Standardizing Electrical Products, 1936-1978

Standardizing Electrical Products, 1936-1978

How Did We Get Here?: A Brief History of NEMA, Part Two

As the electrical economy began to recover after 1936, NEMA initiated a series of programs aimed at increasing sales. Rural electrification, promoted by the federal government during the Depression, formed the backbone of the NEMA business development strategy until the early 1960s.

NEMA’s most important contribution to the country during the 1940s was standardization—a technical activity that had been the focus of the association’s existence since 1926. The fact that NEMA had established voluntary industry standards for a wide variety of electrical goods and products was a boon for the War Department and Navy Department, neither of which had successfully developed technical standards for electrical devices. Fully committed to supporting the country’s national defense needs during World War II, NEMA made contributions that went beyond standards guidance. It tackled security lighting, safety, and factory process problems that were outside the scope of standards work. NEMA also patched its relationship with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and agreed to coordinate wartime labor policy with the union.

bright ideasStatistical surveys, another of NEMA’s long-standing functions, were valuable to the War Department’s data collection efforts. Many of the methods borrowed by the military to scrutinize supply and cost accounting matters remained in use for decades after the war. NEMA’s vision of post-war prosperity included all-electric households, steadily growing demand for electrical products in commercial and industrial markets, and an expansion of electrical trade overseas.

Keenly aware of the social and demographic changes underway in the U.S. after 1945, NEMA devised promotional campaigns to appeal to a group of consumers who were growing in influence: women. One of the first large-scale campaigns of the 1960s was “Bright Ideas for Ladies, or What to Teach Your Husbands about Electric Wiring.” “Bright Ideas” made use of a new communications technology—television—to increase NEMA’s visibility.

Other active business development efforts during the 1950s included a national refrigeration campaign, an electric range and cookery initiative, a street and highway lighting campaign, and a variety of commercial food service and safety programs. In 1957, General Electric organized the Medallion Home Program, which targeted homebuilders and served as an adjunct to the widely known “Live Better Electrically” campaign. NEMA provided technical medallionassistance by coordinating standards. On January 1, 1960, NEMA took over the Medallion Home certification program.

Rising fuel costs, culminating with the oil shocks of 1972 and 1973, however, brought about an abrupt change in American attitudes about energy consumption. Between 1972 and 1978, NEMA drafted a series of formal statements on national energy policy, encouraging electricity conservation and the development of new energy resources—statements that often seemed at odds with some of its more aggressive product promotion ideas.

This is the second of three excerpts from “How Did We Get Here?: A Brief History of NEMA,” published in the January 2016 issue of ei, the magazine of the electroindustry. Click here to view the full issue.

One thought on “Standardizing Electrical Products, 1936-1978

  1. A very interesting article, with the exponential growth of technology, I shudder to think where we would be without standardization.

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