Tau Beta Pi History

The Tau Beta Pi Association, national engineering honor society, was founded at Lehigh University in 1885 by Dr. Edward Higginson Williams, Jr., 'to mark in a fitting manner those who have conferred honor upon their Alma Mater by distinguished scholarship and exemplary character as undergraduates in engineering, or by their attainments as alumni in the field of engineering, and to foster a spirit of liberal culture in engineering colleges'. -- Preamble to the Constitution.

An honor society is an association of primarily collegiate members and chapters whose purposes are to encourage and recognize superior scholarship and/or leadership achievement either in broad fields of education or in departmental fields at either undergraduate or graduate levels.

The honor society has followed the expansion and specialization of higher education in America. When Phi Beta Kappa was organized in 1776 no thought was given to its proper field, since all colleges then in existence were for the training of men for 'the service of the church and the state.' With the expansion of education into new fields, a choice had to be made, and the society elected to operate in the field of the liberal arts and sciences. Although this was not finally voted until 1898, the trend was evident years earlier, and 1885 saw the establishment of Tau Beta Pi.

Founder Edward H. Williams, Jr., was born at Proctorsville, Vermont, on September 30, 1849; he died at Woodstock, Vermont, on November 2, 1933. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, he was head of the mining department of Lehigh University when he determined to offer technical men as good a chance of recognition for superior scholarship in their field as that afforded by the other society in the liberal arts and sciences.

Working alone he conceived an organization, gave it a name, designed its governmental structure, drew up its constitution, prepared its badge and certificate, established its membership requirements, and planned all the necessary details for its operation including the granting of chapters and the holding of conventions.

Thus, with only a paper organization, he offered membership to qualified graduates of Lehigh and received their acceptances and enthusiastic endorsement. Late in the spring of 1885 he invited the valedictorian of the senior class, Irving Andrew Heikes, to membership and he accepted, becoming the first student member of Tau Beta Pi; but there was no time to initiate the rest of the eligible men from the class of 1885.

Mr. Heikes returned for graduate work, however, and in the fall of 1885, he, Dr. Williams, and two alumni who had earlier accepted membership, initiated the eligible men from the class of 1886 and organized the chapter. The parent chapter, Alpha of Pennsylvania, existed alone until 1892 when Alpha of Michigan was founded at Michigan State University.

A detailed account of the founding and early history of Tau Beta Pi was written by Edwin S. Stackhouse, Pennsylvania Alpha '86, after years of painstaking research work (THE BENT, April 1941). Records of essential dates were lost, but Mr. Stackhouse deduced that June 15, 1885, was the day on which the first undergraduate student was initiated. Subsequent evidence, in the form of Mr. Heikes' original invitation to membership, discovered in 1943, confirmed this date.

Since the founding of the Michigan Alpha chapter, Tau Beta Pi has grown steadily; there are now collegiate chapters at 212 institutions, chartered alumnus chapters in 59 cities, and a total initiated membership of 388,408.

The Association was incorporated under the laws of Tennessee on December 1, 1947. The official name of the society is The Tau Beta Pi Association, Incorporated. It is a not-for-profit, educational organization with no stock-issuing power. Its assets are held in its corporate name or in trust. The Association is classified under Section 501 (c) (3) (not private) of the United States Internal Revenue Code, and gifts and bequests to it are tax deductible.

Tau Beta Pi is a founding member of the Association of College Honor Societies, an association member of the American Society for Engineering Education, an associate member of the American Associationof Engineering Societies, and an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Junior Engineering Technical Society.

The official badge of the Association is a watch key in the form of the bent of a trestle, engraved on the reverse side with the member's name, chapter, and class. The colors of the Association are seal brown and white. The official quarterly magazine is THE BENT of Tau Beta Pi. The name of the Association, its badge, and the title of its magazine are registered in the United States Patent Office.

The word key describes the insignia of many organizations. It comes from the fact that it was first designed, in the late eighteenth century, to include a pocketwatch winding feature, hence key. The bottom stem, added to the basic insignia, had a tapered square hole fitting the common sizes of watch-winding shaft. The top stem and ring were added so that the key could be worn as a pendant from a chain, rather than as a pin or badge, thus easily used to wind watches. When the 'stem-winder' watch was introduced in the late nineteenth century, it replaced the key-winder. But the insignia key remained, although with a vestigial hole now round for manufacturing ease and economy.

The national headquarters of Tau Beta Pi are located on the campus of The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee, and have been there since R. C. Matthews went to the University as a young instructor in 1907. R. C. Matthews served as Tau Beta Pi's Secretary from 1905 to 1912 and as Secretary-Treasurer from 1912 until his retirement in 1947. Before he assumed office in 1905 the headquarters offices had been moved to wherever the offices of the Secretary were located. Professor Matthews' long service to Tau Beta Pi and the University of Tennessee has made the university the permanent headquarters of the Association. In 1963, the headquarters staff moved into a suite of offices designed specifically for Tau Beta Pi in the then-new Nathan W. Dougherty Engineering Building.

Merger with Sigma Tau

On January 1, 1974, the Sigma Tau Fraternity merged into The Tau Beta Pi Association. The action was taken by the collegiate chapters of the two organizations following lengthy study and recommendation by their Councils. Sigma Tau was founded in 1904 at the University of Nebraska as an engineering honor society. At the time of merger, it had 34 collegiate chapters and a total initiated membership of 45,000. The basis of merger was the conviction that a single, strong honor society would better serve the engineering profession.

The resulting organization is Tau Beta Pi, unchanged in name, purpose, governance, operating procedures, and membership requirements (except for the automatic Tau Beta Pi membership eligibility of all Sigma Tau members).

The 22 Sigma Tau chapters at institutions formerly without Tau Beta Pi chapters began functioning under Tau Beta Pi rules on January 1, 1974, and were converted to chapters of the Association in formal ceremonies on the dates shown in the roster of chartered collegiate chapters following. The 12 Sigma Tau chapters co-existing on campuses with Tau Beta Pi were merged into the Association, by initiation of their active members in early 1974. The national headquarters office of Sigma Tau in Lincoln, Nebraska, was closed on June 30, 1974, and its records were transferred to the national headquarters of Tau Beta Pi in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Under terms of the merger plan, the financial assets of the Sigma Tau fraternity were used in meeting the costs of converting and merging its chapters, of giving its initiated active members all the insignia and materials regularly going to new members of Tau Beta Pi, and of extending all paid Sigma Tau magazine (The Pyramid) subscriptions to subscriptions to Tau Beta Pi's magazine (THE BENT). The Sigma Tau Foundation, Inc., was dissolved and its assets were transferred directly to Tau Beta Pi's Fellowship Fund. There, the invested sum will earn a return to assist in providing an annual Tau Beta Pi-Sigma Tau fellowship under the Association's regular graduate-study award program.

Under terms of the merger plan, all Sigma Tau alumni have been offered membership in Tau Beta Pi at the current national initiation-fee charge. Those who choose not to join the Association will have all Sigma Tau membership services (except for The Pyramid, which has been discontinued) available to them through the Tau Beta Pi national headquarters.

The last national officers of the Sigma Tau Fraternity were: President G. W. Forman, Vice President H. H. Bartel, Jr., Secretary-Treasurer J. P. Colbert, and Councillors C. W. Leihy, R. P. Moser, R. E. Peterson, and J. W. Straight

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Last Modified November 12, 1995