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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Hotel Cecil, London, England

The founding of the IEC

by Mark Frary


Much was going on in the world during the period from 1904 to 1906. Einstein published his paper on the Special Theory of Relativity, US engineers had just begun work on the Panama Canal and the picture postcard, the ice cream cone and the jukebox were invented.


On both sides of the Atlantic, factories and townships were clamouring for more electricity to replace outmoded gas and oil lighting systems. H.G. Wells, in the North American Review (1901), predicted the electrical century ahead when houses and factories would be heated, ventilated and operated by electricity.


In the world of electrical engineering much was happening, too. John Ambrose Fleming, Britain’s first ever professor of electrical engineering, invented the thermionic valve while in the US, Lee De Forest invented the triode. This was the period that saw the beginnings of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).


The road to the organization’s existence really began in St Louis. The Missouri city was a busy place in 1904. Not only was it host to the Olympics and the Universal Exposition held to celebrate the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase, electrical engineers from around the world came to the city for the International Electrical Congress, the fifth in the international series.


At the Congress, a Chamber of Delegates, made up of engineers from 15 countries, including the Argentine Republic, France, Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland and the United States, carried a resolution to the effect that:


Steps should be taken to secure the co-operation 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 delegates were then charged to return to their respective technical societies to take action on this resolution and “communicate the results of such action to Colonel R E B Crompton, Chelmsford, England and to the President of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, New York City.”


Colonel Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton, who had been asked by Britain’s Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) to accompany the IEE President, J K Gray, to America to represent British electrical engineering, was a key figure in the industry.

The inimitable Colonel Crompton

Colonel Crompton was born in Yorkshire, England in 1845 and like many Victorian era engineers had a panoply of interests. His Kensington Court power station in London was one of the first in the city and he was involved in many of Britain’s early public lighting and electricity supply schemes. Crompton was also keenly fond of all forms of vehicular transport, particularly bicycles, and was also a founder of the Royal Automobile Club as well as being involved in the invention of the military tank.


Crompton had been singled out by the Chamber of Delegates because of a paper he gave at the congress on the subject of standardization in electrical engineering. In his autobiography, Reminiscences, Crompton remembers: “My paper had this effect, that at the end of the session I was officially requested to do my best to form a permanent International Electrotechnical Commission, which should deal with electrical standardization from an international standpoint. I foresaw great difficulties, but these difficulties were eventually overcome.”


On his return, Crompton communicated the desire of the Congress to the British Engineering Standards Committee, which brought together engineers from all disciplines, including the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the IEE and the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) to discuss matters regarding standardization. This Committee held its sittings under the direction of ICE and so it was this organization that Crompton first approached.


Initially, the ICE Council were positive about the international proposal but felt it too early. The Council commented at the time: “The appointment of such a Commission though in every way desirable, would at present be premature; but we believe that preliminary action may, with advantage, be taken with the aim of paving the way to the ultimate formation of such a Commission, if the Council approves the general object.”


In February 1905, ICE President Sir John Wolfe-Barry, the engineer who had designed London’s Tower Bridge, conferred with the then IEE president Alexander Siemens regarding Crompton’s proposal and suggested that the IEE should take the lead in the matter by appointing an Executive Committee.


For the two presidents, conferring was a relatively easy task as the two institutions shared premises at One Great George Street in London’s West End. The rapidly expanding Electrical Engineers did not move to their Savoy Place home – where the IEC eventually held its first plenary meeting – until 1907.

Oui, Si, Yes, Ja and Hai

At the end of 1905, Colonel Crompton announced to the IEE Council that he had sent out preliminary enquiries regarding the Commission and had received favourable responses from the electrical societies of nine countries. These were the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, France’s Société Internationale des Electriciens, Italy’s Associazione Elettrotecnica Italiana, the Canadian Electrical Association, Germany’s Verband Deutscher Elektrotechniker and Austro-Hungary’s Elektrotechnischer Verein. The electrical societies of Denmark, Sweden and Norway also expressed their interest in the proposals.


Six months later, the IEE Council announced it had appointed an Executive Committee to “consider and report upon a scheme for the constitution of such an International Commission”. The members included among others the new IEE president John Gavey, the immediate past president Alexander Siemens, Post Office chief engineer Sir William Preece, Lord Kelvin and Colonel Crompton.


June 1906 looked to be an ideal time for the Commission to come together. The IEE Council had already extended invitations to several of the world’s electrotechnical societies to come to London “in some measure to return the courtesies received in former years from the electrical institutions in Europe and America”.


Thus meetings were set up for 26 and 27 June 1906 under the chairmanship of Alexander Siemens, president of the Executive Committee. As with many international get-togethers, social events were also arranged including a post-meeting ten-day tour of England and Scotland by specially chartered train in which the visiting engineers would visit various electrical companies and local branches of the Institution of Electrical Engineers around the country as well as the sights of the Lake District and Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon.


In the event, three of the nine countries who had accepted Crompton’s invitation – Denmark, Sweden and Norway – had not been able to appoint delegates to attend by the time of the London meetings. However, representatives from Belgium, Holland, Japan, Switzerland and Spain had added to the original list of countries.


