IEC History

IEC History




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St. Louis, USA, 15 September 1904
delegates to the International Electrical



On 15 September 1904, delegates to the International Electrical Congress, being held in St. Louis, USA, adopted a report that included the following words:
"…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."


As a result, the IEC was officially founded in June 1906, in London, England, where its Central Office was set up.

1st 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, which resumed in 1919 and by 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 1930

  • 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 the IEC's activity came to a standstill because of the Second World War and did not resume for another six years.


In 1948 the IEC Central Office moved from London to Geneva, Switzerland.

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 and 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. This 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 1995 the IEC created the Lord Kelvin Award. A maximum of three recipients are chosen each year to pay tribute to their outstanding contributions to global electrotechnical standardization over a number of years.


Keeping pace with the rapid technological developments at the dawn of the 21st century, the IEC has most recently created new technical committees for fuel cell technologies, for methods to assess electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields associated with human exposure, and for avionics.


In 2005, the Commission published the most recent edition of the IEC Multilingual Dictionary, which now contains 19 400 electrotechnical definitions in French and English and equivalent terms in 13 languages. Consolidated indexes are also available in English and French as well as in German and Spanish.


In 2006 the IEC celebrated its 100th anniversary and set forth on its second century of service to the market.