Did You Know...

  • Tau Beta Pi is the only engineering honor society representing the entire engineering profession.
  • It is the nation’s second-oldest honor society, founded at Lehigh University in 1885 to recognize students of distinguished scholarship and exemplary character.
  • There are now 234 collegiate chapters of Tau Beta Pi, which have initiated over 500,876 members
  • UK's Kentucky Alpha chapter was the first chapter organized in the state of Kentucky. Kentucky Alpha holds a great distinction as the eighth chapter to be organized nationally in 1902, and the first chapter to induct a female engineer into Tau Beta Pi.
  • Tau Beta Pi has inducted over 475,000 members, including a total of 46 NASA astronauts, 17 Nobel Prize winners, and 13 United States Congressmen. Additionally, Kentucky Alpha has inducted our current and previous state governors, Ernie Fletcher(1974) and Paul Patton (1959), as well as Lee Todd, UK’s president(1968).

The Beginning

The Tau Beta Pi Association, 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.” A member of Phi Beta Kappa, the first established honor society, Williams 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 Phi Beta Kappa 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. 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. The parent chapter, named Alpha of Pennsylvania, existed alone until 1892 when Alpha of Michigan was founded at Michigan State University. Since the founding of the Michigan Alpha chapter, Tau Beta Pi has grown steadily; there are now collegiate chapters over 230 institutions, charted alumnus chapters in 59 cities, and a total initiated membership of more than 500,000!

Kentucky Alpha's Role for Women

With its roots in liberalizing the freedom of honors toward engineering students, Tau Beta Pi is known as a liberal society. However, has had its share of traditional controversy. In 1903, the first eligible female became known, but Tau Beta Pi refused her acceptance. The gender issue became a huge debate between members of past and present, as Tau Bates had always been men. Many strove to keep it that way.












Tau Beta Pi’s “first lady” Katherine C. Harelson, KY ’24, Women Badge No.1 was fully initiated in 1969. (Image from “The Changing Face of Membership.” The Bent, Issue Fall 1985, pg 33.

There was a ban on women in the honors society until 1936, when Tau Beta Pi decided to recognize superior female students in engineering. The first to be presented the “Women’s Badge” was Katherine C. Harelson of our own University of Kentucky. The badge did not represent membership in the society until 1968, when the final ballot voting to allow women to be permitted membership was counted. Harelson was officially inducted into Tau Beta Pi in 1969, along with 154 other women that year.

Visit the following links for more information on the history of women in Tau Beta Pi.

No Bent! All Women Were Given Was A Badge

THE STRUGGLE: Women's Badge to Full Membership