Birthday of the National Electrical Code®
Today, March 18, 2016 is the 120th birthdayof the National Electrical Code. The first official meeting was held at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in New York City on March 18-19, 1896. The meeting was attended by 23 people, representing the major electrical industry interests in the U.S. at the time. It was truly the infancy of the electrical industry. It was also the infancy of the infrastructure of transportation. How did those who attended the first NEC meeting get there? Would it have been a Ford Trimotor? Hardly, the Wright brothers would not fly near Kitty Hawk, NC until 7 years later. So they were confined to ground transportation. But what kind? Henry Ford was still working as a mechanical engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company. He would test his quadricycle 2 ½ months later. He would not found his auto company until 7 years later. There was limited train service. So transportation options were limited. The weather forecast was for March 18, 1896 was for snow mixed with rain. Instead, it turned out to be a bright sunny day. This turned the streets into slush. Yet, the importance of their mission motivated these people to brave the cold.
It had only been 17 years since Edison introduced his incandescent light bulb and 20 years since Alexander Graham Bell received his patent. Imagine what a remarkable time it was, many of the revered names of engineering where alive (Edison, Ford, Bell, Wright & Wright, Tesla, and Armstrong). The electrical industry was in its infancy, but growing rapidly. Questions were arising about the safety of electricity. In the electrified mills of New England, electrical fires were becoming commonplace. The Associated Factory Mutual Fire Insurance Companies reported 23 fires in 65 insured textile mills in New England. Frequent electrical fires at the Palace of Electricity at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition caused many to wonder if electricity could be used safely (Bezane, P.5). Bezane noted that “A rash of fires had plagued major American cities throughout the 1890s. “Better buildings” said a member of the National Board of Fire Underwriters are “burning in a greater ratio than ever before…and there are mysterious causes at work that we do not understand. I believe the cause to be electricity” (P.6). A large part of the problem was the lack of standards. As one of the early participants in standards activities noted:
“We were without standards and inspectors, while manufacturers were without experience and a knowledge of real installation needs. The workmen frequently created the standards as they worked, and rarely did two men think alike.”
The losses concerned Factory Mutual so much that they established their own electrical
requirements in order to stem the heavy losses from electrical fires. Other insurance organizations such as the New
York Board of Fire Underwriters and the New England Fire Insurance Exchange
were also establishing electrical requirements.
At the time, governmental inspection departments were rare. Most inspectors came from the insurance industry.
By 1896, five sets of electrical rules were in existence in the United States. As a result there was disagreement, and controversy. It was a real problem for manufacturers who had to manufacture different products for different markets due to differing rules.
Everyone recognized a need for rules. They also believed that the rules had to be universal. So, in the words of Merwin “Money” Brandon, former President of Underwriters Laboratories,
“the competing groups had the intelligence to submerge their differences and begin to work together for some program that was of mutual benefit to themselves and the public.”
Professor Francis B. Crocker of Columbia University a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (now IEEE) is credited with organizing the first meeting. The Group elected a chair from the National Electric Light Association (EEI) Mr. William J. Hammer and a Secretary from Factory Mutual, Mr. C.J.H. Woodbury, who was representing the American Bell Telephone Company during the meeting. Each of the representatives was invited because they came from an organization that was national in scope. Some guests of smaller organizations also participated, but the national view was what the committee sought. A Celebrity at the meeting was the founder of Underwriters Laboratories, William Henry Merrill. In fact over the years, four presidents of UL served as chair of the NEC!
During his acceptance speech, the chairman cut to the chase with the comment:
“I desire to express my heartiest appreciation of my election as permanent chairman of the important gathering and 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.”
The Second speaker, C. H. Wilmerding the president of the National Electric Light Association echoed these sentiments with the comment:
“It is undoubtedly a very desirable thing that a national code of rules be adopted.”
Those present at that first meeting recognized that each of the existing codes had merits, but their approaches were different. In order to be universal, the code had to incorporate the best of each of those codes.
There were several areas of discussion and controversy during that first meeting, including
-AC vs. DC for lighting and power systems-As you may recall there was a major dispute between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, over which was the most practical and which was the safest.
-The tapping of street lighting circuits for lighting of buildings.
-The installation and operation of telephone and telegraph equipment.
-Problems associated with marble and slate materials in the construction of switchboards
-The use of bare copper conductors as fuses or fusible alloy wires to protect circuits.
-The temperature limits assigned to conductors. It was suggested that the limit should be based on the maximum temperature at which the hand could be closed on the conductor insulation.
-The ampacity of conductors, an issue heavily discussed and debated in recent codes.
The founding fathers of the code also recognized that there were efforts offshore that were also worthy of consideration. The code that evolved therefore also incorporated some rules from the German Code as well as two sets of rules from England: the Rules of the Board of Trade and the Phoenix Rules.
It was recognized that the rules had to be safe as well as practical. Recognizing that compliance with the rules would be the basis for determining insurability Mr. F.W. Jones of the postal telegraph company noted:
“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.”
Recognizing the need for public review and consensus. They distributed the code to 1200 individuals in The U. S. And Europe before they met again in 1897 to finalize the document.
From the very beginning, it was recognized that no one individual or industry segment possessed all of the answers. Representation would be needed from all affected segments. Today those segments are categorized as:
The broad involvement of interested parties is based on the democratic principle that those who are governed by the rules should also make the rules. The Code was well received and new editions followed every two years as technology changed. After 15 years of Code development under the Underwriters National Electrical Association, the association was dissolved and the Code was turned over to the National Fire Protection Association. That was in 1911. NFPA has published the NEC continuously for the 84 years since. We have published 45 of the 53 editions and supplements.
The 1920 edition was the first edition to become an ASA Standard (ANSI). For a while, it was identified as ASA C1. With the ASA adoption, more public review was incorporated to ensure, in the words of former Chairman Alvah Small “that the stillest smallest voice must be heard.” This is a principle that lives on today. Today, it is designated as ANSI/NFPA70 and it still has its original title.
The NEC touches the lives of all Americans. It not only is the basis for the premises wiring rules, but most of the electrical product standards reference it, because the product standards are based on installation in accordance with the NEC.
Since 1953, the NEC has been revised every three years in order to stay abreast of the rapidly changing electrical industry, as well as to take advantage of the collective experience of electrical professionals. The code-making panels include many electrical industry experts who make sure that the code addresses the industry’s need for safe and up-to-date electrical installation practices. We will soon be releasing a new edition which promises to address new industry concerns, including large scale PV systems, energy storage, stand-alone electrical systems, and microgrids.
Because you are reading this, you are probably an electrical professional. You should be proud of what your industry has achieved over the past 120 years. You have created an infrastructure that is the safest in the world. Thanks for your support of the NEC!
Bezane, N (1994).
This inventive century-the incredible journal of Underwriters laboratories,
Underwriters Laboratories, Northbrook, IL
(1971). The National Electrical Code and Free Enterprise (a history), National
Fire Protection Association, Boston, MA.
Minutes of first
meeting of the National Conference on Standard Electrical Rules (1896).