When academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa sought to restrict its membership to students of the liberal arts in the late 19th century, Edward H. Williams, Jr., a member of Phi Beta Kappa and head of the mining department at Lehigh University, formulated the idea of an honor society for those studying technical subjects. Irving Andrew Heikes, the valedictorian of his class at Lehigh, was initiated as the first student member of Tau Beta Pi on June 15, 1885. A statue on Lehigh's campus commemorates this event.
In 1892, a second chapter was established at Michigan State University. Since then, the association has grown to 246 collegiate chapters across the United States and Puerto Rico. Tau Beta Pi was a founding member of the Association of College Honor Societies. The national headquarters of Tau Beta Pi are currently located in Knoxville, Tennessee on the campus of the University of Tennessee.
Although Tau Beta Pi never discriminated on the basis of race or religion, Tau Beta Pi did make its start as a male-only society. Female engineering students were scholastically eligible for Tau Beta Pi as early as 1902; however, those women were not granted membership. Starting in 1936, TBP awarded a women's badge to exceptional female engineering students, and a total of 619 women's badges were awarded until 1969. In 1969, Tau Beta Pi began granting women full membership in the society.
In 1974, the Sigma Tau fraternity merged with Tau Beta Pi. Sigma Tau was an honor society for engineering much like Tau Beta Pi and was founded at the University of Nebraska in 1904. At the time of the merger, Sigma Tau consisted of 34 collegiate chapters and a total membership of 45,000. The basis of the merger of Tau Beta Pi and Sigma Tau was the conviction that a single, strong honor society would better serve the engineering profession.
The colors of Tau Beta Pi are seal brown and white, which are the school colors of Lehigh. The official badge, called the Bent, is a watch key in the shape of the bent of a trestle (see picture). The trestle is the load-bearing part of the bridge, representing Tau Beta Pi's principle of Integrity and Excellence In Engineering. Originally, the keys could be used to wind watches. However, because watches have since been fabricated with their own winding mechanisms, modern keys do not. The symbols on the Bent are an ancient form of Greek letters. The quarterly magazine of Tau Beta Pi is also titled The Bent.
As of 2017, there are 253 Tau Beta Pi Collegiate Chapters; 246 are currently active, 7 are inactive.
There is now only one "class" of members in Tau Beta Pi, the former classifications of Member with Distinction, Honorary Member, and Associate Member having been discontinued. Election to membership in the Association is accomplished only by vote of a collegiate chapter, and members' chapter designations are always those of the chapters which elected them. Members' class numerals are those of the years in which they received the engineering degrees on which their eligibility was based, although members with no engineering degree are designated by the year in which they were initiated. Candidates eligible for consideration for election to membership by a collegiate chapter fall into five general categories:
- Undergraduate students.
- Graduate students.
- Alumni of the chapter's institution who were eligible as students.
- Alumni of other institutions who were eligible as students.
- Engineers of high attainment in the profession, regardless of college attended, scholastic record, or educational background.
Undergraduate students whose scholarship places them in the top eighth of their engineering class in their next-to-last year or in the top fifth of their engineering class in their last college year are eligible for membership consideration. These scholastically eligible students are further considered on the basis of personal integrity, breadth of interest both inside and outside engineering, adaptability, and unselfish activity.
Prior to the fall of 1941, Tau Beta Pi's scholastic requirements were that eligible candidates stand in the top eighth of the junior class, but in the top quarter of the senior class. The classes graduating in 1942 were thus the first to be considered under the higher requirements.
Some chapters set a scholastic-grade deadline below which candidates are not considered, such deadline being higher than that required as a minimum by the Constitution.
Elections and initiations are normally held twice a year, in the fall and winter or spring terms of the chapter's institution.
Student electees who are financially unable to meet the initiation-fee obligation may make delayed payment arrangements with their chapters, may borrow from the Association's loan fund, or may accept election but postpone initiation for up to five years.
