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Mortimer E. Cooley, Dean of the Colleges of Engineering and Architecture, may well be considered the father of the Engineering Research Institute. As a leader in engineering education he believed that the activities of the College should extend into fields of research from which industry and, indirectly, the entire commonwealth would profit.

He expressed these views frequently to various engineering alumni groups. Encouraged by his interest in the status of engineering education and by the research facilities of the University, the Chicago engineering alumni in 1916 sent a questionnaire to twenty-four hundred alumni requesting suggestions for increasing the effectiveness of teaching and research in engineering at the University. A tabulation of the returned questionnaire demonstrated that, among other things, closer co-operation between the University, the state, and industry, as well as between Regents, faculty, and alumni, would be highly desirable. The committee recommended the establishment of research fellowships, outlined definite long-range research projects in ten specific fields of engineering, and further proposed:

That a distinct department or Bureau of Technical Research be organized on some plan sufficiently flexible that the laboratories may be developed either as separate units where funds are limited, or more centralized, as may be found most practicable.

That a University Press be established to promulgate the results of technical research as well as the work of other Colleges, both professional and literary.

That intensive study be devoted to the immediate needs and opportunities of service to the State and the Industries and that every possible means of encouraging their co-operation be adopted.

(“Memorandum,” pp. 21-22.)

The Regents took no action at this time, however, and it was not until 1919 that the matter of engineering research was again brought to their attention. While Professor A. H. White, chairman of the Department of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, was absent on leave during the war years 1917-19, Clifford D. Holley, chief chemist of the Acme White Lead and Color Works of Detroit, served as chairman. During this period the possibilities for sponsored research at the University were clearly recognized, and Holley obtained the interest of members of the Michigan Manufacturers’ Association.

At the close of World War I the directors of the Association appointed a committee consisting of Harry C. Bulkley, F. S. Bigler, and M. W. Neal to discuss with the Regents the matter of industrial research in the College of Engineering. At the February, 1919, meeting of the Board, Regent Hanchett presented a communication from this committee:

The directors of the Michigan Manufacturers’ Association at a meeting on February 6, 1919, appointed … a committee to bring to your attention the importance of co-operation between the University and the industries of the State along the lines of technical and scientific research. The committee was given power to act in cooperation with you, or with such a committee as you may see fit to appoint, … having in mind not only the benefits to be derived by the industries, but the advantages to be secured by the Engineering College of the University and the importance of the work to the State of Michigan …

It is the hope of this committee that your Board may express a willingness to give consideration to this subject… It is our strong belief that substantial good will come from … a plan of co-operation whereby the Engineering College will be brought into direct contact with the technical problems which constantly arise in the industries of the State and that these benefits will accrue not only to the students taking this work, but to the Faculty of the College as well, and that great benefit will result…

The expense connected with … any plan which may be decided upon can be arranged without adding to the budget of the University. On the contrary, we believe that the revenues of the University would be substantially increased by the added prestige which would come to the College of Engineering and, incidentally, to the University.

(R.P., 1917-20, pp. 505-6.)

A committee consisting of Regents Hanchett, Leland, and Clements, President Hutchins, Dean Cooley, and Professors J. E. Emswiler and A. E. White was appointed by the Board to confer with the committee of the Michigan Manufacturers’ Association. The report of this committee outlines the advantages of such co-operation with industry and states:

The establishment of such co-operation will promote the work and influence of the University and greatly enhance its prestige and standing, and be the means of performing a definite and valuable service to the industries and the people of the State.

Conducting research work by the University, as is proposed, will not conflict with, or be opposed by, consulting engineers, as is evidenced by the fact that the Chicago Engineering Alumni of the University of Michigan, composed largely of consulting engineers, made a similar request to the Regents in June, 1916. On the contrary, it is our belief that the engineering profession generally would both welcome and encourage the more active interest of universities and technical schools and their participation in the solution of the practical problems constantly arising in the fields of engineering. Such interest and participation could not fail to react on the members of the teaching staffs and through them to the benefit of their students who are soon to engage in practical engineering work.

(R.P., 1917-20, p. 819.)

The committee recommended specifically that the Department of Engineering Research be established in the Colleges of Engineering and Architecture to co-operate in all reasonable ways with industry, provided that all costs be borne by industry, with the University having the right to make public the results of such work.

