IEEE History

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A Brief History of IEEE


IEEE, an association dedicated to the fostering of technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity, is the world’s largest technical professional society. It is designed to serve professionals involved in all aspects of the electrical, electronic and computing fields and related areas of science and technology that underlie modern civilization. IEEE’s roots, however, go back to 1884 when electricity was just beginning to become a major force in society.

There was one major electrical industry, the telegraph. Beginning (at least in the United States) with a government sponsored line between Washington and Baltimore in 1844, telegraph lines crossed the country, and with the completion of the first permanent transatlantic cable between Newfoundland and Ireland in 1866, crossed the ocean as well. For the first time in history, communications could routinely travel faster than transportation. By the end of the 1860s, Western Union, the major US telegraph company, was one of the largest businesses in the world, and many young men (and a few young women) sought their fortunes as “telegraphers” or “electricians.”

Foremost among these was Thomas Edison, who from a start as a boy telegraph operator rose to be the leading inventor of improvements to the telegraph. Then he became a wide ranging independent inventor, who in 1879 demonstrated the first incandescent electrical lighting and power system at his pioneering research center in Menlo Park, New Jersey. He followed that in 1882 with the construction and opening of the world’s first electric power central station in New York City. A second electrical industry began to emerge.

The American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE)

Edison was one of a small group of men who responded to Nathaniel S. Keith’s call for a New York meeting to organize a society of electrical professionals to represent the United States to foreign dignitaries who would be attending the International Electrical Exposition the Franklin Institute was hosting in Philadelphia that fall. They met in New York on May 13, 1884 and established the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. The men were a cross section of the electrical
The Original AIEE Badge, 1893
experts of the era. The first AIEE president, Norvin Green, was the president of Western Union; the six vice presidents included Thomas Edison, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, MIT physics professor Charles Cross, two veteran telegraphers, and an employee of equipment manufacturer Western Electric. The AIEE soon established two main classes of membership: members, defined as “Electrical Experts, Electricians, or Electrical Engineers” and associate members described as “ such persons [who] are or have been associated with the utilization of electricity or . . . are qualifying themselves to become identified with electrical science.” That fall, the new AIEE held its first technical meeting in Philadelphia. Six papers were presented, and then published as the first issue of the new society’s journal, the Transactions of the AIEE.

Electric power spread rapidly across the U.S and the world 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. Wired communications became a secondary concern. AIEE held regular meetings in New York, beginning in 1893 in Chicago, and soon in other cities with enough members. These local meetings evolved into local sections. There were fourteen by 1904, including one in Toronto, Canada.

Within a decade of its founding, AIEE had become the technical society for an established profession of considerable import, the electrical engineer. AIEE members, mostly power engineers, increasingly had formal academic training. And that education evolved from programs in physics departments to autonomous departments of electrical engineering, such as the one founded by Dugald Jackson at the University of Wisconsin in 1891 . To encourage young engineers, AIEE began offering student memberships, and authorized the formation of campus-based student branches in 1903.

AIEE interest in standards began within a year of its founding by supporting wire gauge standards developed elsewhere; by the late 1890s, the society had turned to developing its own standards for electrical apparatus, and in 1898 issued the first report of its committee on standardization. Promulgation of standards became an ongoing activity.

As the twentieth century began, an increasing percentage of members were engaged in commercial engineering, frequently as employees of or consultants to large power utilities. To address the sometimes competing requirements of their employer’s demands and their status as professionals, the AIEE drafted its first code of ethics (or as they called it a, “Code of Principles of Professional Conduct”) in 1912. Also, in 1912 AIEE added a higher membership grade of fellow to be awarded only to the most distinguished members

The Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE)

At the turn of the century, a new electrical technology, radio, or wireless as it was originally known, emerged out of principles coming from physics, most notably the electromagnetic spectrum. Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s 1901 wireless broadcast of Morse code across the Atlantic began a global period of feverish activity, especially among young men with an technological bent. It was the “hot” technology of the day. By 1912, it was a young profession, with radio telegraph stations connecting ships at sea. A small group of men representing local societies in New York and Boston met in New York in May 1912, and led by Robert Marriott, Alfred Goldsmith, and John V.L Hogan, formed the Institute of Radio Engineers. Marriott became the first IRE president. To a large extent, they modeled their Institute on the AIEE, with
0958 IRE Badge, copyright IEEE.jpg
membership grades, a journal, local sections, standards activities, and technical meetings, but there were other influences as well. They established their journal, the Proceedings of the IRE along the lines of scientific journals, with papers directly submitted and peer review, which allowed for faster publication than the AIEE’s policy that papers be presented at meetings first. They deliberately did not include “American” in their name, to signify the transnational nature of radio.

Radio itself was transformed by the development of the vacuum tube amplifier, the first electronic device, from its origins in the Audion three-element vacuum or electron tube, patented in 1906 by inventor and 1930 IRE President Lee de Forest. Morse code yielded to sound and radio broadcasting swept the world. Between 1920 and 1930 the number of U.S. homes with radio climbed from 0 to 14 million. Discrete electrical technologies evolved towards large interconnected systems including radio networks, widespread electrical power grids and globally interconnected telephone systems. Both societies continued to serve their members, and took tentative note of electronics, while focusing most of their attention on their traditional areas. But much as power was a larger industry than radio, so the AIEE was a larger society than IRE.

