Engineering Societies

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ENGINEERING SOCIETIES. The appearance of professional engineering societies in the United States was symptomatic of a technological revolution—a shift from a conservative, craft tradition to a more dynamic, scientific approach to technology. Professional engineering societies played an important role in the rapid growth of technology in the nineteenth century. They became a means for developing professional spirit among engineers; and, as the sometimes-adverse effects of rapid technological change became manifest, they also became a means for expressing their members' sense of social responsibility.

The first engineering societies were local. The Boston Society of Civil Engineers (1848), the Engineers Club of Saint Louis (1868), and the Western Society of Engineers of Chicago (1869) were among the first to form. But the local societies gradually were overshadowed by national ones. The American Society of Civil Engineers was founded in 1852, although it did not become active nationally until revitalized in 1867. It set high professional standards and claimed to represent all nonmilitary engineers. This claim was disputed in 1871 with the formation of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers. Led by Rossiter Worthington Raymond, it made industrial service its goal rather than professional development. The increased employment of engineers in industry led to the formation of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1880 and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1884. In terms of professional philosophy, these two organizations stood between the societies of civil and mining engineers, combining the sometimes-antagonistic goals of industrial service and professionalism.

In theory, the four fields of civil, mining, mechanical, and electrical engineering were thought to comprise all engineering. The four societies representing these fields are called the "founder societies," and they have often served as the voice for American engineering. In practice, however, the headlong progress of technology created new technical specialties almost yearly. New societies—such as the Society of Automotive Engineers (1905), the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (1908), the American Nuclear Society (1954), and the American Academy of Environmental Engineers (1955)—were founded to meet the needs of engineers working in these new fields. In some cases, the newer fields came to overshadow traditional ones. Impelled by the spectacular growth of electronics, the Institute of Radio Engineers, founded in 1912, outpaced the American Institute of Electrical Engineers; the two merged in 1963 to form the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. Still other societies, such as the American Rocket Society (1930) and the Institute of Aerospace Sciences (1932), became more effective when they merged to become the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1963

While technology advances have fragmented the engineering profession, the professional spirit of the various groups has actually grown stronger and led to increased professional unity and social responsibility. One of the first organizations to express the new spirit of professional unity was the American Association of Engineers, founded in 1915. Under the leadership of Frederick Haynes Newell, the association lobbied vigorously for state licensing laws for engineers, and on other bread-and-butter issues. Internal dissension in this organization caused a rapid decline during the 1920s, but much of its program was continued by the National Society of Professional Engineers founded in 1934 by David B. Steinman. Licensing continued to be a central issue, but the society also favored professional codes of ethics, criticizing, for example, the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1965 for never having adopted a code of ethics.

Another theme in engineering unity was social responsibility. This found expression in a number of agencies sponsored by the four founder societies. The first was the Engineering Council, founded in 1917. Led by J. Parke Channing, it assisted the government in mobilizing engineering talent during World War I. It was replaced in 1920 by a more representative organization, the Federated American Engineering Societies. Herbert Hoover was the spirit behind and first president of the federation; he attempted to use it to bring the engineering viewpoint to bear on national problems, appointing committees to investigate waste in industry and the twelve-hour day. The reports from these committees were critical of business practices and antagonized powerful conservative elements within the founder societies. The American Institute of Mining Engineers withdrew from the organization in 1924; the federation was later reorganized, and its name was changed to the American Engineering Council. In its new form, it became a voice for right-wing views, sometimes criticizing Hoover's policies as president of the United States; it was abolished in 1939. In 1945, the founder societies created a new unity organization, the Engineers Joint Council, which helped secure the creation of the National Academy of Engineering in 1964 under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences. To many engineers, this represented the culmination of years of struggle to secure a permanent agency through which the engineering profession could advise the nation on public policy matters.

In the late twentieth century, a number of societies emerged to protect and further the interests of groups that traditionally faced discrimination when entering the engineering field or working as professional engineers. Groups such as the National Society of Black Engineers (1975), the Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists (1974), the Society of Women Engineers (1950), and the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (1983), use their resources to expand educational and professional opportunities for their members, as well as for young people who might consider entering engineering professions but find discrimination a barrier.


Layton, Edwin T., Jr. The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession. Cleveland, Ohio: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1971; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Kirby, Richard S. Engineering in History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956; New York: Dover Publications, 1990.

Finch, James. The Story of Engineering. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960.

Mount, Ellis. Ahead of Its Time: The Engineering Societies Library, 1913–80. Hamden, Conn.: Linnet, 1982.

Edwin T.LaytonJr./a. r.

See alsoElectric Power and Light Industry ; Electrical Workers ; Industrial Relations ; Industrial Revolution .