The organization of the department was to be as follows: A director was to be appointed by the Board of Regents to have charge of the administration of the department, under the Dean of the Engineering College; an advisory board was to represent the industries and engineering interests of the state, and an administrative committee, consisting of the director as chairman and the heads of the professional engineering departments, was to have charge of the research work:

The staff of the Department of Engineering Research shall consist of the director and as many full-time and part-time investigators and assistants as conditions from time to time may warrant. Research work in connection with the Department of Engineering Research may be engaged in by any member of the teaching staff of the University, when approved by the head of the department to which such member is attached, and when and while so engaged he shall be responsible to the Director of the Department of Engineering Research.

Work in the Department of Engineering Research shall be open to graduate and undergraduate students under conditions mutually satisfactory to the Graduate School or the undergraduate teaching departments, as the case may be, and the Department of Engineering Research.

(R.P., 1917-20, p. 821.)

The Regents adopted this plan and approved the list of names submitted by the Michigan Manufacturers’ Association to constitute the Advisory Committee of One Hundred (R.P., 1917-20, pp. 842-48). This committee was made up of representatives from twenty-six distinct industries and included many eminent industrialists of the state, such as Henry Ford, Horace E. Dodge, William C. Durant, Roy D. Chapin, Ransom E. Olds, Herbert H. Dow, Alex Dow, W. K. Kellogg, and Joy Morton.

The Advisory Committee of One Hundred, at the invitation of the Regents, met at the Michigan Union in May, 1920, and selected an executive Committee of Seventeen to collaborate with the Regents’ committee in carrying out the plans for the department. In July, 1920, the industries’ executive committee and the Regents’ committee (President Burton had just succeeded President Hutchins as a member of the latter committee) met and resolved that “a Department of Research be established and a Director, an Administrative Committee, and an Advisory Board be appointed by the Regents.” The committees unanimously favored the appointment of Professor A. E. White as Director of the department and recommended an appropriation of $10,000. President Burton’s report, based on the committee’s recommendations, was adopted by the Regents in October, 1920 (R.P., 1920-23, p. 25).

A. E. White has served continuously as Director of the department for thirty-three years. After graduating from Brown University in 1907, and completing a year of graduate study at Harvard University, he was associated with Jones and Laughlin Steel Company in Pittsburgh. His interest has been in metallurgy, particularly in ferrous metals and alloys for high-temperature service in power plants. He came to the University in 1911 as Instructor in Chemical Engineering, and in 1919 was promoted to a professorship. From 1917 to 1919, while on leave of absence from the University, he was engaged in work with the Army Ordnance Division; his last assignment with this unit was as head of the Metallurgical Section of the Research Division with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. During 1940-41 he served as chairman of the Metallurgical Committee of the National Defense Research Committee and during World War II he was a member of the War Metallurgy Committee of the National Academy of Science and the National Research Council, and consultant for the Maritime Commission. White has been president of both the American Society for Metals and the American Society for Testing Materials.

Growth of engineering research activities at first was slow. Some members of the faculty were not enthusiastic about services of this nature. Michigan manufacturers, in spite of their enthusiasm during the period immediately preceding the establishment of the department, failed to recognize fully its value and were also hesitant because the department was unable to give assurance of equitable protection to the results of sponsored research. Some work, however, was received in the early 1920’s and it has continued to come in increasing amounts ever since. World War II has given new impetus to university research, especially because of the large sums which the government has made available for this purpose. The department has not been willing to undertake routine testing, for fundamentally the criterion of the department has been engineering and research service. Only occasionally, when lack of equipment or of qualified personnel has made it impossible for the type of work to be done in industrial laboratories or when the testing was likely to lead to further research, has this type of investigation been conducted.

White reported in 1937-38 that members of the staff received benefits not only of a financial nature but also of a research nature in that many activities were in fields which were of particular interest to them. He added that the work could not fail to keep them abreast of developments, thus aiding materially in the effectiveness of their teaching.

Many students, both undergraduate and graduate, have been enabled to complete their college education through their earnings as research assistants in Engineering Research and at the same time have received valuable experience and training. Increasingly large numbers of doctoral dissertations are in whole or in part the direct outgrowth of projects which have been sponsored.

Important investigations have been conducted for professional societies and associations such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Society for Testing Materials, the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry, the Natural Gasoline Association, the National Association of Furniture Manufacturers, and the Roll Manufacturers Institute.

The question of patent rights was raised by the Chicago alumni in 1916 in their memorandum to the Regents. In 1924 the policy with respect to inventions was modified so that patents could be taken out if assigned to the Board of Regents (R.P., 1923-26, p. 406). This was a forward step in that it gave protection to research and prevented unscrupulous individuals from patenting work done at the University. It was not until 1928, however, that a definite patent trust agreement, prepared by A. E. White and Milton Tibbetts, assistant vice-president and patent counsel for the Packard Motor Car Company, was adopted by the Regents. This agreement was revised in 1941, and the principal features are still in force.

