"Let The Code Decide"
ANYONE who has anything at all to do with the electrical industry is familiar with this slogan of
the International Association of Electrical Inspectors "Let the Code Decide". Not so commonly
known is the history of the Code – the National Electrical Code – or how, and by whom, it is written.
It is felt that the following brief discussion may be of some interest. We must go back over seventy
years (remember this was written in 1950) to find the original ancestor of what we now know as the
National Electrical Code. This document was published in October of the year 1881, by the New York
Board of Fire Underwriters, under the title "A Standard for Electric Light Wires, Lamps, etc.""
To give an idea of how much water has flown over the dam since 1881, this set of rules, exactly as
originally promulgated, follows:
NEW YORK BOARD OF FIRE UNDERWRITERS
No. 115 Broadway, New York October 19th, 1881
The New York Board of Fire Underwriters at a meeting held this day, adopted the following standard
for Electric Light Wires, Lamps, etc., subject to future additions.
Applications for permission to use electric lights must be accompanied with statement of the number
and kind of lamps to be used, the estimate of some known electrician of the quantity of electricity required,
and a sample of the wire (at least three feet in length) to be used, with a certificate of said electrician
of the carrying capacity of said wire. The applications should also state where the electricity is to
be generated, whether the connection will have metallic or ground circuit, and as far as possible give
full details of manner of which it is proposed to equip the building. Applications should be sent to WM.
M. Randell, Secretary of the Committee on Police and Origin of Fires. WM. W. HENSHAW, Secretary.
- Wires to have 50 percent excess of conductivity above the amount calculated as necessary for
the number of lights to be supplied by the wire.
- Wires to be thoroughly insulated and doubly coated with some approved material.
- All wires to be securely fastened by some approved non-conducting fastening, and to be placed
at least: 2 ˝ inches for Incandescent lights, and 8 inches for Arc lights from each other,
and 8 inches from all other wires and from all metal or other conducting substance, and to
be placed in a manner to be thoroughly and easily inspected by surveyors.
When it becomes necessary to carry wires through partitions and floors, they must be secured against
contact with metal or other conducting substance in a manner approved by the Inspector of the
- All Arc lights must be protected by glass globes enclosed at the bottom to effectually prevent
sparks or particles of the carbons from falling from the lamps, and in show windows, mills
and other places where there are materials of an inflammable nature, chimneys with spark arrestors
shall be placed at the top of the globe. Open lights positively prohibited.
The conductive framework of chandeliers must be insulated and covered the same as wires.
- Where electricity is conducted into a building (from sources other than the building in which
it is used) a shut off must be placed at the point of entrance to each building, and the supply
turned off when the lights are not in use.
1882 - The National Board of Fire Underwriters adopted the regulations of the New York
Board, and a month later the Boston Board of Fire Underwriters issued a similar set of rules.
1890 - A committee consisting of representatives of insurance groups and the National
Electric Light Association prepared a "Code of Rules" which was published a year later be
the National Electric Light Association.
1893 - Mr. C. M. Goddard, regarded as being the "father" of the present Code,
took a step towards unification and standardization. Mr. Goddard, who was connected, with the New
England Insurance Exchange, sponsored a meeting of inspectors of insurance boards in the United States
and Canada. The result was the formation of an electrical committee under the name of the Underwriters’
National Electric Association, which published on March 28, 1893, the "National Code of Rules
for Wiring Buildings for Electric Light and Power."
1885 - It will be seen that, up to this point, this Code was entirely a project of
fire insurance groups. The National Electric Light Association had a set of rules of its own. In the
year 1895, a great step towards uniformity and cooperation was taken by the formation of a conference
committee, on which were not only representatives of the N.E.L.A. and the insurance people, but of
numerous other national organizations as well. The net result was a milestone in electrical safety;
in 1897, this committee published the "National Electrical Code" which name continues to
the present day.
1887 - The year 1897 is not only to be remembered as the first year the Code was issued
under its present title; its marked the real beginning of the process by which the finished publication
represents a consensus of the best opinions in the industry, without any one group or faction having
a dominant position. The writing of the Code is now one of the functions of the Electrical Section
of the National Fire Protection Association, a non-profit, technical and educational organization,
dedicated to reduction of loss of life and property by fire. Organized within the Electrical Section
is the National Electrical Code Committee. This committee is, in turn, divided into a Correlation
Committee, which might be called its governing body, and into numerous Code-making Panels, each of,
which has the job of writing one or more of the various component Sections of the Code. Furthermore,
these code-making panels of the National Electrical Code Committee are organized as Sectional Committees
of the American Standards Association, which assures that all parties at interest shall have opportunity
to have their views considered in the development of the Code and a proper voting balance of all the
various groups represented on the committee. What does all this mean to the electrical industry? The
answers are simple:
- The Code is Truly a "National" Code. - The men who freely contribute their time and
study to the writing of the Code come from all over the United States and thus the final document
represents a nationwide cross-section of opinion.
- The Code is an "American Standard." - The fact that the writers of the Code are organized
under the procedure of the American Standards Association makes this possible. This simply means
that the Code is officially recognized as representing standard American practice. It is a simple
standard; there is no need for necessity for anyone to develop another code; the National Electrical
Code is sufficient. Proof of this is the fact that cities and other governmental bodies all over
the United States have adopted it as the safety standard for electrical installations, in spite
of the fact that the Code itself, being written by a technical association, has no legal or mandatory
- The Code is Representative. - Reference has already been made to the procedure of the American
Standards Association. One result of this is the interesting fact that there are nearly forty
organizations represented in the various Panel Committees engaged in writing the Code. Included
are engineering organizations, trade association, insurance bodies, public utilities, organized
labor and various federal, state and municipal authorities. Each plays its important part in the
preparation. Not only does this guarantee fairness, but it must at once be obvious that the end
result must be a carefully and seriously planned set of rules. The Code is definitely not a fly-by-night
affair picked out of the air; many hours of deliberation and thousands of dollars of test and
research work are necessary before conclusions are reached.
- The Code is Fluid - There is not a single member of a Panel Committee who feels that his job is
done when a new Code goes to press. He knows very well that the electrical industry is a fast-moving,
progressive force; he knows that tomorrow or next month or next year will bring out new ideas,
new devices, new problems; consequently new rules and regulations will be necessary. There will
always be work on a new Code.
- The Code is a Safety Code. - This should be self-evident, but it is frequently misunderstood.
The National Electrical Code is not an electrical handbook. It is not an electrical catalog. It
has nothing to sell – except safety to persons and property. It simply represents the best opinion
of the electrical industry as to how our innumerable electrical devices and materials may be installed
with adequate safety to the general public. The Code does not attempt to create standards for
these devices and materials; that job is in other hands. The Code merely specifies how they should
be installed from a safety standpoint. The Code exists for safety – nothing else.
This material was written by Jim Lynett the State Superintendent National Board of Fire Underwriters.
It was given to Anthony (Tony) Silvestri on the Day he became Chief Inspector National Board of Fire
Underwriters (January 2, 1950). Tony who was born in 1910 (a personal friend of mine for over 20 years)
passed this on to me, and I want to pass it on to the electrical industry. Thank you Tony (50+-year
member of the IAEI) for all that you have contributed to the electrical industry and for helping me
with my career.