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In the early 1900s there were dozens of automobile manufacturers in the United States, and many more worldwide. Auto manufacturers and parts companies joined trade groups that promoted business. A desire to solve common technical design problems and develop engineering standards was emerging. Engineers in the automobile business expressed a desire to have "free exchange of ideas" in order to expand their individual technical knowledge base.
Two magazine publishers, Peter Heldt of The Horseless Age, and Horace Swetland of The Automobile were advocates of the concepts for SAE. Heldt wrote an editorial in June 1902 in which he said, "Now there is a noticeable tendency for automobile manufacturers to follow certain accepted lines of construction, technical questions constantly arise which seek solution from the cooperation of the technical men connected with the industry. These questions could best be dealt with by a technical society. The field of activity for this society would be the purely technical side of automobiles."
Horace Swetland wrote on automotive engineering concerns, and became an original SAE officer. About two years after Heldt's editorial, the Society of Automobile Engineers was founded in New York City. Four officers and five managing officers volunteered. In 1905 Andrew L. Riker served as president, and Henry Ford served as the society's first vice president. The initial membership was engineers with annual dues of US$10.
Over the first 10 years SAE membership grew steadily, and the society added full-time staff and began to publish a technical journal and a comprehensive compilation of technical papers, previously called SAE Transactions, which still exist today in the form of SAE International's Journals. By 1916 SAE had 1,800 members. At the annual meeting that year, representatives from the American Society of Aeronautic Engineers, the Society of Tractor Engineers, as well as representatives from the power boating industry made a pitch to SAE for oversight of technical standards in their industries. Aeronautics was a fledgling industry at that time. Early supporters of the concept of a society to represent aeronautical engineers were Thomas Edison, Glenn Curtiss, Glenn Martin, and Orville Wright.