Although NEMA’s heritage is very strongly American, the desire for standards in electrical work is international in origin and can be traced to the beginning of the nineteenth century. From early experiments with simple chemical and mechanical devices, electrical measurement standards were devised as a common language to facilitate communication between inventors. The familiar standards of electrical measurement—the amp, ohm, and volt—were established with the guidance of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and, after much debate, adopted by the world’s scientific and technical communities.
Even before these measurements were widely recognized, however, the theoretical groundwork for electrical engineering had been established and already yielded practical and commercially viable results. Electricity—once a novelty, the bailiwick of inventors and natural philosophers—became the basis for big business as telegraphic communications systems were built in the 1850s and 1860s. Electrical supply houses emerged in Europe and, in limited number, in the United States, to provide the burgeoning telegraph business with storage batteries, insulated cable, and testing equipment. The demand for electrical equipment continued to grow in the 1870s as the first electric lighting systems were developed and installed. Electrical energy was also harnessed as new labor-saving devices were invented, including motors and electric control systems that had ready application to factory work. Other commercial applications of electricity were soon developed, including electroplating, i.e., the use of electricity and chemical solutions to bond protective and decorative metallic finishes to metal goods. By 1880, electrical manufacturing had reached its adolescence; standardization problems, industry-wide cost accounting irregularities, and questionable business practices were beginning to affect both manufacturers and the consuming public.
Growing pains notwithstanding, electrical manufacturing in the United States grew by leaps and bounds after Thomas Edison built the world’s first successful subscription-based central power plant and transmission system in New York City in 1882. Within a few short years, electrical entrepreneurs were hard at work expanding the electrical utility infrastructure of the country by building power plants modeled on Edison’s Pearl Street Station. Electrical manufacturing in the United States was marked by a sixteen-fold increase in the number of companies making and selling electrical products between 1885 and 1900. Every imaginable electrical device was developed and marketed during this period. With no dominant standards guiding the manufacture and marketing of electrical equipment, however, the inconveniences of the past became stumbling blocks to rapid growth. Responding to very real concerns about the safety and reliability of electrical technology, local authorities began to regulate the use of electrical equipment in construction. To address the ongoing problems faced by the industry, a first attempt was made to unify manufacturers via a trade association.