilities inherent in the vacuum tubes which evolved from John Fleming’s diode and Lee de Forest’s triode. With the new industry came a new society in 1912, the Institute of Radio Engineers. The IRE was modeled on the AIEE, but was devoted to radio, and then increasingly to electronics. It, too, furthered its profession by linking its members through publications, standards and conferences, and encouraging them to advance their industries by promoting innovation and excellence in the emerging new products and services.

Through the help of leadership from the two societies, and with the applications of its members’ innovations to industry, electricity wove its way — decade by decade — more deeply into every corner of life — television, radar, transistors, computers. Increasingly, the interests of the societies overlapped. Membership in both societies grew, but beginning in the 1940s, the IRE grew faster and in 1957 became the larger group. On 1 January 1963, the AIEE and the IRE merged to form the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE. At its formation, the IEEE had 150,000 members, 140,000 of whom were in the United States. By the time IEEE celebrated its centennial in 1984, it had almost 250,000 members, only 200,000 of whom were in the United States. It also expanded its scope to assist its members in not only in their technical interests but in their professional careers, as well.

With IEEE’s continued leadership, the technologies under its aegis continued to spread across the world, and reach into more and more areas of people’s lives. The professional groups and technical boards of the predecessor institutions evolved into IEEE Societies. By the early 21st Century, IEEE served its members and their interests with 38 societies; 130 journals, transactions and magazines; more 300 conferences annually; and 900 active standards.

Over the last 25 years, computers have evolved from massive mainframes to desktop appliances to portable devices, all part of a global network connected by satellites and then by fiber optics. IEEE’s fields of interest expanded well beyond electrical/electronic engineering and computing into areas such as micro- and nanotechnology, ultrasonics, bioengineering, robotics, electronic materials, and many others. Electronics became ubiquitous — from jet cockpits to industrial robots to medical imaging. As technologies and the industries that developed them increasingly transcended national boundaries, IEEE kept pace, becoming a truly global institution which used the innovations of the practitioners it represented to deliver products and services to members, industries, and the public at large.

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Today, IEEE publications and educational programs are delivered online, as are member services such as renewal and elections. The Institute has 375,000 members in 160 countries, with 43 percent outside of the country where it was founded a century and a quarter before. Through its worldwide network of geographical units, publications, web services, and conferences, IEEE continues to be the world’s leading professional association for the advancement of technology.


Sheldon Hochheiser, Ph.D., is archivist and institutional historian at the IEEE History Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page at: www.ieee.org/organizations/history_center.

Sheldon Hochheiser, Ph.D.

Sheldon Hochheiser, Ph.D., is archivist and institutional historian at the IEEE History Center. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page. For more articles by History Center staff, visit their publications page or visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page. The IEEE History Center is partially funded by donations to the History Fund of the IEEE Foundation.

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