Festivities for Cornell Engineering’s sesquicentennial commenced with a welcoming presentation on its history Friday, featuring keynote speakers Lance Collins, dean of the engineerng college, Prof. Emeritus Francis Moon, engineering, and Prof. Emeritus John Abel, civil and environmental engineering.
The College of Engineering has a rich history at Cornell, according to Moon, who served as the director of the Sibley School of Mechanic Arts from 1987 to 1992. The Morill Land Grant Act of 1862 required the teaching of mechanical engineering, but at the time, there was no model for the curriculum of mechanical technology. Through the joint efforts of leading figures like philanthropist Hiram Sibley and engineer Robert Thurston, the Sibley College paved the way for the education of mechanical engineering.
Mechanical, electrical and civil engineering grew in prominence between 1885 and the early 1900s, Moon said. By 1909, these three subdivisions of engineering constituted 14 percent of the university’s overall enrollment.
The electrical engineering program was pioneered by Prof. William Anthony, who spent his time abroad in Europe designing an electric generator called the “gramme dynamo” at the Sibley Shop, according to Moon.
“This is another story of the transformation of knowledge from Europe to the United States through the College of Engineering at Cornell,” Moon said.
The gramme dynamo was exhibited at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876 and at the Chicago Fair in 1893. The original model is currently displayed by Cornell’s physics department.
Cornell’s engineering program has grown significantly since its beginnings, and in 1909 became the largest civil engineering school in the United States, according to Abel.
“Part of this dissemination that takes place is because students from here and junior faculty members from here take positions elsewhere and they bring the ideas to the other places,” Abel said.
However, engineering at Cornell suffered a slump from 1905 to 1945 called “The Long Slide,” when other academic institutions started to invest in engineering, making Cornell’s facilities outdated, according to Moon.
Moon quoted Prof. Dexter Kimball, industrial engineering, who once addressed these shortcomings and said “unless the alumni trustees and friends of the institution bestir themselves and supply some of these deficiencies, Cornell will lose prestige.”
Cornell experienced a second renaissance in engineering after 1945, according to Moon. Solomon Hollister, who became dan of engineering in 1937, began to re-energize research and was persuasive in getting resources from alumni and the support of the trustees to get new facilities for the engineering department. Since then, over 30 alumni and faculty in the Sibley School have been elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
Moon highlighted the development of Cornell engineering over the years by comparing the 1915 curriculum to the curriculum taught today. For example, rather than teaching about internal combustion engines and marine engineering, teaching today focuses on wind turbines and robotics.
This event also honored Nora Stanton Blatch Barney ’1905, the first American woman to earn a degree in civil engineering and the first female member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Her family will join Cornell in dedicating a plaque in her honor.