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The Society of Engineers

A brief history of the Society of Engineers, which was absorbed by the IIE in 2005.

The Putney Club

In May 1854 R. M. Christie and H. P. Stephenson decided to form a club for the re-union of gentlemen who like themselves, had attended Putney College, one of the earliest educational establishments to teach civil engineering. Christie and Stephenson placed an advert in ‘The Times’ and eight gentlemen attended the first meeting in a room on the Strand, London.

At an AGM in December 1857 the club changed its name to the Society of Engineers (SoE). The Society began to publish its transactions and by 1858 membership had reached over 100. Conversazione (scholarly social gatherings) were first held in 1861 and shortly afterwards visits to works of engineering interest were arranged.

A number of honorary members were elected in 1865 and early such figures included Lord Playfair, Sir William Fairbairn, Sir John Herschel, and Sir Joseph Whitworth. Before 1867 students were debarred from access to the Institution of Civil Engineers, which likely contributed to the popularity of the SoE over the first decade or so of its existence.

The Civil and Mechanical Engineers' Society

Elsewhere in London a group of pupils and draughtsmen of the marine engineering company, Messrs Ravenhill & Company (Tower Hamlets) decided that they wished to meet periodically to discuss engineering topics. In 1859 they formed the Civil and Mechanical Engineers’ Society (C&MES). The members first met at the St Francis schoolrooms, Arbour Square, Stepney. The choice of this Society’s name reflected the rapid development of steam engines, boilers, shipbuilding and other machinery, during the first half of the last century. In 1861 the C&MES is recorded as having amalgamated with an organisation called the Young Engineers’ Scientific Association. A. S. E. Ackerman became Secretary of the C&MES in 1898 and Secretary of the SoE in 1907.

Joining forces

In 1910 the C&MES and SoE joined to form the incorporated Society of Engineers. Amongst the objectives of the incorporated Society were to disseminate professional knowledge, and the reading, discussion and publication of papers. The Society held a free of charge appointments register and from 1915 a benevolent fund was created. In addition a library was made accessible at the offices of the Society.

The SoE was one of the first bodies to issue a syllabus and list of examiners in 1912. Before the advent of an option to join the Society via examinations, membership had been restricted to professional engineers who could establish their status by producing evidence of training as engineers, coupled with subsequent experience. In 1955 Graduate Examinations were introduced as one of the qualifications for membership.

A large increase in the membership of the Society in the 1950s reflected the introduction of a student grade of membership in 1951. In 1968 Associate Members were re-graded to Corporate Members and the new grade of Engineer Associate was introduced. By 1971 total membership of the Society peaked at just over 4000.

An Australian branch of the Society was the first group to establish outside of Britain just before the outbreak of World War II and was inaugurated as a division in 1947. A number of branches were also established in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Edinburgh and the East of Scotland, Birmingham, Manchester, South Wales and the Bahamas.

Several awards were created by the Society of Engineers including the Churchill Medal (below far right). Winners of this medal needed to demonstrate an important contribution to contemporary engineering, an original engineering project or development solely conceived by the nominee and executed under his or her supervision, or a project development to which they had made the major engineering contribution. The IET continues to award a Churchill Medal which today recognises a team or individual for outstanding achievements and contributions to engineering and technical advancement in support of military operations.

Detail of the Society of Engineers President's Medal

In 2001 the SoE became a professional affiliate of the Engineering Council in the UK. In 2005 the SoE was absorbed by the Institution of Incorporated Engineers, now the IET.

Related links:

The Churchill Medal Award