As for a venue to hold this prestigious meeting, there was really only one choice.

Europe’s largest hotel

London’s premier hotel in the early 1900s was the Hotel Cecil, with an entrance on the Strand and overlooking the River Thames. At the time, it was the largest hotel in Europe and had more than 800 rooms, luxuriously decorated by two of the leading firms of the era – Maples, Waring and Gillow and James Shoolbred and Co. The Cecil was at the height of its popularity, and was a regular haunt of visiting Americans. The IEE held its annual dinner there each year. Despite its popularity, 90 per cent of the hotel was demolished in 1930 to make way for the headquarters of oil company Shell International.


Opening the first meeting on Monday June 26, Siemens explained that “the first business of the meeting was to constitute the Commission by adopting a set of rules." A draft which had been provisionally prepared and circulated previously to the delegates was then referred to a subcommittee for detailed consideration. The subcommittee adjourned until the following day.


That evening, the IEE threw a banquet at the Cecil for 450 guests and delegates in honour of the foreign visitors. According to a report of the event in the Times later that week, IEE president John Gavey proposed a toast. Speaking in French, he said it gave him “the greatest happiness to see the solidarity which existed between the great professions, whether political, religious or national." He thought that this solidarity was the most pronounced among engineers.


The following day saw more meetings, including the adjourned meeting of the subcommittee that was examining the rules for the operation of the proposed Commission. The principal rules agreed at that meeting were as follows:

  • the Commission is to be known as the International Electrotechnical Commission for the standardization of nomenclature and ratings of electrical apparatus and machinery…;
  • any self-governing country desiring to join the Commission may form a local committee. These committees are to be formed one for each country, by the technical societies of each country. In a country having no such technical societies, the Government may appoint a Committee;
  • each committee is to send delegates to the Commission. Each country is entitled to one vote only, whatever the number of delegates…Only such decisions may be published as those of the International Electrotechnical Commission which have been passed unanimously by the Commission. All decisions passed by a divided vote may be published only when the names of the countries voting for and against are given;
  • the central offices of the Commission are for the present in London, at the office of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. The methods of carrying out the objects of the Commission are in the hands of a Council consisting of a) the President of the Commission b) the Presidents of the local committees c) one delegate from each local committee d) the Honorary Secretary;
  • in general, the business of the Commission will be conducted by correspondence, but the President may summon a meeting of the Council or of the Commission when he sees fit…. These meetings are to take place in London, or in such other places as the majority of the Commission determine. Each local committee is to find funds for its own expenses, and to contribute an equal share to the expenses of the Central Office.

With the modus operandi for the IEC now worked out, all that remained was to appoint the first incumbents of the two unfilled positions on the fledgling IEC Council.

Kelvin for President

Because of his major role in bringing the Commission to fruition, Colonel Crompton was an obvious choice for one of the roles and he was duly appointed as the IEC’s first Honorary Secretary.


The role of first IEC President was bestowed upon Lord Kelvin. Kelvin’s best remembered legacy is his work on thermodynamics and in particular the concept of absolute zero, the temperature at which all molecular motion ceases. However, he had a prodigious output as a scientist and electrical engineer.


His 1856 paper, “Dynamical illustrations of the magnetic and helicoidal rotary effects of transparent bodies on polarised light”, laid the groundwork for James Clerk Maxwell’s subsequent theories on electromagnetism, while the mirror galvanometer that he designed was crucial in the successful laying of the first transatlantic submarine cable in 1865. It was for this latter work that he was named to Britain’s House of Lords.


To celebrate this highly satisfactory outcome, Lord Kelvin and Colonel Crompton were among 1 700 guests who went that evening to the Natural History Museum for an ‘a conversazione’ evening, entertained by the string band of the Royal Engineers. The next day the visiting engineers departed on their tour of the country, happy in the knowledge that they had embarked upon a new journey of international co-operation.


Although Kelvin and Crompton were the first public faces of the IEC, the contribution of a third person should not be forgotten.


In his autobiography Reminiscences, Crompton claimed that Professor Elihu Thomson had been the “real originator of the International scheme at the St Louis Conference.”

The American influence

Professor Thomson was born in 1853 in Manchester, England but his family moved to Philadelphia when he was five. Initially his interests were in the field of chemistry and indeed his professorship was in this area. But by 1880, Thomson had become totally absorbed into the rapidly developing field of electrical engineering. He was granted a multitude of patents, including the electric welding machine, and the firm he founded with E J Houston merged later with Edison’s firm to create the General Electric Company.


Professor Thomson was therefore a natural choice for the role of president of the 1904 St Louis Congress. Speaking about those early years of international co-operation to Colonel Crompton a few years after the IEC’s inauguration, Professor Thomson said:


“No work of such huge importance to the electrical industry has exceeded that of the work commenced during the last few years in the international exchange of electrical ideas. It is a very difficult thing to carry on these matters internationally; there are many jealousies to be overcome, many susceptibilities to be met; and it is something to be proud of that no quarrels and no troubles have yet arisen.”


That same spirit of co-operation persists today as the IEC celebrates its hundred years of existence.