National Electric Light Association

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National Electric Light Association Logo in Gold

The National Electric Light Association was a national United States trade association including the operators of central power generation stations, electrical supply companies, electrical engineers, and interested individuals. Founded in 1885 by George S. Bowen, Franklin S. Terry and Charles A. Brown, it represented the interests of various private companies involved in the fledgling electric power industry. It was the forerunner of the Edison Electric Institute (founded in 1933). In 1895 the Association sponsored a conference which led to the issue of the first edition of the U.S. National Electrical Code.


On February, 25th, 1885, the National Electric Light Association (NELA) held its first convention in Chicago Illinois with an estimated 90 people in attendance[1]. Its first president was J. Frank Morrison[1]. The founding meeting was organized by George S. Bowen, Franklin S. Terry, and Charles A. Brown. Franklin S. Terry was known for having organized a number of local and then regional Incandescent light bulb companies that included the National Electric Lamp Company that was merged with General Electric in 1911[2]. Charles Brown was the head of the Western Electric Company, an electrical engineering and manufacturing company that served as the primary supplier to AT&T and the Bell Operating Companies. George Bowen was the founder of the Elgin Electric Light Company of Elgin Illinois and the head of the Chicago & Pacific railway company[3].

From this date, until 1933, the NELA held semi-annual conventions that were hosted by various cities across the United States. These conventions had a number of major goals that included formal presentations of research done by scientists and engineers on the latest findings on electric components covering the subject of powering the growing demand for electricity for municipal street lights, residential lights, and appliances. The conventions also included major exhibitions of the latest appliances, motors, and equipment being produced by electric supply companies. In addition, the convention was meant to help newly formed electric generating companies discuss the latest innovations in distributing electricity. The conventions with its lighting exhibitions quickly became the a major promotional tool for the electric industry that NELA would soon represent as membership expanded nationwide over the next few years. The turnout from around the country for the first convention convinced the attendees that this should become a regular event as a constitution was set up along with committees to coordinate future conventions.

1899 NELA Convention at Madison Square Garden NY City

NELA's formation took place less than three years after Thomas Edison's Pearl Street Station first started generating electricity for J.P. Morgan's offices in New York City. The use of electric light bulbs for homes and electric street lighting rapidly began to replace gas lighting in the following years.

The second convention was August 18-19th, 1885 in New York City. At this convention discussions were held about how to run a central power station, what kinds of members could join and debates between Electric arc vs. incandescent lighting. It was reported that roughly 350,000 arc and incandescent lights were already in operation around the country by 1886[1]. The NELA's earliest public relations concern was with Insurance Companies as a result of Edison's public demonstrations known as the War of the Currents. Its semi-annual conventions were already starting to include exhibitions by supply companies. A number of committees were setup to deal with a broad variety of issues that were rapidly evolving at this early date of the industry's development with a strong focus on statistics, both as internal feedback for the industry but also for promotion.

By the Third convention at Baltimore, finding a space big enough for all the exhibitors became a problem. The 1887 convention at Philadelphia was the first year the NELA took up the issue of Alternating current as a possible source of long distance transmission and power, while the number of delegates jumped to 344 with its summer convention at Boston[1]. Topics from how to insulate wires to storage batteries and motors were just beginning to be discussed. By 1888, one of the major issues was whether put all electrical wiring underground as was the demand in New York City and the growing problem of competing electric company lines on a single electric pole. During their 1889 convention in Chicago, the NELA statistics bureau pointed out that there were now 2.7 million arc and incandescent lights in the country or nearly a tenfold increase in three years. By 1892 the NELA had 26 Honorary members, 90 active members and 111 associate members in the association[4]. The membership included all of the major electric suppliers, like Edison Electric Company as well as most of the larger electric generating companies from the east to west coast. The honorary members that included Baron Alphonse James de Rothschild, Charles A. Coffin, George Westinghouse, Lord Kelvin, Charles F. Brush, Thomas A. Edison, Prof. Elihu Thomson and Nikola Tesla. Tesla read his technical paper on "Light and Other High Frequency Phenomena" at the 1893 convention in St. Louis[5].

Each year, the NELA selected a new president to lead the Association from an executive of a major electric power company. For example, in 1898 Sam Insull from the Commonwealth Edison Company was selected the same year that his hometown of Chicago hosted the June 7-9th event[6]. The president would preside over the convention that included an introductory speech that summarized the major events of the year. Part of his speech stunned attendees as he promoted the idea that electric companies were natural monopolies that should be regulated at the state rather than local level. Within fifteen years, his idea would sweep the nation.

The Association maintained a modest year-round staff in New York City. They managed the group's budget, produced and distributed its reports and coordinated the conventions along with the host electric company. Prior to 1905, events were three days long but jumped to five-days by 1910.

Each convention was organized to draw prominent media coverage. Exhibitions that included dazzling displays of lighting and the latest electric appliances were modeled after the wildly popular 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It was always held at a high profile luxury hotel. The convention's publicity included local and national celebrities. Opening ceremonies for the convention and exhibition included a welcome speech by the host city's mayor. Each day would have a morning and evening session that started with a live presentation of a major paper followed by a discussion on the topic by those in attendance. This was followed by entertainment, trips to the exhibition hall or local company's central electric power station.


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  1. ^ a b c d "General Historical Review of the National Electric Light Association". The Electrical World, Volume 19, 1992. Retrieved 17 March 2019.
  2. ^ Martin, T. Commerford; Coles, Stephen Leidy. "The Story of Electricity". Retrieved 17 March 2019.
  3. ^ "George S. Bowen papers, 1856-1928". Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved 17 March 2019.
  4. ^ "1892 NELA Convention". google books. Retrieved 17 March 2019.
  5. ^ "The Tesla Lecture in St. Louis". Retrieved 24 March 2019.
  6. ^ National Electric Light Association. "Proceedings: Convention, Volume 17 1898". Google Books. Retrieved 24 March 2019.