History of the IES

One of lighting’s preeminent historians describes how visionaries, risk takers, practitioners, academics and businessmen banded together in 1905-06 to create the IES.

By David DiLaura

February 10, 1916: Acceptance of Honorary Membership by Thomas Alva Edison presented by John Lieb, an associate of Edison, with Mrs. Edison attending.

Most of the men who were the organizers, founders and early members of the Illuminating Engineering Society were born as the American Civil War was ending, or not long after. Their parents raised families in a society transformed by war. Most of the men involved came from Northern families and so with the post-war prosperity were able to obtain good educations. Louis B. Marks, for example, was educated at City College of New York and at Cornell, Louis Bell at Dartmouth and Van Rensselaer Lansingh at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They had among the best of the technical educations that could be acquired in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century.

For many, their entry into business and professional practice was marked by the Panic of 1893 and the serious economic depression that followed. Sparked by a run on treasury gold and the failure of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, there was wide-spread panic. Bank failures resulted, followed by other railroad bankruptcies and stock price collapses. The resulting economic depression lasted more than five years; it was by far the most serious financial crisis to have hit the U.S. up to that time, and the lighting industry was not above this turmoil.

But recovery began near the end of the decade. One mark of this was the increase in construction activity. By the turn of the century, many major American cities were in the midst of a construction boom that would transform urban skylines and many industries—lighting among them.

Lighting in the five years just before the founding of the Illuminating Engineering Society was provided by technologies as varied as would ever be available. Depending on locale, construction and availability, any of these lighting sources might be found in use:

  • Kerosene lighting
  • Gas lighting
  • Incandescent gas lighting with mantles
  • Arc lighting
  • Flame-arc lighting
  • Incandescent electric lighting
  • Moore tube discharge lighting
  • Cooper-Hewitt mercury-vapor discharge lighting
  • Acetylene lighting

The competition between gas lighting and electric incandescent lighting was fierce and produced improvements that had fueled the see-saw of dominance for 20 years. It was not clear at the time what would become the dominant form of “artificial light” and the question of the most efficacious and economical source was far from settled. But as competitive as other forms of lighting were, incandescent electric lighting was growing the fastest. In 1905, 40 million incandescent lamps were sold in the U.S., and the total spent on electric lighting for the year was greater than $120 million.

This state of lighting technology meant that the men involved in lighting needed to have a command of and experience with a wide range of technologies.

At the turn of the 20th century, electricity was provided by so called central stations: buildings housing dynamos powered by steam engines and the necessary gear to control the electric power. Central stations owned the wiring that distributed the electric power and sold the final electric appliances to customers that used the electricity. The first central station in the U.S. was built in San Francisco in 1879 and powered the Brush arc lighting system. Companies owned central stations and were usually given an exclusive license by a manufacturer of lighting equipment for a territory. Lamps were not purchased from manufacturers; they were not available from retailers or wholesalers. Lamps were sold by the major lamp manufacturers almost exclusively to central station operators.

The group that founded the Society and helped it flourish consisted of men from five areas of lighting. The men who operated central stations and those who worked for the lamp manufacturers constituted two groups of professionals involved in lighting.

Gas companies had been shocked into renovating their product and service as the competition from electric lighting grew. The men of these companies formed a third, entirely separate group involved in lighting.

A fourth group was those that worked for the many companies that manufactured lighting appliances. The Holophane Glass Company and its licensees made the refractive glass globes that had become widely used and critically important to electric lighting. Metal reflectors made by companies such as the Federal Electric Company, Benjamin Electric Manufacturing Company, and I. P. Frink, were even more widely used. A few men from companies that made combination fixtures—a gas burner and a socket for an incandescent lamp—were also involved.

The fifth and certainly smallest group was consultants and designers of lighting systems, academics and other scientists. Not surprisingly, these were among the most instrumental in founding the Society. The most prominent men in this group were Louis Marks, Louis Bell, Norman Macbeth, Clayton Sharp and Herbert Ives.

The professional societies most having to do with lighting at that time were the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and the American Gas Light Association. In many ways their inattention to lighting prompted the perceived need for a professional organization devoted exclusively to lighting. Both groups had been distracted by the tremendous growth in their industries—growth in areas other than lighting—and lighting was not getting leadership from either organization. A bellwether of this was the inability of either group to agree on a single standard of luminous intensity to be used in photometry.

