The Origin of the Society

Tau Beta Pi, the 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 Pennsylvania Alpha existed alone until 1892 when Michigan Alpha 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.

Tau Beta Pi has grown steadily since its inception; there are now active collegiate chapters at 230 institutions. chartered alumnus chapters in 59 cities, and a total initiated membership of 482,053 since 1885.

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 Association of Engineering Societies, and an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

On a mission...

The Pennsylvania Delta chapter is currently focused on three major goals:

  1. Enhancement of Engineering Education.We believe that a unique resource of Tau Beta Pi is an active membership that all share a passion for engineering and a student perspective towards learning. We hope to encourage student members to use their gifts to (1) assist Penn underclassmen in mastering introductory engineering courses, and (2) excite elementary and high school students towards developing an interest in technical fields. Engineering has become an important discipline of study in today's society, and we hope to carry out the duty of facilitating its learning.
  2. Service to Local Community.Tau Beta Pi is built on the foundation of good character and so assumes the responsibility of serving society's various unmet needs. Our chapter operates within the confines of West Philadelphia, a richly-textured community that suffers many urban blights like poverty, infrastructure deterioration, poorly-funded public education and crime. We hope to become engaged in campus initiatives to aid the people who live around us and improve the communities that sustain our own.
  3. Active Networking with Alumni and Colleagues.We believe that our honor society brings together outstanding students of various backgrounds and talents, and recognize the value that each student can provide for their fellow colleagues. We realize that our chapter can serve as a social hub for important friendships and acquaintances among students, and we hope to expand the reach of those connections to our long history of alumni.