The president of the Institution of Chemical Engineers said in his presidential address "I believe most of us would be willing to regard Edward Charles Howard (1774–1816) as the first chemical engineer of any eminence". Others have suggested Johann Rudolf Glauber (1604–1670) for his development of processes for the manufacture of the major industrial acids.
The term appeared in print in 1839, though from the context it suggests a person with mechanical engineering knowledge working in the chemical industry. In 1880, George E. Davis wrote in a letter to Chemical News "A Chemical Engineer is a person who possesses chemical and mechanical knowledge, and who applies that knowledge to the utilisation, on a manufacturing scale, of chemical action." He proposed the name Society of Chemical Engineers, for what was in fact constituted as the Society of Chemical Industry. At the first General Meeting of the Society in 1882, some 15 of the 300 members described themselves as chemical engineers, but the Society's formation of a Chemical Engineering Group in 1918 attracted about 400 members.
In 1905 a publication called The Chemical Engineer was founded in the US, and in 1908 the American Institute of Chemical Engineers was established.
In 1924 the Institution of Chemical Engineers adopted the following definition: "A chemical engineer is a professional man experienced in the design, construction and operation of plant and works in which matter undergoes a change of state and composition."
As can be seen from the later definition, the occupation is not limited to the chemical industry, but more generally the process industries, or other situations in which complex physical and/or chemical processes are to be managed.