At the beginning

Delegates to the International Electrical Congress, World's Fair St. Louis, USA, 15 September 1904

Rt. Hon. Lord Kelvin
First IEC President
Physicist and inventor

Founding of the IEC

The IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) saw its beginnings at the International Electrical Congress in St. Louis in 1904. It had been recommended, "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 standardization of the Nomenclature and Ratings of Electrical Apparatus and Machinery" [1].


A preliminary meeting, chaired by A. Siemens, was held on 26 and 27 June 1906 in London under the auspices of the British Institution of Electrical Engineers.

Of the 16 participating countries, three came from outside Europe: America (as it was listed at that time), Canada and Japan. The delegates were appointed by their national institutions or their governments.


[1] Winckler, R., 1994. Electrotechnical Standardization in Europe. CENELEC, Brussels.

Colonel Crompton, a mechanical engineer, inventor, and skilled organizer, played an important part in setting up the Commission.

On 27 June 1906, the official birthday of the Commission, the eminent physicist Lord Kelvin was elected its first President, and Colonel Crompton was appointed as Honorary Secretary.

Additional outcomes of the first meeting included the following:

  • The Rules of the Commission were approved;
  • The name of the Commission was amended to read International Electrotechnical (instead of Electrical) Commission;
  • Ch. Le Maistre became the first General Secretary;
  • The office of IEC was established in London.

Furthermore, over time a much wider interest had developed in creating a coherent system of units for electricity [2]. For this reason two "commissions" of the IEC were created:

  • Electric units and standards;
  • Nomenclature and characteristics of electrical machines and apparatus.

Interestingly enough, the IEC was constituted within the same time frame as the national bodies. This fact underlines both the high priority given to electrotechnical standards and the close coordination between national and international efforts.


[2] IEC Publication 164, 1964. Recommendations in the field of quantities and units used in electricity. IEC, Geneva.


Colonel Crompton
First IEC Honorary


Charles Le Maistre
First IEC General

First technical committees

By 1914, the IEC had formed four technical committees to deal with nomenclature, symbols, rating of electrical machinery, and prime movers. The Commission had also issued a first list of terms and definitions covering electrical machinery and apparatus; a list of international letter symbols for quantities and signs for names of units; an international standard for resistance for copper; a list of definitions in connection with hydraulic turbines; and a number of definitions and recommendations relating to rotating machines and transformers.

The First World War interrupted IEC work.
Between 1919 and 1923 the number of technical committees had increased to 10. IEC Council decided to create the Committee of Action "to assist in giving effect to the decisions of the Council, to second the efforts of the Central Office and to co-ordinate the work of the National Committees and of the Advisory Committees."

Electrical units

The IEC established the following electrical units in the 1930s

  • oersted for the unit of magnetic field strength
  • gauss for the unit of magnetic flux density
  • maxwell for the unit of magnetic flux
  • gilbert for the unit of magnetomotive force
  • var for designating the unit of reactive power

    The unit weber (for the practical unit of magnetic flux) was established in 1933, and the hertz (for the unit of frequency) in 1935.







It was decided to extend the existing series of practical units into a comprehensive system of physical units, which became the "Giorgi system", named after Giovanni Giorgi (1871-1950) - an Italian scientist and engineer. This system has been elaborated further and is now commonly known as the "Système international", or SI for short.

CISPR and the IEV

Between the First and the Second World Wars, a number of new international organizations came into being and the IEC recognized the need for co-operation to avoid overlapping efforts. In some cases, joint technical committees were formed, such as the International Special Committee on Radio Interference (CISPR).


In 1938 the IEC produced the first edition of the International Electrotechnical Vocabulary (IEV), now known as Electropedia and freely available to the general public. The unification of electrotechnical terminology was one of the principal tasks allocated to the IEC by the St. Louis congress. In the early days, the Nomenclature Committee was engaged in pioneer work, as no comparable international technical vocabulary had yet been published and few national electrotechnical vocabularies existed. With its 2 000 terms in French, English, German, Italian, Spanish and Esperanto, and its definitions in French and English, the IEV could rightly be considered as an outstanding achievement. It aroused wide interest among international technical organizations outside the electrotechnical field.


In September 1939, with the start of the Second World War, the activities of the IEC came to a standstill during six years.


In 1948 the IEC Central Office moved from London to Geneva, Switzerland, where it shared a villa with the newly founded ISO, the brain child of Charles le Mestre, the first IEC General Secretary.


Light current, electroacoustics and radio frequencies

Subsequently, the IEC expanded its efforts in the light current field, which had constituted only a small part of the activity of the Commission before 1939. Standards covering measurements, safety requirements and the testing and specification of components for radio receivers and televisions began to appear. At the same time, work on electroacoustics started, while CISPR developed standards on permissible limits for various frequency ranges used for radio broadcasting and measurement methods for interference.

New technologies... more technical committees

From 1948 to 1980 the number of technical committees grew from 34 to 80 and began to include such new technologies as capacitors and resistors, semiconductor devices, electrical equipment in medical practice, maritime navigation, and radiocommunication systems and equipment.


In 1974 the IEC created Technical Committee 76, to address standards relating to lasers, with a particular focus on safety. This committee developed the four-class system for lasers that is the global reference today. The system covers lasers used in business, entertainment, education, medicine, research and industry.


The last two decades of the 20th century saw the IEC continue to address new technologies as they emerged, creating new technical committees to prepare standards for lightning protection, fibre optics, ultrasonics, wind turbine systems, and design automation.


In 2006 the IEC celebrated its 100th anniversary.


Keeping pace with the rapid technological developments of the 21st century, the IEC created new technical committees for fuel cell technologies, methods to assess electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields associated with human exposure, including for 5G; avionics, electronic displays, nanotechnology, marine energy generation, solar thermal electric plants, printed electronics, electrical energy storage systems, wearable electronic devices, personal e-transporters, and more.


The Joint Technical Committee 1 of the IEC and ISO publishes standards in the area of information and communication technology, including for example for cloud computing, biometrics, AI, data management, information security, cybersecurity and privacy protection (the ISO/IEC 27000 series of standards). For its work for MPEG and HEVC, IEC and ISO received three Primetime Emmy awards.