In October of 1905, Louis Marks, then an independent consultant, contacted his colleague Van Rensselaer Lansingh at the Holophane Glass Company about forming a new society devoted to lighting. Their conversations eventually included E. Leavenworth Elliott who was about to begin publishing what he called “a technical journal devoted to the use of artificial light,” The Illuminating Engineer. They wanted to determine whether there was enough interest to form such a society, and so from Lansingh’s Holophane office the three issued the following letter to about 30 men in New York City and the surrounding area that they knew were interested in lighting. Responses were to be directed to Marks.

227 Fulton Street.
New York,
December 13, 1905.


Dear Sir:-
It has been proposed to form a Society of Illuminating Engineers, composed of those people who are especially interested in the question of light and its distribution. For this purpose, the undersigned have asked a number of those most prominently interested in such questions to meet at the Hotel Astor, 44th Street and Broadway, this city, on Thursday evening, December 21, at 6:30 o’clock, to talk over the formation of such a society and to discuss whatever is necessary to accomplish this purpose. We trust you will be able to attend this meeting and would ask that you kindly let Mr. L. B. Marks, 202 Broadway, New York City, know beforehand so that arrangements for an informal dinner may be made. The price of this dinner will be $1.00 each.


Trusting that we may have the pleasure of meeting you at that time, we are,


Very truly yours,
L. B. Marks,
E. Leavenworth Elliott,
Van Rensselaer Lansingh.


P.S.-The dinner will be purely informal and business suits will be in order.

Among the list of those contacted were Prof. Charles P. Matthews; Prof. Edward L. Nichols; Proctor Dougherty; Albert Spies; John W. Lieb; and W.D. Weaver.

Charles P. Matthews was teaching at Purdue University and was very active in photometry, having developed one of the first flux integrators. He had published extensively on lighting topics and his interest in a new organization would have been natural.

Prof. Edward L. Nichols had been one of Marks’ instructors while he was at Cornell University earning his master’s degree. He was a nationally recognized leader in physics and an important figure in electrical engineering and lighting. His status and influence made him an obvious person to invite. Though Nichols was unable to attend the meeting, he was enthusiastic.

Lansing knew Proctor Dougherty from his days at MIT and Dougherty’s connection with the federal government must have been considered promising.

The response from Albert Spies, editor of The Electrical Age, was measured but supportive.

At the time of Mark’s invitation, John W. Lieb was an important veteran of electric incandescent lighting, president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the most famous central station engineer in the lighting industry and immensely influential. He would become vice president and general manager of the New York Edison Company. Lieb had been sent to Milan, Italy, to oversee the technical aspects of establishing Edison Central Stations. Lieb stayed 10 years, becoming well known throughout Europe. He returned in 1894 to work in the New York Edison Company. Lieb was enthusiastic but was aware of potential political problems.

The response from W.D. Weaver, editor of Electrical Word, was considerably more measured and reserved than any other; arguing that it was premature to form a new organization, and describing several political problems that would likely arise should a new organization be formed. Weaver predicted a turf war between the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and any new organization that promoted the idea that specialists should be doing the lighting work that was then be done by electrical engineers. As it happened, though his letter stated he would not be able to attend, he did attend—indicating perhaps the importance of the development.

Twenty-five men gathered at the Astor Hotel in response to the invitation of Marks, Elliott and Lansingh. At that meeting, called to order by Lansingh, Marks’s position as instigator and leader was recognized and he was elected as temporary chairman. Elliott was elected to serve as temporary secretary. This later appointment was fortunate, for the details about this and subsequent meetings appeared in Elliott’s The Illuminating Engineer. Marks stated that the purpose of the meeting should be to determine the object of the proposed society and its relation to what he referred to as “its sister institution, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.”

That there was a need for a new organization appears to have been obvious to all present. Three of the response letters that Marks received talked of a movement to establish illuminating engineering. The “Illuminating Engineering Movement” would soon become something that professionals discussed and later historians recognized. Work that was clearly recognized as illuminating engineering—separate from electrical engineering—was growing and all indications were that growth would be maintained. W. D’Arcy Ryan, one of the meeting’s attendees, stated:

“Five years ago it was almost impossible for a consulting illuminating engineer to get into an architect’s office. Three years ago the work had increased to such an extent that I was obliged to drop all other work and follow illuminating engineering exclusively. I have now six assistant engineers and every one of us is on the go…”

The most difficult question discussed that evening was the matter of the organization’s name. Not everyone was convinced that it should contain the word “engineer”—the thought being that it was elite and would antagonize the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Elliott and Otis Mygatt, founder of the Holophane Glass Company, argued that part of the purpose of the new organization was to further the movement to establish lighting specialists—illuminating engineers—and the name of the organization should reflect that.