The Institute’s patent policy is intended to promote the public welfare and at the same time the interests of the University and the sponsor. At the time the formal research proposal is accepted, the sponsor may elect to reserve virtually exclusive rights to ownership of patents by payment of an additional service charge of 10 per cent on all costs of labor, material, equipment, and other miscellaneous chargeable items. Whenever anything of a patentable nature develops in connection with a research project, the sponsor is informed. If a patent is not desired, or if patent rights were not reserved when the contract was signed, the University may secure them, or, if the University declines to apply, the inventor may do so. In any case the sponsor receives an irrevocable license to make or to use any patented item or process resulting from research without payment of an additional fee. University earnings from patents go into the Patents Research Receipts Fund, which supports certain Institute activities, such as fundamental research on non sponsored projects.

Most of the research projects until 1941 came from the industrial interests of the state. Although the major part of the research was done in the several departments of the Engineering College, particularly in the Department of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, much work was centered in the Physics Department of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

Since the organization of the Department of Engineering Research, work has been done on more than two thousand projects, many of which are of major importance. In the early days, outstanding work was done under the direction of Professor Benjamin F. Bailey on the design and development of a capacitor-type single-phase alternating-current motor. This motor has been of universal service in almost every home in the country as part of the equipment of vacuum sweepers, washing machines, fans, sewing machines, and many other appliances.

Another major field was that of physics in which great emphasis was placed on work dealing with the control and elimination of noise. This was under the direction of F. A. Firestone, H. B. Vincent, and P. H. Geiger. These investigations led to the practice of inspecting roller bearings, noise reduction in vacuum sweepers, and improvements in fishing reels. In 1920 research was also begun on metals for high-temperature service. At that time the work related to the development of steels for use in power plants and in the petroleum industry. Under the direction of A. E. White, C. L. Clark, and J. W. Freeman, much research has been carried out in the development and utilization of alloys in the high-temperature components of aircraft propulsion systems. The work has been extended to the development of alloys for gas turbines and jet engines.

Other important studies included satisfactory design for automobiles, under the direction of W. E. Lay; the machinability of metals, including materials, cutting fluids, and performance, under the supervision of O. W. Boston and his associates; the effect of chemical reactions in steel-making practices, by John Chipman, for which work he received one of the medals of the American Society for Metals; studies dealing with the use of gas in forging and carburizing, by W. E. Jominy, later president of the American Society for Metals; outstanding work on nickel and chromium plating by Richard Schneidewind and L. L. Carrick. (Carrick later developed an improved battery.) Illumination studies and the design and development of prismatic glass block to give a maximum of light without glare have been under the direction of H. B. Vincent and R. A. Boyd.  D. L. Katz has done outstanding work in heat-transfer studies using finned tubes. Studies in the durability of lightweight steel construction have been carried forward by J. H. Cissel and W. E. Quinsey. Valuable work on internal combustion engines, gas turbines, and jet engines has been conducted by E. T. Vincent and his associates. Suitable layouts for harbors and breakwaters have been worked out under the direction of E. F. Brater. The volatility and physical and thermal dynamic properties of petroleum, including the properties of natural gasoline as a motor fuel, have been studied by George Granger Brown, Dean of the College of Engineering.

The Research Institute’s national reputation has been enhanced by the investigations of W. S. Housel on soil mechanics to determine the bearing power of soils and foundations for all types of structures, such as highways, airports, buildings, and bridges.

Important studies have been carried out in the Wind Tunnel Laboratory in aeronautical engineering and in other fields. The first such study was to determine the reduced resistance of modern designs as applied to trains. Another had to do with the flow phenomena of gases emerging from smokestacks. Important investigations dealing with the strength of airline structures as affected by wind gusts and storms have been made. This work, which was done by members of the Electrical, Civil, and Engineering Mechanics departments, under the general direction of Professor R. H. Sherlock, led to a safer design of aerial line structures, such as high-tension wires in the utility industry, and gave the public greater assurance of continuity of service.

Quantitative spectrographic analysis, a method of analyzing materials which is now finding universal application, was developed by the Institute. This work was done in the Physics Department under the direction of E. F. Barker, O. S. Duffendack, and R. A. Wolfe. Important investigations by G. B. Brigham, Jr., and C. T. Larson, of the College of Architecture and Design, have been completed in the field of standardized low-cost flexible housing. The Wood Technology Laboratory of the School of Natural Resources has carried on important studies for the furniture industry dealing with adhesives and wood furniture construction and wood finishes.

