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

IEC History




Description of picture

London, England, 19 October 1908
First IEC Council Meeting

IEC technical committee creation: the first half-century (1906-1949)

Written by former IEC General Secretary, Anthony Raeburn, this first of a two-part series traces the expansion of the IEC through its technical committees over the 10 decades from 1906 to 2006.

1906 – 1909

At the dawn of the IEC era, the most important topics in electrotechnology of the time were considered in plenary assembly of the Commission. Each nascent national committee (NC) did its work, either spontaneously or as requested, and brought the results forward for consideration.


The secretariat for all the administrative and technical work was assumed by the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) in London, UK , and recompensed by contributions from the member countries.

The first three topics for study concerned vocabulary, symbols and the rating of electrical machines. Agreement on the first two of these was essential if understanding at the international level were to be achieved, and the latter was mandated by the St. Louis conference of 1904, which set up the Commission.


One hundred years ago, things that are now taken for granted universally, such as the definition of a volt and the names and dimensions of units of measurement, differed within each country and even more so from country to country. So it was entirely appropriate that early consideration was given to harmonization of vocabulary, units, quantities and symbols.

1910 – 1919

The period up to the first world war saw the first three advisory committees (the original name for technical committees) come into being, corresponding to the three areas of study referred to above together with a fourth one concerned with electricity generation.


AC1 (Nomenclature), founded in 1910 was chaired by a Belgian professor, which indicates that in the early years of the 20th century electrical engineers used almost equally English, French and German.


AC2 (Rating of electrical machinery), was created in 1911 with a chairman from France and AC3 (Symbols), also formed in 1911 was chaired by a French professor. AC4 (Prime movers), came into being in 1913.


The speed at which these early committees worked is impressive, given the limitations in communications and transport of those times. By 1914, the IEC had issued a first list of terms and definitions covering electrical machinery and apparatus, a list of international letter symbols for quantities and signs for the names of units, an international standard for the resistance of copper, a list of definitions in connection with hydraulic turbines and definitions and recommendations relating to rotating machines and transformers.


Soon after the end of the first world war, work restarted and, in October 1919, a plenary meeting in London saw representatives of 20 countries attending.

1920 – 1929

This decade enjoyed a rapid expansion of both the scope of and participation in the IEC work. Most effort was concentrated still in the power sector but now also reaching out to consumer items. As an example, TC6 (Lamp sockets and caps), the first TC with a chairman from the USA, which had played a leading role in founding the IEC. It was later renamed “Lamp caps and holders” and became Subcommittee 34A.


On the power generation/distribution side, TC5 (Steam turbines), another TC on hydraulic turbines, with a Canadian chairman, TC7 (Aluminium) for lines, TC8 (Voltages), TC10 (Insulating oils), TC11 (Rules and regulations for overhead lines), and TC13 (Measuring instruments), were all created in this period.


However, the advances in transport, electronic and telecommunication technologies made during the war began to influence the market and this was quickly reflected in the need for international standards. In 1924, TC9 (Traction motors; now known as Electrical equipment and systems for railways) was set up under Italian chairmanship and in 1926, TC12 (Radiocommunication), was formed under a British chairman, presumably reflecting the advances made in the country of residence of the Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi.


Finally, three others were created: TC14 (Ratings of rivers); TC15 (Shellac), a liquid used for electrical insulating; and TC16 (Terminal markings).


By this time, technical management and decision-making had become unwieldy in plenary session, so Council appointed a Committee of Action – now the Standardization Management Board – of seven members to oversee the technical work.


It was also during this period that General Meetings, as they are known today, came into being. At the New York meeting of 1926, there were 120 delegates from 19 countries, small by today’s standards but impressive given that there were no trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific flights. All delegates were invited by US President Calvin Coolidge to a reception at the White House.

1930 – 1939

This period experienced significant consolidation and advances, unfortunately to be interrupted by the second world war. Activities concerning the burgeoning transport industries, which were relying more and more on electrical and electronic technologies, were exemplified by the work started by TC19 (Internal-combustion engines) and TC18 (Electrical installations on ships). This was also true for the supporting component elements and processes handled by TC17 (Oil switches and circuit-breakers), TC20 (Electric cables) and TC21 (Accumulators) created in 1933 and TC26 (Electric welding) in 1938.


In 1938 the IEC published the first edition of the International Electrotechnical Vocabulary, prepared by TC1 – a milestone. It contained more than 2 000 terms in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Esperanto*, with definitions in the first two of these languages.


The ability of the IEC to foresee the path of future technology developments is well demonstrated by the formation of TC22 (Electronic devices) as early as 1934, still well within the thermionic valve era.


At the user end of the market, despite the wide diversity of low-voltage accessories such as plugs, sockets and switches, the IEC agreed to try to achieve as much harmonization as possible by creating, in 1934, TC23 (Electrical accessories), under a Dutch chairman.


Perhaps of most significance for the future, however, was the creation in 1935 of TC24 (Electric and magnetic magnitudes and units), which led eventually to the universal adoption of the Giorgi system, which unified electromagnetic units with the MKS dimensional system of units, the whole now known simply as the SI system (Système International d’unités).

1940 – 1949

The bulk of this decade being dominated by the second world war, very little IEC work was achieved. However, it was now widely recognized that there was ever more value in international standardization and that the IEC needed to expand its membership, its activities and its liaisons and interfaces. As a move in this direction, in 1948 the Central Office moved from London to Geneva, where many allied United Nations agencies were being set up, and where the ISO was also being founded.


As a significant tribute to the IEC, ISO decided to adopt the open, democratic, voluntary consensus-based process which had been developed and refined by the IEC over many years. To this day, the procedures for the technical work in both organizations are practically identical covered by the joint IEC/ISO Directives.


Towards the end of the decade, existing projects were rapidly taken up again, but only four new work areas were started, in TC28 (Co-ordination of insulation), TC30 (Extra high voltages), TC31 (Flameproof enclosures) and TC34 (Lamps and related equipment). Spin-off from existing work items led to the forming of TC32 (Electric fuses), TC33 (Power capacitors) and TC35 (Primary cells and batteries).



* A neutral, international language, not of any country or ethnic group invented at the end of the 19th century by L.L. Zamenhof to foster peace and international understanding.