125 and Counting... : The important history behind the establishment of the NEC

During the Industrial Revolution, many cities built mills next to rivers to take advantage of the free mechanical energy provided by the flowing water. These water turbines powered machinery through a series of pulleys driven by belts. Soon, they were replaced by steam engines. These early mills were lit by lanterns.

The 19th century was a period of rapid innovation and many science and technology greats were in their prime, including Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, Bell and Armstrong. By 1832, the first generator had been invented. Several inventors developed incandescent light bulbs, which typically burned out after only a few hours. Electrification did not really take off until Thomas Edison’s successful light bulb in 1879.

The next major step was establishing a system of power distribution. In 1882, the first generating station began operation on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan. This station used a 100kW DC generator. The first AC generator was built four years later in 1886. On April 29, 1879, Public Square in Cleveland became the very first outdoor public space to be electrically illuminated.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago introduced the public to electric lighting. The fair’s “Great White City” included the “Palace of Electricity,” an impressive display illuminated by more than 100,000 incandescent light bulbs. The display’s jute facade frequently caught fire, which called attention to the need for product and installation standards to reduce the risk of fire. William Henry Merrill, an electrical inspector from Boston, was hired to come up with solutions. He soon founded Underwriters Laboratories to develop standards and test methods for safe electrical equipment.

Little was known about the fire hazards of electrical equipment or about how to protect construction materials. The insurance industry recognized that it was necessary to find a way to harness this new technology safely. Some insurance companies developed their own electrical installation rules.

The Associated Factory Mutual Fire Insurance Cos. (now FM Global, Johnston, R.I.) reported electrical fires in 23 of the 65 mills that it insured in New England. There was an obvious need to establish installation rules. The minutes of the first meeting noted that the lack of standards caused electrical workers to have to create their own rules as they worked, and rarely did two electricians think alike.

At that time, most inspectors came from the insurance industry; government inspectors were rare. By 1896, five electrical codes emerged across the United States, all of which were incompatible with one another. The disparity made it difficult to make products, establish training programs and write training manuals for a nationwide market.

In 1896, Columbia University professor Francis B. Crocker, a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (now the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), organized the first meeting to develop a unified electrical code.

It is hard to imagine the difficulty of organizing a meeting in 1896. The telephone was only 20 years old, long-distance calls were not possible and all correspondence was by mail. Today, we invite attendees to meetings through email, and we are holding the 2023 meetings on Microsoft Teams.

Worse yet, the transportation of the day was trains and horses. Henry Ford was a mechanical engineer for the Edison Illuminating Co. He wouldn’t test his quadracycle until two and a half months after the first National Electrical Code meeting, and wouldn’t found his auto manufacturing company for another seven years. About six months after the founding of Ford Motor Co, two Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop owners flew the first airplane near Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Nevertheless, 23 people came to that first meeting at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in New York City on March 18–19, 1896. Organizations represented at the meeting were the American Street Railway Association, the National Board of Fire Underwriters, the Postal Telgraph Co., Western Union, the American Institute of Architects, the International Association of Fire Engineers, American Bell Telephone Co., General Electric, Westinghouse Electric Corp. and the Philadelphia Bureau of Electricity. UL’s Merrill attended the meeting, too.

The assembly created the Underwriters’ National Electrical Association to develop the code. William J. Hammer, who represented the National Electric Light Association, was elected chair, and C.J.H. Woodbury from Factory Mutual was the secretary.

Hammer said, “I certainly trust that we have taken a decisive step towards the securing of the much to be desired result of having one national code which will meet the full approval of the electrical, insurance and allied interests.” 

There was universal agreement that such a document was sorely needed and that the rules needed to be safe and practical.

The existing five codes had different approaches, so the committee attempted to identify and use the best of the requirements from all of the codes as well as requirements developed in Germany and England. While we are often accused of not looking at the rest of the world, the reality is that we have done so since the first edition of the NEC .

From the minutes of the first meeting came this observation: “We are here to take the most enlightened stand on the subject. If people do not take risks, and do not build shops, and put in electric wire, there will be no money to pay insurance premiums. If you are going to put up high standards, where the cost of the installation and wiring will be very great, it will stagnate the whole business, as the Board of Trade did in London where they made their rules so conservative.”

Then as now, public review and comment were considered essential to the success of the effort. The draft of the first edition was sent to 1,200 people in the United States and Europe to provide comments before the committee met to finalize the first NEC in 1897.

The Underwriters’ National Electrical Association sponsored the NEC until 1911. That year, the association was dissolved and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) became the new sponsor. Also, that year, UL founder Merrill became the NFPA’s president.

Four of the presidents of UL served as the chair of the National Electrical Code Committee; this is a powerful indication of the important role of installation requirements in product safety.

Over the ensuing 55 editions, the Code has continued to improve. GFCIs have saved countless lives. Tamper-resistant receptacles protect curious children from shocks. AFCIs provide protection from arcing fires in residential properties. The Code is also staying up-to-date by providing installation requirements for renewable energy systems and power over ethernet.

The importance and impact of the NEC has continued to grow with the increasing development and use of electrical products. Participation has grown from 23 people at the first meeting to more than 500 members and alternates among the Code -making panels and correlating committee of the NEC . The Code is also used outside the United States and is available in Spanish. The first edition was 64 pages; the 2020 edition is 901 pages. Some of the original organizations present at the first meeting are still involved in the NEC , and others have continued to be involved through their successors.

Many committee members and those industry professionals are responsible for reaching this important milestone, including the people who submit changes to the NEC to continuously improve it.

About the Author

Mark Earley

Mark Earley, P.E., is an electrical engineer. Retired from the National Fire Protection Association, he was secretary of the National Electrical Code Committee for 30 years and is president of Alumni Code Consulting Group.

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