In 1940 projects sponsored by federal agencies were first undertaken by the department. One of these, conducted by the Department of Physics under the supervision of Professor H. R. Crane, was in connection with the development of the proximity fuse. This was followed by the cyclotron and synchrotron and other projects. The late W. E. Bachmann, of the Department of Chemistry, made possible the manufacture of the powerful explosive DRX on a commercially practicable basis.

The activities for federal agencies have expanded and include such a wide range of projects in many fields that they now constitute a large proportion of the total. The department was engaged for several years, principally as a purchasing agent, in top-secret service for the Manhattan Project, Corps of Engineers.

In 1946-47 the University acquired by lease the Willow Run Airport and the several buildings adjoining it. This made possible an extension of instructional and research facilities, including space for the construction of a supersonic wind tunnel, a rocket test site, and turbine- and jet-engine test stands. A separate division of the department, originally known as the Aeronautical Research Center and later as the Willow Run Research Center, was established at Willow Run.

The Director served as chairman of the Administrative Committee until 1948, although its duties had been assigned unofficially to a financial control committee in the late twenties. The Administrative Committee as such was discontinued in June, 1936 (R.P., 1932-36, p. 855), and the Executive Committee of the College of Engineering, together with the Vice-President in charge of business and finance, was given charge of the department. This action was taken in conformity with changes in the administration of the College, when the Executive Committee for the Engineering College was formed (R.P., 1932-36, p. 775).

In 1948 the Engineering Research Department was reorganized as the Engineering Research Institute “maintained, in conjunction with the College of Engineering … for the purpose of organizing and conducting research in the fields of engineering and the physical sciences” (R.P., 1945-48, p. 1132). The Executive Committee of the Engineering Research Institute was then created, consisting of the Dean of the College of Engineering as the chairman, the Director of the Institute, four members of the faculty of the College of Engineering, the Vice-President in charge of business and finance or his representative, the Dean of the Graduate School or his representative, and two members of the faculty of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, representing the field of the physical sciences.

The Institute was authorized to make arrangements for research with departments or with individual members of the staff, subject to the approval of the respective departments, in accordance with general policies approved by the Executive Committee of the Institute and the Board of Regents. Authority was also granted to employ graduate and undergraduate students as well as persons not otherwise associated with the University, as in the past.

Assistant Director Charles Good served as Acting Director from December, 1948, to July, 1949, during the illness of A. E. White. In March, 1949, the Regents approved a plan to reconstitute the Engineering Research Institute as a University enterprise responsible for the administration of contract research in engineering, the physical sciences, architecture, forestry, and such other fields as might appropriately be included. A new board was to serve, not as an administrative committee, but in the making of general policies. The Aeronautical Research Center was continued as part of the Engineering Research Institute, under its jurisdiction.

This plan was adopted in May, 1949, by the establishment of the Engineering Research Council with the Assistant Provost as chairman; other members were the Dean of the Graduate School, ex officio, and six members of the University Senate appointed by the Regents on the recommendation of the President, of whom at least three were to be members of the faculty of the College of Engineering. The Council was to be a general policy board, and the administrative direction of the Institute, except in connection with the Aeronautical Research Center, was placed in the hands of the director.

The Aeronautical Research Center was made a subdivision of the Engineering Research Institute within its policy-making jurisdiction. The immediate responsibility for the organization, administration, and operation of the Center was assigned to an operating committee responsible to the Engineering Research Council. The activities of the Aeronautical Research Center are confined to the field of aeronautical engineering and include other fields only when such fields are secondarily involved in projects in which the focal interest is aeronautical engineering. The Center does not compete with the Engineering Research Institute in the conduct of sponsored research in other fields of engineering and the physical sciences. In November, 1949, the Board of Regents incorporated this plan in its Bylaws.

In 1950 the name of the Aeronautical Research Center was changed to the Willow Run Research Center of the Engineering Research Institute, and its administration was placed in the hands of a director who was responsible to the director of the Engineering Research Institute. The directors of the Engineering Research Institute and of the Willow Run Research Center were added as ex-officio members of the Engineering Research Council. In 1951 Dean Brown was appointed chairman, ad interim, of the Council. Professor Good resigned as Assistant Director of the Institute in September, 1951, to take up full-time duties in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

When the Department of Engineering Research was established in 1920, the Regents appropriated $10,000 a year for current expenses. In 1925 this appropriation was increased to $20,000, plus the net earnings of the department not to exceed $40,000 additional, or a total of not more than $60,000. This limitation was removed in 1930 (R.P., 1929-32, p. 197). The Regents continued to make appropriations for the salary of the Director and some members of his staff until 1950-51, when all items were paid from Institute income. The total cost of work done since 1920 amounts to approximately $25,000,000, of which $23,000,000 represents work completed since 1940.

