International Standards and Conformity Assessment for all electrical, electronic and related technologies
IEC History

IEC History

In the beginning...


In the beginning...

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Palace of Electricity, St. Louis,
Missouri, USA

The appointment of a representative commission

by Jeanne Erdmann


In 1903, the city of Niagara Falls bustled at the center of the North American electrical industry. By then, the power of rushing water had been channeled into electricity. George Westinghouse had built a power station there using two-phase alternating current generators patented by Nikola Tesla. Factories moved to the area because no comparable abundant power was available.


Beginning in July of that year, perhaps unnoticed by those outside the sphere of amperes and volts, Niagara Falls, USA, hosted the planning committee for a week-long International Electrical Congress in 1904. Four similar congresses, held during the preceding 23 years in different parts of the world, had all pointed towards this final one. It was to be a special part of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, which took place from May to December of that year. This Congress would set the stage for a permanent International Commission on electricity.

Niagara Falls

There was a lot at stake for the Niagara committee, which was organizing the scientific sessions of the Electrical Congress. Although electricity was still in its infancy, the commercialization of electrotechnology was well underway. Incandescent lamps were beginning to illuminate streets and homes, offices and laboratories. Telephones connected households, telegraphs connected cities, and transoceanic cables connected continents. Now, international standardization was needed for electrical science so that scientists in every country could use the same words for this emerging technology.


The Niagara planning committee decided that when the International Congress met in St. Louis in 1904, a special group of government appointed delegates would address international electromagnetic units and international standardization. Such standardization was necessary to promote communication among scientists, to support safety, function, and performance of all things electrical, and to spur international commerce. Earlier congresses had adopted terminology, such as Gauss and Maxwell for units of magnetic field and magnetic flux, but not all scientists used that terminology. And the electrical world was divided about the need to name every unit.


These issues were in the forefront on 1 July 1903, when the Niagara organizing committee held its first meeting. On that day, the members elected Elihu Thomson, inventor and founder of the General Electric Corporation, as President of the 1904 Congress. The committee also elected other officers and appointed a 25-member advisory board. In addition, the Niagara committee divided the work of the Congress into two sections: general theory and applications.


During the second meeting, held again in Niagara Falls two months later, the committee asked the secretary, Arthur Kennelly, to issue invitations “among all interested in electricity or its applications” to join the Congress. In the letter, Kennelly outlined plans for the Congress and described a strategy by which the St. Louis Congress would host a Chamber of Delegates, appointed by respective governments. The delegates would serve as the official representatives to the St. Louis Congress and would address standardization issues such as nomenclature.


By October, the Niagara committee had mailed 14 900 typed and signed invitations to join the Congress. Letters to potential foreign participants were sent in English, French, and German. The USD 5.00 membership fee included admission to scientific meetings, a copy of the transactions, and, for the foreign delegates, an invitation to a circular tour that would precede the Exposition. The Niagara committee’s efforts found success. By the time the Fifth International Electrical Congress opened in St. Louis on 12 September 1904, as many as 16 technical societies in the U.S. and abroad had accepted the invitation, 719 electrical scientists had registered, and 15 governments had appointed a total of 29 delegates.

The Palace of Electricity

Opening ceremonies for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition were held on 30 April 1904. The Exposition celebrated the purchase of the Louisiana Territories from France for USD 15 million in 1803 (the centennial celebration came one year late as the Exposition planning committee needed additional time). While New Orleans had been discussed as a possible site for the celebration, St. Louis was chosen for its central location and because it was the largest city in states that had emerged from the Purchase.


Although the International Electrical Congress would not begin until September, electricity took front and center at the Fair. On 30 April during the formal opening, President Theodore Roosevelt sat in the east room of the White House in Washington D.C. and pushed a telegraph button sending the message that signaled the official opening. Flags unfurled and fountains gushed to life. On the south side of the Palace of Electricity, three motor-driven pumps sent nearly 100 000 gallons of water streaming down the Cascades. A transformer room under the Cascades supplied power to illuminate the rushing water with alternating lights of red, green, and opal, each color controlled by a triple-throw switch on a separate wiring system.


The Palace of Electricity served as a centerpiece for the Exposition. Despite the high tariff imposed by the United States on products of foreign factories, nearly half of the 109 973 square feet (10 216 square meters) exhibit area in the Palace held International electrical exhibits. Visitors watched electricity at work. There were running demonstrations of alternating and direct current. Fair goers positioned at telephone stations on either side of the Palace could speak to each other on telephones, “without any metallic connection between the two”. Visitors saw working demonstration of dynamo, a model of a monorail train from Great Britain, and a wireless telegraph, which was used by the press during the Exposition to file stories.


On 12 September the Electrical Congress opened at the Exposition. During that week, on 14 September, Electricity Day was celebrated with parades and demonstrations. At the Palace on that day, visitors watched demonstrations of the mega-volt transformer. The output of 1 000 000 volts shot a “flaming arc” into the sky as loud cracks of sound rippled across the fairgrounds.


The Palace of Electricity needed a “large amount of power” for the USD 4 million worth of exhibits. The lack of standardization was reflected in the many types of power that needed to be supplied to exhibitors. Little power was available for purchase at the time, although some was purchased at a cost of USD 3.04 per rated kilowatt, to help power the intramural railway plant. But each country brought exhibits requiring different power: direct current and alternating current; 25- and 60-cycle alternating current; 1-, 2-, and 3-phase alternating current, and numerous direct current voltages.

