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Networks of Necessity

The first electrical trade associations

The first national American electrical trade association was the Electrical Manufacturers Alliance, founded on August 16, 1905, by twelve representatives of New York-area industry. The group re-formed in October of 1905, with additional members, as the Electrical Manufacturers Club, organized with the stated purpose of establishing “harmonious relations between the manufacturers of electrical supplies and the jobbing and contracting interests throughout the country.”

It was these “interests”—wholesalers and installers—who were regarded by electrical manufacturers as the rogue element in the business on account of their practices. Through regular meetings of key figures in manufacturing, the association hoped to eliminate some of the inefficiencies and inconveniences of the electrical trade. The charter of the Electrical Manufacturers Club limited membership to makers of conduits, incandescent bulbs, insulated wire, and glass insulators.

For the first few years of the club’s existence, the organization served only a social purpose by conducting regular meetings to provide members with a forum to discuss both business and pleasure. In 1911, with more aggressive leadership, the club adopted a new constitution with the stated purpose “to gather and disseminate information relating to the broader economic aspects of the industry in the United States.”

With this new mandate, however, the club restricted its active membership to 130 individuals (companies could not belong) and began an effort to recruit executives from the country’s leading electrical supply manufacturers, excluding many technical professionals and the leaders of small manufacturing companies. The organization conducted only the most informal kinds of outreach with electrical contractors and suppliers, relying on social gatherings to promote an agenda of cooperation through contacts. It did little to address the pressing technical problems that hindered the growth of the industry. Thus, the Electrical Manufacturers Club had its share of critics.

A second trade association, with a much more technical orientation, was founded on June 2, 1908, by a small group of electric motor makers. Calling themselves the American Association of Electric Motor Manufacturers, the group concerned itself with motor design standards, using regular meetings to promote the idea of standardization applied to casing and winding construction.

On November 2, 1910, the association reconstituted itself with a new scope of membership as the Electric Power Club, opening the rolls to individuals representing companies that produced both motors and generators. Unlike the Electrical Manufacturers Club, which, by 1910 was restricting its professional activities to insular social events, the Electric Power Club identified five objectives, the successful pursuit of which would improve the state of electrical manufacturing in the United States. These included the discussion of subjects of interest to the industry; the advancement and improvement of electrical manufacturing; the collection of economic information for the benefit of members; the standardization of electrical machinery; and the promotion of cooperation among members for the purpose of improving the production and distribution of electrical products.

A third national trade association, the Associated Manufacturers of Electrical Supplies (A.M.E.S.), organized on May 9, 1915, adopted a very similar set of objectives. Founded by a group of men representing electrical supply companies, the A.M.E.S. placed a high value on developing uniform systems of performance measurement and cost accounting in electrical manufacturing and distributing, in many ways complementing the efforts of the Electric Power Club. The leadership of the A.M.E.S., perhaps more so than the Electric Power Club, was concerned about the problems—seen as self-inflicted—that dominated the electrical business: poor engineering and aggressive marketing practices that were attracting unwanted scrutiny from critics of the industry.

During World War I, the value of industry associations, with integrated technical, social, legal, and accounting functions, was demonstrated. Electrical manufacturing was seriously affected during the war years, even before the United States became formally involved in the European conflict. The high demand for electrical products could not be met because of chronic materials shortages. Through the Council of National Defense and the War Industries Board, the federal government attempted to impose some order on the chaotic industrial situation in the United States, but to no avail.

The inability of the government to successfully oversee technical manufacturing nearly crippled the American mobilization effort. The Electrical Manufacturers Council, created in February of 1916 to coordinate the work of the leading electrical trade associations, became responsible for directing prioritized manufacturing during the final months of the war. After the war, and with the benefit of hindsight, the feeble efforts of the Electrical Manufacturers Council to monitor the war time electrical economy were acknowledged and a movement to unify the electrical trade organizations took shape. After several years of discussion, the Electric Power Club and the Associated Manufacturers of Electrical Supplies agreed to consolidate their memberships and interests into a single organization—the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA).

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