Funds have been appropriated from income to support many research activities of the faculty and to provide equipment and assistance that would otherwise have been unavailable for instruction, travel, and research. A reserve account was early established for the benefit of departments participating in the sponsored research program of the Institute. During the year 1950-51 the funds set aside for this reserve were about $140,000 out of a gross income of more than $3,000,000. The largest single appropriation from the accumulated funds of the Institute is the sum of $1,045,000 for the Cooley Memorial Laboratory on the north campus.

In 1925 J. Raleigh Nelson, of the Engineering English Department, was appointed on a part-time basis as chairman of the Publications Committee and Editor of Publications. He remained with the Institute in this capacity until 1937, when he became Director of the International Center. In 1950 Bernhard A. Uhlendorf became Editor of Publications.

The number of persons employed by the Institute has grown proportionately with the amount of research. In 1952 approximately 1,050 were employed, including about 500 persons at the Willow Run Research Center. Campus personnel included 135 academic and 65 nonacademic full-time appointees as well as some 180 faculty and 120 student part-time employees.

Frank W. Hutchings served from 1925 to 1926 as special assistant to the Director. William Hamilton Sellew was Assistant Director from 1929 to 1933. He had been Supervisor of Investigations and Research Engineer. Charles W. Good, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, served on a part-time basis as Assistant to the Director from 1923 to 1936 and as Assistant Director from 1936 to 1951. William E. Quinsey became Assistant to the Director on a half-time basis in 1944 and on a full-time basis in 1947. Herbert F. Poehle came to the Institute as Research Co-ordinator in 1948. He became Assistant to the Director in 1950. Pierce Halleck Farrar entered upon his duties as Assistant to the Director in 1949 and since 1951 has served as Operations Manager. Arthur C. Prine was Director of Development on the administrative staff in 1951-52. Marland B. Small was appointed Accountant in 1927 and served as Assistant to the Director from 1940 until 1943. In 1944 Russel G. Kinnel joined the administrative staff as Business Aide, and now has charge of the accounting.

In his 1928-29 report A. E. White, the Director, stated:

The three essentials for the development of a research program of a proper type and scope at the University are: (1) adequate modern equipment, (2) a staff grounded in fundamentals, and (3) a spirit of co-operation. … It has frequently been necessary to refuse requests for research, sometimes because there was no specialist available on the faculty who was prepared to supervise the project, but more often because of lack of proper equipment…

In his autobiography, Scientific Blacksmith, Dean Cooley said:

The Department of Engineering Research was established … to meet a very definite need. It makes available to industry … research equipment and a faculty of expert engineers. This department is the official channel through which these facilities are made available to civic and industrial interests. Students work as assistants to men engaged in research problems; sometimes these research men are employed for special projects, more often they are members of the faculty to whom problems in their own specialized fields are assigned, the work being done in the laboratories of the instructional departments with which these members of the faculty are associated. No degrees are conferred by the Department of Engineering Research, its function being largely administrative. It has acted as a clearing house for industrial problems, both practical and theoretical. Professor Albert E. White, its director, has played a large part in making this department assume its place of leadership. The only limitations placed upon its usefulness are those of laboratory equipment and the time of faculty members. Should the postwar dreams all of us have for the College of Engineering materialize, these limitations will disappear, and there will be at the University of Michigan a research program which will contribute … greatly to the welfare of industry and of civilization…

Bernhard A. Uhlendorf


Bylaws of the Board of Regents. Ann Arbor: Univ. Mich., 1949.

Cooley, Mortimer E.Scientific Blacksmith. Ann Arbor: Univ. Mich. Press, 1947.

Proceedings of the Board of Regents …, 1914-52.

MS, “Memorandum on the Opportunities and the Development of the College of Engineering and Architecture and General Recommendations… Submitted by the Chicago Engineering Alumni to the President and the Board of Regents, University of Michigan, June 27th, 1916.”

President’s Report, Univ. Mich., 1921-52.

Research in Engineering and the Physical Sciences. Rev. ed. Ann Arbor: Engin. Res. Institute, Univ. Mich., 1951.

The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor, Volume III, Part VII, pp. 1243-1251.

History of the University of Michigan

College of Engineering

Research Institute