Until 1969 membership in Tau Beta Pi was limited to men, although qualified women were offered an award called the Women's Badge. From its authorization in 1936 until its elimination by the admission of women to membership, 619 Women's Badges were awarded by 98 chapters. Those women have now been offered membership by their chapters.
Engineering graduate students whose scholarship places them in the top fifth of their graduate class or whose high-quality work is attested to by a faculty member may be elected to membership.
Engineering alumni of a chapter's institution or of another recognized institution whose scholastic record placed them in the top fifth of their class may be elected to membership. Such candidates are usually recommended to the chapter by a member who knows them.
In all cases the requisite scholastic attainment makes candidates eligible for membership consideration. They are further considered on the basis of the Association's exemplary character requirement.
Persons who have achieved eminence in engineering may be elected to membership without regard to collegiate records. If they graduated from a recognized engineering college, they must have been engaged in engineering for at least 10 years; if not, they must have practiced engineering for at least 15 years. Such candidates are usually recommended by members who know them. The required degree of eminent achievement is left to the chapters' discretion; and candidates are further considered on the basis of exemplary character.
Tau Beta Pi membership catalogs were published in 1898, 1911, 1916, 1926, 1932, and 1939. The 1946 Convention authorized discontinuance of them because of the excessive cost and limited usefulness. Today, membership can be verified online.
Tau Beta Pi has an active fellowship and scholarship program supported by alumni members and other supporters. Some of the results of these programs are:869 students have been given stipends exceeding $4,555,000 since 1929.
1,768 students to borrow more than $830,000 from the educational loan program since 1932.
479 students have received scholarship awards of $958,000 since 1998.
One initiative provided by Tau Beta Pi is the MindSET (Math, Science, Engineering, Technology) K-12 program. This program is designed to foster interest in engineering among elementary, middle, and high school students with classroom and hands-on activities. The goal of MindSET is to have students completing algebra by 8th grade and calculus by 12th grade.
MindSET was first conceived by Dr. Jonathan F. Earle as GatorTRAX, a program run by the Florida Alpha chapter, and is now a national program with more than 50 active projects across the country.
Tau Beta Pi's membership includes some famous figures in engineering and technology, including 19 nobel laureates:Buzz Aldrin, second astronaut to walk on the moon
Charles Bachman, computer scientist and database technology pioneer
Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com founder
Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg L.P. and mayor of New York from 2002 to 2013
Stephen G. Bowen, astronaut
Wernher von Braun, rocket scientist
Frank Capra, movie director
Leon Cordero, former president of Ecuador
Seymour Cray, supercomputer pioneer
Thomas Francis Farrell, Major General, United States Army
Ernie Fletcher and Paul E. Patton, former governors of Kentucky
Fred Haise, astronaut
Don Eisele, astronaut
Lee Iacocca, former Chrysler CEO
Kelly Johnson (engineer), American systems engineer and aeronautical innovator
Bernard J. Lechner, TV engineer and LCD inventor
Curtis Lemay, General, United States Air Force
Linus Pauling, two time Nobel prize winner
Michael Porter, Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School & Notable Strategist
Dan Reneau, former president of Louisiana Tech University
Robert S. Langer, David. H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Clara Shih, CEO of Hearsay Social
Buddy Tudor, General contractor and real estate developer in Louisiana
C. Gordon Fullerton, astronaut
Donald Knuth, computer scientist
Seven astronauts who died on Apollo 1, Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia were members of Tau Beta Pi. In their honor, a fellowship has been given out five times (1986, 1987, 1997, 1998, 2004). These astronauts and their chapters are:Roger B. Chaffee, Apollo 1, Indiana Alpha 1957
Gus Grissom, Apollo 1, Indiana Alpha 1950
Edward White, Apollo 1, Michigan Gamma 1952
Ellison Onizuka, Challenger, Colorado Beta 1969
Judith Resnik, Challenger, Pennsylvania Gamma 1970
Dick Scobee, Challenger, Arizona Alpha 1965
Rick Husband, Columbia, Texas Beta 1980