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In 1869, shortly after the end of the Civil War, a group of prominent engineers in the Chicago area realized the need for a professional organization where engineers could meet, exchange engineering ideas, and foster a spirit of mutual helpfulness. They met on May 25 to form the Civil Engineers' Club of the Northwest and elected Col. Roswell B. Mason, mayor of Chicago, the club's first president.

In 1880 the Society was incorporated as the Western Society of Engineers. At that time, Chicago was considered part of the Western United States.

Since its inception, the Society has promoted the intermingling of all engineering disciplines to provide a means for members to improve their professional status. Today our broad-based membership is still a strength.

The society introduced the Western Society of Engineers' Journal in 1896. It contained papers on engineering innovations and was published continuously four to six times a years for the next 52 years. From 1929 to 1948 the society also produced a companion news publication. In September 1948 the society published the first issue of Midwest Engineer, which combines society news, discussions of regional issues, and papers in one magazine. Early on WSE established what has become a long-standing tradition of recognizing the work of engineers, scientists, and technical professionals. The Octave Chanute Award honors papers of merit, the Charles Ellet Cup awards younger professionals for their achievements, and the Landmark Award acknowledges the body of work and professional contributions of engineers. Our most prestigious award, created in 1919, is named after our nation's first president, who was himself an engineer. The Washington Award continues to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to society.

It was just after the end of the Civil War and two years before the great Chicago fire when a group of Chicago engineers led by Charles Paine began holding informal meetings during April and May of that year to discuss the organization of a Chicago civil engineering society. American engineering up to this time had been confined almost exclusively to the filed of civil engineering with the exception of telegraph engneering. The need for such a society was being felt in other parts of the country. In Boston, the Boston Society of Civil Engineers was founded in 1848. In New York, The American Society of Civil Engineers started in November 1852 and in 1868, the Engineering Club of St. Louis was established.

It was actually Charles Paine, a division engineer on the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway who was the father of WSE. He outlined the need for such an organization and as chairman of a committee, developed a plan or organization which was approved at a June 14, 1869 meeting. He became the second president of the Club.

Paine persuaded R.B. Mason, who was probably the most widely-known of any civil engineer in the Northwest, to send invitations to Chicago engineers to meet in Mason’s office to consider a civil engineering society for Chicago. Most of the initial members were associated with Chicago railroading. Chicago was already the hub of a vast railroad system and its population had grown from slightly over 100,000 to 300,000 by 1870.

Meetings in the early days were largely devoted to the presentation of papers by member engineers and others. Western Society of Engineers was a place for engineers to come together to hear about breakthroughs and developments in their burgeoning profession. Some of the most notable presentations were the following:

  • Octave Chanute: Gliding Experiments, 1897; Recent Progress in Aviation, 1910
  • Onward Bates: Arbitration, 1912.
  • Ralph Modjeski: The Celilo Bridge, 1912; The Thebes Bridge, The Metropolis Bridge, 1918.
  • W.L. Abbott: Central Station Economics, 1910.
  • B.J. Arnold: Subways and Railroad Terminals, 1914.
  • W.O. Lichtner: Construction Management, 1915.
  • C.D. Kettering: The Automobile Power Plant, 1918.
  • C.P. Steinmetz: Future Problems of Electrical Engineering, 1913.

In 1919, the Washington Award Commission, a body of seven engineering societies, was created to honor an engineer whose professional attainments have preeminently advanced the welfare of humankind. The award was established by past WSE president John C. Alvord. First presented to Herbert C. Hoover, it has been conferred on such notables as Orville Wright, Henry Ford and Neil Armstrong.

WSE joined up with the Chicago Chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, American Sociey of Lubricating Engineers and the National Electronics Conference to occupy three floors of office space, which featured a dining room and kitchen, a lounge and a 200-seat auditorium in 1948.

In 1949, WSE launched the Young Engineers Forum, its most popular and long-standing activities. Young Engineers Forum is a professional development education series targeted to beginning technical professionals, which features communications, management and leadership topics and other vital business skills, previously known as “soft skills.” By the 1950s and early 1960s, interest in club facilities in downtown Chicago waned and WSE began the transition from a socially-oriented club towards its current focus as a professional association devoted to the development of engineering leaders and the advancement of the engineering profession.