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ASME's 125th Anniversary


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Who are the
ASME Founders?

Alexander Lyman Holley
John Edson Sweet
Robert Henry Thurston
Henry Rossiter Worthington



ASME was founded in 1880 "to promote the art, science and practice of mechanical engineering and the allied arts and sciences." Industrialist Alexander Lyman Holley (1832-1882) established objectives recognizable today:

  • the collection and diffusion of knowledge
  • the advantages of personal acquaintance among the members
  • the educational value of writing papers and debating them
  • the significance of a high quality of leadership
"The Centennial Exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia was responsible for a national quickening in mechanical matters and for a growing sense of latent power. The big central Corliss engine of Machinery Hall was a splendid object lesson and this Exposition was signalized by the single valve automatic engine with flywheel governor designed by John C. Hoadley, by Professor Sweet's design of the Straight-Line engine, and by a series of boiler tests by Charles E. Emery, Charles T. Porter and Joseph Belknap. These all marked epochs in the engineering history of the United States. Moreover, in the fifteen years since the Civil War the enormous increase in size and productivity of industrial plants had just begun. The Land Grant colleges had their graduates of a dozen years practising their profession and by the natural processes of promotion the products of the older schools of engineering had attained positions of trust and influence."

— Frederick Remsen Hutton, Sc.D., A History of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers from 1880 to 1915 (New York: ASME, 1915)


With the vision of leaders, such as industrialist Alexander Lyman Holley and educator Robert Henry Thurston (1839-1903), ASME provided a voice nationally and internationally for mechanical engineers. Mechanical engineers practiced in industries such as railroad transportation, machine tools, steel making, and pumping. Precision machining, mass production, and commercial transportation opened the nation and then the world to American enterprise. Engineers such as Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Henry Ford, George Babcock, Francis Pratt, George Melville, and Elmer Ambrose Sperry shaped ASME as they did the world. Twentieth-century ASME leaders, such as Henry Robinson Towne, Fredrick W. Taylor, Frederick Halsey, Henry L. Gantt, James M. Dodge, and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, pioneered management practices that brought worldwide reform and innovation to labor-management relations. (See more biographies.)

The Events of 1880

Key organizers along with Holley were Henry Rossiter Worthington (1817-1880) and John Edson Sweet (1832-1916). Holley chaired the first meeting, which was held in the New York editorial offices of the American Machinist on February 16 with thirty in attendance. On April 7 a formal organizational meeting was held at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey, with about eighty engineers — industrialists, educators, technical journalists, designers, shipbuilders, military engineers, and inventors. The first annual meeting was held in early November 1880, also at Stevens. Robert H. Thurston, professor of mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute and later Cornell, was the first president of ASME. Erasmus D. Leavitt (1836-1916) was the second, followed by key founder John Sweet. (See also the ASME president's roster.)

"Thirty of the most prominent men in American mechanical industry attended that first meeting of ASME founders in the New York editorial offices of American Machinist on 16 February 1880. They chose as chairman the brilliant consultant to the American Bessemer Steel Association, Alexander Lyman Holley, and characteristically, he provided a focus for the gathering, outlining both the intellectual boundaries of the mechanical engineering profession and the advantages to be derived from association. All the steps necessary to establish a new engineering society were taken at that meeting. It generated a membership list, committees to nominate officers and to draft by-laws, and scheduled a formal organizational meeting for 7 April in the Stevens Institute auditorium to ratify these measures."

—Bruce Sinclair, U.S. historian, A Centennial History of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), pg. 22

The latter half of the 19th century witnessed the widespread establishment schools and institutions in engineering. Engineers of the day moved easily among the concerns of civil, industrial, mechanical and mining engineering, with less distinction among them. Many groups were seeking to create organizations of specialized professional standing. But prior to ASME, for mechanical engineers in the United States, none were devoted to machine design, power generation, and industrial processes, to a degree that was capable of projecting a broader national or international role to advance technical knowledge and systematically facilitate a flow of information from research to practical application.

The Institution of Chartered Mechanical Engineers had been successfully established in England, 33 years earlier in 1847. In the United States, the American Society of Civil Engineers had been active since 1852, and the American Institute of Mining Engineers had been organized in 1871. Holley had been vice-president of one and president of the other.


