Despite a long tradition of computational linguistics research in Europe, supported by national CL organisations, there was a noticeable lack of a pan-European professional organisation for computational linguistics up until the early 1980s. Most European researchers were members of ACL -- at that time a US organisation -- and published in the Association's journal -- at that time named the American Journal for Computational Linguistics (AJCL). Moreover, in spite of a large international membership, it was not until 1997 that the main ACL annual meeting was held outside of North America, and indeed of the 34 meetings before that date all but one was held in the United States. So not only did European CL researchers not have their own organisation, but the meeting of the international professional organisation to which they belonged was always in North America -- and in the early '80s transatlantic travel was a costly enterprise for most researchers.
With these problems in mind, a group of European researchers led by Harold Somers and including Yorick Wilks and Mike Rosner decided to found a European association for computational linguistics that would hold a biennial conference rotating around sites in different countries. They felt that it would make more sense for this association to be a part of the ACL than something that could become a rival to it. An initial approach was made to the then President of ACL, Norm Sondheimer, and with the invaluable help of Don Walker, the European Chapter of the ACL (EACL) was formed soon after. From the perspective of ACL, the existence of a European arm of the Association had the advantage of providing a way of collecting ACL dues from the growing number of European members, which was fiendishly difficult at that time: international credit card transactions were not an available option, American banks would not accept Eurocheques, and so European members would have to physically go to their bank and arrange a transfer to the ACL account in the US. With a European Chapter, the ACL would be able to hold bank accounts in Europe and collect their dues through those accounts.
The formation of the EACL was formally announced at the ACL meeting in 1982 (in Toronto), the minutes of which were reported in the Finite String Newsletter in volume 8 No 3-4 of the AJCL:
``[The Chapter's] primary objectives would be to simplify dues payment and to provide an opportunity for European members, few of whom can attend the ACL annual meetings, to have an opportunity to get together. It would also provide a mechanism for simplifying the distribution of mailings to European members.''The founding Board of the EACL was composed of: Eva Hajicova (Chair), Harold Somers (Secretary), Mike Rosner (Treasurer), an Advisory Committee (Hubert Lehmann, Remko Scha and Yorick Wilks) and a Nominating Committee (Giacomo Ferrari, Gerald Gazdar, Peter Hellwig and Bente Maegaard).
The first EACL conference was held in Pisa in September 1983, with Giacomo Ferrari as the conference chair. By all accounts it was a huge success, and set the stage for a very productive series of conferences. Looking back through the proceedings of that conference, one can see a strong European flavour compared to ACL. For example, of the 32 papers at EACL'83, 10 were about languages other than English, compared to only 2 out of 25 at ACL'83.
Many of the initial motivations for the foundation of EACL are no longer relevant: since 1997, ACL is an international organisation, not an American one; international credit card transactions are now the norm; international travel to conferences is now a common activity in the life of every computational linguist. Nevertheless, the EACL remains the primary professional association for computational linguistics in Europe, serving its members not only through its biennial meeting, but also through support for educational initiatives in the field -- for example, EACL-sponsored introductory courses in CL at ESSLLI summer schools, the European Masters in Speech and Language, and studentships at specialist workshops.