Tau Beta Pi. Illinois Gamma Chapter (Northwestern University)
The Tau Beta Pi Association, a national engineering honor society, was founded in 1885 by Dr. Edward H. Williams, Jr. at Lehigh University. The goal of the Association is “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.”
Collegiate chapters have been established at 227 colleges and universities throughout the United States, with alumnus chapters in 59 cities, and a total initiated membership exceeding 460,000, as of March 2004. The Association is now based at the University of Tennessee.
Tau Beta Pi is the only engineering society representing all fields of engineering, since the Sigma Tau Fraternity merged into the Tau Beta Pi Association in 1974. Membership requirements have varied somewhat over time and among chapters, but generally undergraduates must be in the top fifth of their graduating class to be invited to join. Personal qualities such as integrity, comportment, adaptability, and personality have been factors in election of members, as well as pledge examinations, essays, and projects. Initiates are entitled to wear the honorary insignia of the Association, a symbol known as the “Bent.”
In the fall of 1929, Ovid Eshbach, the Dean of Northwestern University's School of Engineering, called a meeting to organize an honorary engineering society, Tau Beta. The first Northwestern University Chapter constitution was drawn up on December 12, 1929. The Chapter modeled itself on the enfranchised chapters of the national organization, with a regular schedule of lectures, literary meetings, and social events such as the “Slide-Rule-Slide” dance, and father-and-son banquets.
According to a history submitted to the Tau Beta when the NU Chapter petitioned for admission: “Since the founding of the School of Engineering at Northwestern University, it had been the aim of the faculty to establish a chapter of the national honorary engineering society, Tau Beta Pi.” In 1941, two years after the Technological Institute was established at Northwestern, and a year before the dedication of the new building, Tau Beta petitioned to become affiliated with the national Tau Beta Pi Association. A glossy petition brochure was printed, featuring letters of recommendation from prominent engineers and faculty representing many chapters. Upon acceptance, twenty Tau Beta members were initiated as charter members into the new Tau Beta Pi Illinois Gamma Chapter at a banquet held on December 6, 1941, the evening before the Pearl Harbor attack.
During 1941 and 1942, the Corresponding Secretary, Wally Giedt, conducted a massive effort to locate Tau Beta members and initiate them into the Chapter. World War II had a profound impact on the Chapter, and many members of Tau Beta Pi were enrolled in the Navy V-12 Specialist Training Unit located at Northwestern. From 1943 to 1947, however, the Chapter's activities were sharply curtailed.
Beginning in 1950, membership began a steady expansion. During the 1952/1953 school year, Chapter President James S. Aagaard led a major drive to contact and initiate remaining Tau Beta members. During the mid-1950s, Northwestern's engineering students participated in a co-operative education system requiring each to spend one quarter working in industry. As a consequence, the Illinois Gamma officers changed every three months.
The governing body of the national Tau Beta Pi Association is known as the Executive Council. This responsibility rotates geographically around the country, with a new slate elected every four years. In 1957, the Chicago area chapters worked together to field a slate for Executive Council at the annual convention. A distinguished slate was recruited and easily won the election. They included the retired Northwestern Dean Ovid W. Eshbach, Arthur W. Consoer, George G. Lamb, Paul D. Manning, and Ralph G. Owens. Dean Eshbach became President of the Council, but unfortunately died early in 1958 before completing his term. Tau Beta Pi subsequently worked with the Engineering Societies Council to install plaques honoring Dean Eshbach.
The year 1964 was significant in the life of the Chapter. The Illinois Gamma Chapter and the Illinois Beta Chapter (Illinois Institute of Technology) jointly hosted the 59th National Convention of the Tau Beta Pi Association in Chicago. Members of both chapters were initiated at the banquet. A bronze sculpture of the Bent was installed on the back terrace of the addition to the Technological Institute that had been dedicated in October of 1963. The idea to establish a Bent monument seems to have been considered as early as 1948, according to notes in the Chapter Project Manuals. Several other chapters have undertaken similar projects. (The sculpture was moved to a position near the front of the building facing Sheridan Road during a recent renovation.)
Tau Beta Pi members are expected to participate in projects that benefit their school and community. Over the years, Northwestern's Illinois Gamma Chapter compiled evaluations of faculty and courses at the Technological Institute, arranged lectures and panel discussions, established an endowment fund, and installed the Bent sculpture. Projects during the 1980s and 1990s emphasized employment, such as a Resume Book and job fairs. Recent activities have included book exchanges and T-shirt sales. Many projects and programs have been arranged in cooperation with other campus organizations, notably the Engineering Societies Council and the Society of Women Engineers.
The history of Tau Beta Pi reflects the social issues of the times. In 1946, a New York chapter raised the question of admission of “a Negro,” which was quickly resolved in favor of admission. Women were awarded badges, but not full membership, for many years. Beginning at least as early as 1949, women participated at Northwestern as “badge wearers,” and in 1955, the Illinois Gamma Chapter made a written statement favoring the admission of women to Tau Beta Pi. When the Association finally decided in 1969 to accord women full membership, the Illinois Gamma Chapter was among the first to invite its badge wearers to become initiates.