The 1904 Electrical Congress

Members of the Chamber of Delegates addressed this lack of consistency when the Congress assembled from 12 to 17 September. When the General Congress opened in the Coliseum Music Hall on the morning of 12 September, Professor William Goldsborough, chief of the department of electricity, spoke to more than 1 000 people. He told participants that the “cooperative spirit that animates electrical workers” had already produced better nomenclature, uniform standards and a system for producing accurate records among International scientists.


That work was far from over. Four previous international electrical congresses had already started the dialogue on nomenclature and standardization that began with the first Congress, which met in Paris in 1881, where the centimeter-gramme-second (c.g.s.) system was adopted. By the time the fifth Congress convened in St. Louis, the terminology of kilowatt had replaced horsepower, but no two countries had yet defined units in the same way.


At the General meeting of the Congress, several of the 158 research papers that were read dealt with standardization of units. Professor Moise Ascoli head of the delegation from Italy, Associazone Elettrotechnica Italiana, read a paper that discussed the merits of the Giorgi versus Heaviside systems. The previous day, Arthur E. Kennelly, then a professor of Engineering at Harvard, addressed the importance of nomenclature when his paper on alternating current theory on transmission speed over submarine cables was read. Frank A. Wolff, of the National Bureau of Standards, read a paper that detailed efforts for standardization during the four previous international congresses. Following Wolff’s paper, a long debate began, which covered, accurate measurement of units, nomenclature, and the differences in laws regarding electricity among countries. Dr. Kennelly was a long-time supporter of naming all of the absolute units, as he mentioned the previous day, when his paper was read, because “all germs and even weeds have names”.


“A noxious germ is not used because it is named,” remarked Mr. H.E. Harrison in the discussion following Wolff’s paper. Harrison continued by saying that naming the two absolute systems would bring confusion to people reading research papers. At the 1900 Paris Congress, continued Harrison, the names Gauss and Maxwell were adopted but in England “only one in 100 engineers” would know what these terms mean.


After a long discussion on the volt standard, Kennelly said: “It seems only reasonable that fundamental units which have to be used, at least in theoretical investigations, should receive names, and perhaps the simplest method of naming these units is to employ prefixes in connection with the practical units.” Other, such as John Perry and Doctor R.T. Glazebrook, both of Great Britain, thought Kennelly was insisting on “far too many names” because the c.g.s. system is self-evident.


The debate lasted long after the session adjourned. When the discussion led to a comparison of laws, participants noted the vast inconsistencies in how units were defined. Those differences could be costly, Kennelly noted, because a “question of one-tenth of a volt in one hundred and ten”, could involve “large sums of money in regard to a contract for incandescent lamps.”

A permanent organization

For the Chamber of Delegates, these issues were not theoretical or academic. The 29 Delegates hailed from 15 countries including the USA, France, Great Britain, Mexico and India. Their meetings were held separately from the scientific sessions of Congress so the Delegates could formally address issues regarding International standardization.


At 3:15 p.m. on 12 September 1904, Delegates held their first meeting at the Hotel Jefferson in St. Louis. They adjourned fifteen minutes later after having nominated Elihu Thomson as president of the Chamber. Delegates also appointed a committee to consider officers for a permanent International Commission. On Tuesday, 13 September delegates met at the Hotel Jefferson for a second time. They appointed a committee to investigate international standardization of electrical science.


On 15 September delegates awoke to sunshine and a cool day. That afternoon, they met for the third time. During the meeting, Thomson and his colleagues unanimously adopted many resolutions addressing the lack of uniformity regarding “laws relating to electrical units”. One resolution took the first official action toward a permanent international congress: “That steps should be taken to secure the cooperation of the technical societies of the world, by the appointment of a representative commission to consider the question of the standardization of the nomenclature and ratings of electrical apparatus and machinery.” The Chamber adjourned when all resolutions were adopted.


On Friday, the delegates met for the final time. They agreed to report back to their respective governments and technical societies regarding actions taken in St. Louis. They thanked Thomson and other officers for their service.


The Congress officially came to a close during a General Meeting on Saturday, 17 September. Many speeches were given in regard to the potential of international standardization. Professor Webster, of Clark University, President of the American Physical Society said: “We feel that the work accomplished at this Congress will render it a memorable one not only on account of the subjects under discussion but also for the move that has been taken in regard to the International Commission.”


Elihu Thomson, who played an integral role beginning with the Niagara planning committee, expressed confidence that efforts towards standardization of nomenclature and units would be handled by an appropriate deliberating body. “I have no doubt that this Commission will soon be a fact, and will then be able to take up questions which are not, or for which many of us thought are not, proper to be discussed during an exposition,” said Thomson.


When addressing specifically the foreign delegates, Thomson said, “I have found that the unanimity of action, the absence of any disagreement whatsoever has been remarkable. As soon as a measure was known to be a proper thing, all votes were unanimous and this bodes well for future work of the International Commission.”

Thomson went on to note the “boundless” future of electrical science and closed his remarks with: “prepare then to accept an electrical universe.”


In 1908, Thomson would become the IEC’s second President, following the death of Lord Kelvin.