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 REFRACTIONS

BY HENRY PETROSKI
HENRY PETROSKI

FOUNDING SOCIETIES

By going separate ways, engineers’ groups missed a chance to give the profession a single, strong voice.


Five of the facets of the hexagonal seal of the United Engineering Foundation contain the abbreviations of engineering societies — ASCE, AIME, ASME, IEEE, and AIChE. The sixth bears the date, 1904. These societies constitute what are known as engineering’s “founder societies,” but how could the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, which has been celebrating only its centennial this year, be juxtaposed with a date four years before its beginnings?

The same question might be asked of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which dates from 1963. That is when it was formed out of the merger of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (founded in 1884) and the Institute of Radio Engineers (1912). It is those roots in AIEE that give IEEE a claim to being a true founder society.

The UEF is actually the successor to the United Engineering Society, which is what was founded in 1904, thanks to the financial support of Andrew Carnegie. It was Carnegie money that made possible the Engineering Societies Building, which opened in 1906 on 39th Street in New York City. The primary purpose of UES was to oversee this common location for the headquarters and libraries of the original founder societies — AIME, ASME, and AIEE (listed in the order of their beginnings). ASCE, which had just built its own new building, did not join the club until 1916.

In time, the founder societies outgrew their shared headquarters building and began exploring alternatives. AIChE joined the founder societies in 1958, just before they all moved into the large and modern United Engineering Center on 47th Street, not far from the United Nations.

Partly because of the high cost of maintaining offices in New York, some of the growing societies eventually wished to relocate, and so the founders agreed to sell their valuable property. In 1998 they each went their separate ways. ASCE relocated its headquarters to Reston, Virginia; AIME moved to Littleton, Colorado; IEEE moved its operations to Piscataway, New Jersey, but maintained its corporate office in New York. ASME and AIChE have continued to be headquartered in New York. Thus, almost a century after Carnegie’s effort to bring them closer together, the societies moved farther apart.

The United Engineering Foundation stands as a symbol of what might have been.

A philosophical as well as a physical union of the major engineering societies never did come to pass. Although they occupied neighboring offices for much of the 20th century, their individual missions and ambitions kept them from truly uniting to give a single voice to the engineering profession. Some observers believe that this has hindered engineers from achieving the status of medical doctors and lawyers, each of which group has its own unifying American professional association.

The seal of the United Engineering Foundation may continue to present the image of unity among the founder societies, but the history behind its seemingly anachronistic labels reveals otherwise.

When it was formed in 1852, ASCE was the only national engineering society, encompassing all branches that were not military. But with the development of the railroads, the telegraph, and other marvels of the Industrial Revolution, a civil engineering society did not provide a sufficiently broad umbrella under which mining, mechanical, and electrical engineers could comfortably gather. Thus, they formed societies of their own.

With the continued proliferation of specialized engineering societies throughout the 20th century, a united engineering society became an increasingly elusive goal. The separate societies have grown too large and powerful to be willing to give up their independence. The United Engineering Foundation may stand as a symbol of what was once thought to be possible, but it is unlikely that it will be more than a symbol anytime soon.

 

Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, is the author of fourteen books on engineering and design.

 

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