Grounded in History

The Origins and Evolution of the
IBEW's Most Cherished Symbol

The IBEW seal is instantly recognizable to anyone in the industry and a point of pride for our members and all associated with it. But while it traces its origins back to our union’s founders, it has undergone significant changes along the way.

We get questions constantly about its history. Who designed it? Why does it have ten lightning bolts? When and why did the first switch from left-hand to right-hand?

On Nov. 28, 1891, the last day of the first IBEW Convention, Delegate C.J. Sutter representing Duluth, Minn., submitted a proposal to “accept drawing as presented for emblematic button for the NBEW.” According to Sutter’s design, the seal was made of a left-handed fist, with a jacket sleeve and shirt cuff visible, grasping 22 lightning bolts.

Its description as an “emblematic button” signifies its original purpose as a promotional, and more importantly, purchasable item. The first decade of the IBEW’s history was full of financial difficulty with membership in constant flux due to boom-and-bust economies. One of the few dependable sources of income for the early union was the sale of emblem buttons for new members and charter seals to the locals. Designing such a button, therefore, was actually of high importance and Sutter’s design was unanimously approved that same day.

The lightning fist is certainly a striking symbol and one uniquely fit for a union of electrical workers — the human hand, like that of Zeus, confidently restraining the power of electricity. It is entirely possible that the image came to Sutter in a moment of inspiration. However, it must be noted that the seal does bear resemblance to the logo of the American Electrical Works, a wire and cable company which operated in Rhode Island from 1886 to 1934. The electrical trade magazine, The Electrical World, had many advertisements for the company bearing a similar lightning fist logo. Perhaps Sutter had seen one and it helped “inspire” his proposal? It’s possible we’ll never know.

One thing is for certain: The seal has been the trademarked property of the IBEW for more than a century. The first regulatory body outside of the IBEW to recognize the seal was the Union Label Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor. Created in 1909 and open to any trade that had a union label, this association advanced the interests of its member organizations by advertising their respective labels to organized workers and to the public in general. The IBEW joined the Label Department in 1910, whereon the lightning fist was accepted by the AFL as the official seal to “appear on all electrical devices, apparatus, fixtures and machines before being installed or maintained by a member of the IBEW.”

The second body to recognize our seal was the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Our first trademark application was approved on October 21, 1924, and was given Trademark No. 190,689, which authorized the use of the seal in “booklets and periodicals.” Our next application was granted on July 29, 1947, for Trademark No. 431,576 for use on “electrical equipment and supplies.” The final application was approved on January 23, 1973, for Trademark No. 951,936, which granted the IBEW use of the seal for all “Related Material of the Association for the Furtherance of Its Objects.” It was on this last registration that the right-handed fist made its first appearance on the IBEW seal.

IBEW logo history

The second body to recognize our seal was the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Our first trademark application was approved on October 21, 1924, and was given Trademark No. 190,689, which authorized the use of the seal in “booklets and periodicals.” Our next application was granted on July 29, 1947, for Trademark No. 431,576 for use on “electrical equipment and supplies.” The final application was approved on January 23, 1973, for Trademark No. 951,936, which granted the IBEW use of the seal for all “Related Material of the Association for the Furtherance of Its Objects.” It was on this last registration that the right-handed fist made its first appearance on the IBEW seal.

The switch occurred under the leadership of International President Charles Pillard, who came into office in 1968. The reasons for the change have been a constant source of debate among our membership. Unfortunately, the International Executive Council left no written record documenting the switch, nor were any public statements made that would provide a definitive answer. The story that has been passed down informally was that the raised left fist, long associated with revolution and the people’s power, had become negatively associated with communist movements of the late 1960s. As such, the IBEW seal was switched to a raised right fist on Jan. 1, 1971. It was this design that appeared on our application to the Patent Office approved in 1973.

As for the number of lightning bolts in the seal, it has changed several times in various attempts to “modernize” the emblem. Contrary to popular thought, there was never any symbolic reasoning to the number of bolts. The original 22 bolts from Sutter’s design lasted until 1908, at which point it was reduced to 21. In 1916 the number was further reduced to 16. In 1953 the number was increased back to the original 22 but the bolts lost their zig-zag shape and appeared more like waves. In 1971 the bolts were reduced to 15 and regained their zig-zag shape. The current form of the IBEW Seal was eventually standardized in 1999 when IBEW President J.J. Barry set the number of bolts at 10. This was to symbolize the 10 founders at the first convention: T.J. Finnell, F.J. Heizlenan, E.C. Hartung, Harry Fisher, Henry Miller, J. T. Kelly, William Hedden, C.J. Sutter, Joseph Berlovitz and James Dorsey.