Wandering through last year's monstrous exhibition in Detroit's Cobo Center at the Society of Automotive Engineers' Annual Congress and flipping through its telephone-book-thick program, I couldn't help thinking back over the monumental changes I'd seen there since my first such Congress in 1966, a few months after joining Ford's engineering staff.

My subjective impressions are: Not only has the Congress grown, its very complexion has changed. In the 1960s, as I recall, the only women to be seen were professional models exhorting the virtues of supplier products at exhibits. Virtually the only skin pigmentation present was white, and the only language overheard, English. The exhibitors were mostly old-line American trademark names.

Objectively, however, I thought it would be easy to present this story in the hard facts that business journalists and engineers alike demand, by comparing a 1966 SAE program with that of Year 2000.

Alas, there was not one of 1966 to be found, nor even of a 1970 program for a 30-year comparison. Not at Ward's, not at SAE headquarters in Warrendale, PA, not at the SAE Detroit office nor that of the Detroit Section, nor at two local university and two auto company libraries to which I had access.

Fortunately for this retrospective, the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library came to our rescue with some fascinating materials which, while not precisely what I had in mind originally, more than filled in.

* Can you imagine today holding the SAE meeting with all its technical sessions in just a couple of rooms at the General Motors Building on the Motor City's West Grand Boulevard? That's the way it was 74 years ago in 1926 when there were all of 24 papers delivered in 12 sessions spread over four days.

The only exhibition then was the separately held, but simultaneous, Detroit Automobile Dealers Association annual show. SAE attendees were instructed to take the "Woodward Avenue street car or Second Avenue motorbus" for that show "downtown." Tickets were available at the SAE registration desk, complimentary from the DADA.

* Can you imagine today the chaos of holding these two events, the Auto Show and the SAE Congress, in Detroit at the same time? Even ONE is almost too much to think about! Parking at the Pontiac Silverdome and Ann Arbor's Michigan Stadium?

Last year, attendance at the '99 Congress topped 46,000, with 1,120 papers delivered in 235 sessions. There were 1,100 exhibitors showing their wares to the capacity of the 334,000-sq.-ft. (31,000-sq.-m) hall. More than 50 countries put in an appearance one way or another. SAE 2000 is expected to edge toward 50,000 attendance, 1,300 papers and 1,200 exhibitors.

Another perspective can be gained from titles of the 1926 sessions and some of the papers. The sessions included Automobile Supercharging, Research, Aeronautic, Brake, Body Production, Engine, Head-lighting, Motorcoach, Vapor-Cooling, Fuels and Lubrication, and Production.

In some ways the same, in other ways very different. You can make the comparisons to your 2000 Program, but consider this: Chrysler's legendary Carl Breer chaired the 1926 brake session, and its two papers concerned temperature effects on linings and causes of squeaking.

Fast-forward to 1939, the eve of World War II. Held from May 22 to June 8 and billed as the first World Automotive Engineering Congress, SAE that year spread itself across four cities - New York, San Francisco, Indianapolis and Detroit, the first two for a tie-in to those cities' World's Fairs.

An accompanying map of the 1939 SAE program (with its 33 different sessions) showed how attendees at the successive city meetings would work their way west by train, including the Indianapolis Speedway 500-mile race on Memorial Day. This truly was an ambitious program when SAE had only 7,000 members.

As might be expected for the times, papers on aircraft (including helicopters!) and aircraft engines dominated the 1939 sessions along with those on diesel engines - General Motors had introduced its revolutionary truck diesels just the year before. Several papers were presented by Europeans.

Industry big names - Kettering and Knudsen of GM, Keller and Zeder of Chrysler, Hoffman of Studebaker - were featured at evening events.

Despite the fact Old Henry had been an SAE founder, Ford Motor Co. was represented in the printed program solely by company propagandist William J. Cameron, host of the Ford Sunday Evening hour on network radio.

SAE membership tripled by the late '40s, and the Congress grew apace. Attendance in 1957, for instance, came to 5,000, when newsworthy papers ranged from fuel injection to squelching "tinny" sounds of car doors slamming.

By 1964, attendance had climbed to 20,000, the number of exhibits to 150, and among the 168 technical papers delivered in 61 sessions, the interest was increasingly on safety and emissions.

Twenty-five years ago, the 1975 SAE Congress focused on "resources conservation," included one way or another in many of the more than a hundred sessions. The Exhibition Hall offered 1,450 booths or floor spaces, and the 110-plus exhibitors included the National Highway Safety Administration, Japan Automotive Parts Industries Association, trade agencies of the British and Swedish governments, the Michigan Department of Commerce's industrial plant location service - and Ward's Communications Inc.