The meeting ended with all present agreeing that a Committee on Organization, consisting of seven of those present, would draft a constitution and by-laws and propose a name for the new organization. Evidently, everyone involved considered the matter of establishing a new organization appropriate and timely, not needing a great deal of research: the committee was to have its report ready in two weeks and the next meeting was scheduled to take place at that time.

On Wednesday evening, January 10, 1906, at the Hotel Astor, another meeting was convened “to complete the formation of a society devoted to the Science and Art of Illumination.” The report of the Committee on Organization was read and adopted without change. The contents had evidently been vetted by many interested parties and changes made before the meeting. Officers were then elected: L.B. Marks president, A.A. Pope and C.H. Sharp vice presidents, V.R. Lansingh treasurer and E.L. Elliott secretary. Tellingly, Marks was elected by acclamation, while the other offices had several candidates and required balloting. In addition to officers, a board of managers was also elected: W.D. Weaver, A.H. Elliott. W.S. Kellogg, E.C. Brown, F.N. Olcott and W. D’Arcy Ryan. The meeting ended with the agreement that the next meeting would take place on Tuesday evening, February 13, again at the Astor Hotel.

Original IES 1906 Insignia
Original IES 1906 Insignia
The meeting scheduled for February 13, 1906 took place at the Hotel Astor and was the first full technical meeting of the Illuminating Engineering Society. In the intervening month, more than 150 members were enrolled in the new organization, and interest in establishing branches in other American cities was immediate.

At this meeting L.B. Marks delivered his presidential address, outlining “the present state of the science and art of illumination,” the scope of the new Society, its aims and objects, and the relation of the new society to other organizations. Marks summary of the present state of lighting focused on two issues: the problem of discomfort glare and providing better value for the consumer’s dollar. On discomfort glare he noted that:

“Though much attention has recently been given to the subject of globes, shades and reflectors, the fact still remains that unshaded or inadequately shaded lamps are the rule rather than the exception. In considering the present status of the science and art of illumination there is perhaps no question that is in need of more immediate attention than this one. The practice of placing lights of excessive intrinsic brightness within the ordinary field of vision is so common as to cause great apprehension among those who have studied the question from a physiological point of view that our eyesight is suffering permanent injury.”

Marks had done research with current U.S. Census Reports, Union Carbide (Acetylene) and Standard Oil, and listed the following consumer costs of lighting for 1905:

  • Electric light $120 million
  • Coal and water gas $40 million
  • Natural gas $1.7 million
  • Acetylene $2.5 million
  • Oil $60 million

The total, about $220 million, was probably an underestimate. About the scope of the society, Marks noted that:

“The term ‘engineering,’ as used in the name of this Society, unless viewed in its broad sense, is to a certain extent a misnomer, as the Society will deal with some phases of illumination that may not properly be said to come within the distinct field of engineering, such for instance as the physiological side of the question. The Society will be interested in every phase of the subject of illumination whether from an engineering point of view or otherwise, and will throw its doors quite as wide open to the layman as to the professional. It will not, however, deal with questions relating to the production or distribution of the energy from which the light produced.”

The discussion of Marks presidential address was long and detailed. Those present included representatives from all sectors of the lighting industry: electric and gas suppliers, equipment manufacturers, consultants and academics. Enthusiasm arose from every corner. The meeting and its participants drew the attention of the press. The following morning an editorial appeared in the New York Tribune entitled The Art of Lighting.

On January 28, 1907, the headquarters was moved from the temporary space that had been provided by the Holophane Glass Company, to an office in the Engineering Societies’ Building, at 29 West 39th Street. The first annual meeting was held on January 7, 1907. By then the organization had established itself nationally, with sections in New England, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York. Membership stood at 815 at the time of that first anniversary meeting and the first year’s budget had been $4000.

The Society began publishing immediately. Volume 1, Number 1 of the Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society appeared in February 1906. In the 11 months of its first publication year, the Society printed more than 400 pages of technical presentations and discussions dealing with all aspects of lighting. It has done so continuously for 100 years.