Steam power then drove the technology of the day: locomotives, ships, factory machinery, and mine equipment. The Corliss engine and the Babcock & Wilcox water-tube boiler were in their heyday. The first real US central power plant — Thomas Edison's Pearl Street Station in New York City — ushered in the era of great electric utilities in 1882. The internal combustion was not far from application. Conglomerates such as US Steel were formed. Industrial research laboratories, such as those at General Electric, duPont, and Eastman Kodak, proliferated.

Where ASME has made an undeniable difference in the quality of life is in its standards setting activities. The standardization of screw threads, long debated at the Franklin Institute beginning in 1864, set the stage for the need for a national standards setting body and it became central to ASME's work, beginning in 1884 with ASME's first Performance Test Code, the Code for the Conduct of Trials of Steam Boilers, and now numbering more than 600. (See also the Codes and Standards chronology.)

The Society is best known, however, for improving the safety of equipment, especially boilers. From 1870 to 1910, at least 10,000 boiler explosions in North America were recorded. By 1910 the rate jumped to 1,300 to 1,400 a year. Some were spectacular accidents that aroused public outcries for remedial action. A Boiler Code Committee was formed in 1911 that led to the Boiler Code being published in 1914-15 and later incorporated in laws of most US states and territories and Canadian provinces. (March 12, 1915, the Boiler Code became an official document of ASME.) By the mid-1990s, ASME Codes and Standards were used in nearly 60 countries.

Mechanical engineers primarily practiced in industries such as railroad transportation, machine tools, steel making, and pumping. In 1880 there were 85 engineering colleges throughout the United States, most of them offering a full mechanical engineering curriculum with the degree of M.E. These early years of the society witnessed a transformation of engineering education from a vocational to a professional curriculum, which has continued to develop dramatically: ASME's focus on lifelong learning has found fruition in Professional Development activities begun in 1975 and the establishment of the Continuing Education Institute in 2001. ASME's Virtual Campus, launched in 2001, offers online graduate-level courses for engineers and technical professionals in cooperation with leading universities.

ASME formed its research activities in 1909, in areas such as steam tables, the properties of gases, the properties of metals, the effect of temperature on strength of materials, fluid meters, orifice coefficients, etc. Interest continued culminating in the creation of the Center for Research and Technology Development in the mid-1980s.

"The Society has been one of the country's most important agencies in the creation of industrial standards, for example, in such vital areas as nuclear power generation, petroleum refining, and machine manufacturing. Thus, its work over the years, as one of a number of collaborating organizations that frame standards, provides a valuable way to study the methods by which the private sector sought to integrate self-interest with larger national concerns. Scientific management was also spawned under ASME's roof and among professional societies it has played a leading role in efforts to apply engineering skills in the solution of a broad array of economic and social problems. Perhaps most significant of all, the Society's history helps to reveal the outlines and consequences of a complex technological information-processing system. It is an article of faith that Americans are inventive people. But besides machines, they also created a welter of interrelated institutions to translate technical knowledge into industrial practice, and that may have been one of the country's most successful inventions."

—Bruce Sinclair, U.S. historian, A Centennial History of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), preface

ASME as an Organization

The diversity of mechanical engineering can be seen in ASME's technical divisions and institutes. Today's structure of technical divisions was established in 1920, when eight were founded: Aerospace, Fuels, Management, Materials, Materials Handling Engineering, Power, Production Engineering, and Rail Transportation. Two more were formed the next year: Internal Combustion Engine and Textile Industries. Today's many interests are multidisciplinary and global. (See also ASME's Communities and Groups.)

ASME has become one of the largest publishers of technical material in the world. In 1880, ASME published Transactions, and the Journal in 1909, which became Mechanical Engineering magazine in 1919. ASME News began in 1981 for nontechnical news. ASME Press began in 1988. On the electronic front, ASME's first all-electronic proceeding was published in 1996 for the Design Conference. ASMENET was launched in 1994 as an experimental electronic network, and soon grew into full online services as Today, ASME has a full complement of online products and services. (See also ASME Publications.)

In the 1970s, planning and goals conferences rededicated its leadership role in public affairs. Rapid expansion of its international network began at that time, with agreements of cooperation, correspondents, and eventually chapters by 1990. By the mid-1990s, nearly 8 percent of ASME's membership was located outside North America, in more than 120 countries.

Today, ASME is a 120,000-member professional organization focused on the technical, educational and research issues of the engineering and technology community. ASME conducts one of the world's largest technical publishing operations, holds numerous technical conferences worldwide, and offers hundreds of professional development courses each year. ASME sets internationally recognized industrial and manufacturing codes and standards than enhance public welfare and safety.

ASME's mission and vision

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