The Two Societies Converge

The 1940s electronics rose to a new prominence as governments throughout the world organized their scientists and engineers to devise technologies for use in World War II. One set of efforts produced pioneering electronic digital computers such as Colossus in England and ENIAC the United States that used thousands of vacuum tubes. An even larger effort, centered on the euphemistically named Radiation Lab established at MIT, developed radar as an important war tool. To the chagrin of IRE and AIEE, physicists played a far more prominent role in these advances than engineers. With the invention of the transistor, the first solid state electronic amplifier and switch in 1947, the possibilities for electronics seemed endless.

The IRE in particular grew rapidly alongside these changes, expanding from 6,000 members in 1940 to 17,000 members in 1945 and 21,000 members in 1950. AIEE membership grew more slowly from its larger base. In 1948, IRE adopted a decentralized “professional group” structure that allowed it to incorporate the new fields, such as electronic computers and information theory, hold specialized conferences, and publish specialized journals. The AIEE’s centralized technical committee system proved less nimble. In 1956, the IRE passed the older society in the number of student members as students increasingly turned to electronics. In the following year IRE became the larger society in total number of members as well with both societies over 50,000. While the IRE had always accepted members from other countries, most of whom joined to receive its highly regarded journals, that number grew as well, and IRE members formed sections in countries including Japan, Italy, Israel, and Colombia.

AIEE and IRE merge to form IEEE

Through the 1950s, the two societies grew closer, holding joint meetings, developing a joint membership policy, merging student chapters, cooperating on standards, and exploring the possibility of combining to form a single United States-based organization for all electrical and electronic engineers. In 1962, a joint committee of the societies agreed on a set of “Principles of Consolidation,” which first the boards and then the membership of both societies approved. On January 1,
IRE Proceedings on Merger 1637.jpg
1963, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers was born with 150,000 members, 140,000 of whom were in the United States. Now a single society spanned the technologies, the industries, and the academic allegiances of what had become a complex, multifaceted discipline.

Legally, the AIEE was the surviving institution, albeit with a new name. But as a practical matter, the policies and practices of the larger IRE for the most part prevailed. The IEEE adopted the decentralized professional group structure of the IRE. Gradually, these groups incorporated the corresponding AIEE technical committees, and, beginning in 1970, as they did so were renamed as IEEE Societies. The largest IRE professional group became the IEEE Computer Society in 1970. The biggest part of AIEE became the IEEE Power Engineering Society. The IRE Transactions published by the various Professional Groups simply substituted IEEE in their titles. The Proceedings of the IEEE continued the numbering and editorial policies of the IRE Proceedings. Only the AIEE had had a general interest membership magazine, Electrical Engineering. This was replaced by a new magazine, IEEE Spectrum. The IRE Student Quarterly and the AIEE Student Digest yielded to the IEEE Student Journal, though this was merged into IEEE Spectrum in 1970.

The Growth of IEEE 1963-1984

As the 1960s ended, so did the post-war boom in electronics. For the first time since the 1930s, significant numbers of Institute members faced un- and under-employment. In the tenor of the times, many people, including some IEEE members, began publicly questioning whether technology was always a force for the good. These issues led to a movement among IEEE’s U. S. members for the Institute to expand its scope beyond the technical and educational activities specified in its constitution to professional ones. The growing number of members outside the U. S. failed to see the need, in part because they typically also had national societies to deal with these issues. After considerable debate, some of it conducted in the pages of IEEE Spectrum, the IEEE first established a U. S. Activities Board in 1971 to address the professional needs of its U.S. members. In 1972, IEEE membership overwhelmingly approved amending the constitution to extend IEEE’s charter to “advancement of the standing of the members of the professions it serves.” The USAB, funded by U. S. members only, established its headquarters in Washington to be well positioned to work with the United States government to address these professional issues. In more recent years, it has become IEEE-USA.

Even through the social turmoil of the 1970s, IEEE’s fields continued to grow and expand into every corner of civilization. Transistors led to integrated circuits which in turn became increasingly complex and specialized. The mainframe computers that were standard business tools in the 1960s began to give way to ever smaller and more powerful personal computers. Copper and microwave communications circuits yielded to fiber optics. Medical applications of electrotechnologies expanded with innovations such as laser surgery and CAT scans. And IEEE kept pace; its societies published more journals with more papers and held more specialized conferences. Increasingly, it was becoming a transnational organization, rather than a U.S. organization with international members. IEEE restarted a student publication, IEEE Potentials, in 1982 to meet the needs of its younger members. By the time IEEE celebrated its centennial in 1984, membership had grown to 250,000, of whom 50,000 were outside the United States.

Recent History 1984-2009

In the last twenty-five years, the transformation of IEEE into a global organization has continued, as the countries of the world, fueled by advances in IEEE’s technologies have become more closely linked together. Computing and communications have converged. Multiple fiber optic cables sending packet switched information dropped global transmission costs to close to zero. Most of what is transmitted is data, rather than voice. Information and commerce traverse the globe via the Internet. IEEE embraced its own technologies, and moved many operations to the Internet, most notably two million papers, presentations, and other documents, which are now globally accessible through the online portal, IEEE Xplore. IEEE expanded its reach, opening offices in Beijing and Singapore. By 2009, 44.5% of IEEE’s 375,000 members resided in 159 countries besides the United States. The Institute, and its technologies, have certainly more than fulfilled the fondest hopes of the founding group that met in New York so many years before.