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The University of Michigan’s College of Engineering has long provided leadership for engineering education. It was not only among the first engineering programs in the United States, but throughout its century and a half of existence, has also been one of the largest (currently second in size only to Purdue’s), most comprehensive, and most innovative. The lists of “firsts” is much too long to document here, but several examples illustrate.

As we have noted, the College was a leader in the introduction of new engineering programs, including the earliest programs in naval architecture (1881), electrical engineering (1890), chemical engineering (1898), aeronautical engineering (1914), nuclear engineering (1953), and computer engineering (1965). The College has also pioneered the development of unique facilities for engineering education and research, such as the first naval architecture towing tank (1904), the Willow Run Research Laboratories (1946) (later the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan), the Phoenix Laboratory and Ford Nuclear Reactor (1951), the Michigan Terminal System (MTS) time-sharing system (1963), the College’s Instructional Television System and Chrysler Center for Continuing Engineering Education, and the Computer Aided Engineering Network (1983).

The contributions of faculty members to engineering education and research have been considerable. The College has long been known as the source of many of the major textbooks used for engineering education with prominent authors such as Stephan Timoshenko (applied mechanics), George Granger Brown (unit operations), Richard Sonntag and Gordon Van Wylen (thermodynamics), Joseph Shigley (design), Arnold Kuethe (aerodynamics), Lawrence Van Vlack (materials), Brice Carnihan and James Wilkes (computers), Vic Streeter (fluid dynamics), and Glenn Knoll (nuclear instrumentation), to mention only a few.

Faculty members and graduates of the College have also made important contributions through their research. For example, Felix Pawloski offered the world’s first course in aeronautical engineering in 1916. Stephan Timoshenko essentially created the mathematical discipline of applied mechanics in the 1930s by applying rigorous mathematical methods to engineering mechanics. William Dow was a leader in electronics and an early pioneer in plasma devices. Homer Martin invented fluid catalytic cracking, an indispensable step in providing the aviation fuel essential to Allied victory in WWII. Claude Shannon developed the science of information theory, laying the foundation for digital communication. Donald Katz invented the methods used today for storing natural gas in underground storage fields. Ed Lesher built and piloted planes that held the world’s distance records.

Chihiro Kikuchi invented the ruby maser, laying the foundation for today’s laser technology. Emmett Leith and Juris Upatnieks adapted radar technology to develop the first working holograms.


And, of course, no history of the College would be complete without mentioning the contributions of Professor A. D. Moore, one of the pioneers of electrostatics, who served as a faculty member for almost half-a-century (continuing into his 90s to ride his bike to his laboratory in the early morning hours).

The College of Engineering at the University of Michigan usually identifies its formation in January, 1854, when the first classes in engineering were taught. However, to understand better the history of the College and the important role it has played for the nation and its university, it is useful to step back for a moment to consider both the evolution of engineering education in the United States as well as the evolution of the University of Michigan.

The story of the evolution of engineering, from a military craft associated with the technology of war to broader civilian applications such as bridge construction, industrial technology, and transportation, can be found many places and need not be repeated here.1  Suffice it to note that the United States lagged behind Europe in the introduction of science and technology into the curriculum of its colleges and universities. The first American school to offer scientific instruction in engineering was West Point in 1802, followed by the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (1824), Annapolis (1845), Harvard (1847) (later spun off as MIT), Dartmouth (1851), and Yale (1852), with Michigan’s first courses in 1854.

Actually, engineering education might be dated even earlier at Michigan, since the legislative charter for the University of Michigan adopted in 1837 provided for a professorship in “civil engineering and drawing.”2 However, the state legislature provided little funding for the early University, and instruction in science and engineering lay dormant until the arrival of Henry Philip Tappan as its president in 1852. Tappan was a well-known philosopher, committed to building scholarly activity in the University and providing for instruction in both science and technology.  In his inaugural address he proposed “a scientific course parallel to the classical course containing...civil engineering, astronomy with the use of an observatory, and the application of chemistry and other sciences to agriculture and the industrial arts generally.”


Upon the recommendation of a faculty member, Erastus O. Haven (later to become Tappan’s successor as president of the University), the regents appointed Alexander Winchell as professor of physics and civil engineering. However, when Winchell arrived in January, 1854 to begin teaching, it soon became apparent that he was a misfit. His own training had been classical, and his first “engineering course” at Michigan was, in reality, simply an introduction to English composition for engineering students. Furthermore, he had an abrasive personality and was soon involved in disputes both with the chair of Natural Sciences, Silas Douglas, and with Tappan.3 After a year, Tappan concluded that Haven had led him astray and that Winchell was not qualified to teach civil engineering. Although several of the Regents wanted to fire him, Tappan finally found a position for Winchell in Natural History (zoology, geology, and botany). Winchell continued to be a thorn in Tappan’s side, and he eventually played a role in conspiring with Haven and the Regents to undermine Tappan’s presidency.4 

Winchell was succeeded first by William Peck, a lieutenant in the Topographical Engineers, and then in 1857 by DeVolson Wood, who is regarded by many as the true founder of engineering education at Michigan. Wood proposed, designed, and essentially taught single-handedly a four-year curriculum in civil engineering offered through a department of engineering that was established in 1858 within the Literary College. Following Wood’s departure in 1872, the Department of Engineering was led by three faculty members who would guide its destiny for over three decades: Charles Greene, Joseph Davis, and Charles Denison. Greene was a professor of civil engineering, educated at Harvard and MIT, who would become the first dean of the College of Engineering in 1895. Davis was also a leading civil engineer who established the University camp in surveying, named Camp Davis in his honor, and located first in northern Michigan and later moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where it continues to exist today as the University’s geology camp.

Denison was an instructor in engineering drawing and taught for over forty years at the University, becoming one of the engineering faculty members most revered by the students. A lifelong bachelor, his fashionable clothing earned him the nickname,  “Little Lord Chesterfield.”5

Engineering classes were first taught in several rooms of the South College building previously used as student dormitories. Growth in the program finally persuaded then acting president Henry Frieze to recommend to the Regents that $2,555 be used for a modest engineering building to house laboratory facilities for mechanical engineering—or more accurately, a machine shop. A new faculty member, Mortimer Cooley,6 was put in change of the project, and the first engineering building was completed in 1882.

Within a few years, additional laboratory space was necessary, and in 1885 a permanent brick Engineering Shop was built on the east side of the little building.7  This was quickly enlarged in 1886, requiring the removal of Cooley’s “scientific blacksmith shop.” It should be noted that most instruction in the few science and engineering programs taught in American universities occurred primarily through lectures, supplemented only rarely by experiments performed entirely by the instructor. Michigan became the first university in the United States to offer real laboratory facilities and to require laboratory courses for its students. In fact, when the Chemical Laboratory was opened in 1856, it was the only such instructional facility in the nation.

Key in the rapid growth of engineering education at Michigan during the last decades of the 19th Century was the interest and support of James Burrill Angell, who assumed the Michigan presidency in 1871. Angell had once worked as a civil engineer in Boston and had even been offered a chair in civil engineering at Brown University, before becoming a professor of modern languages and literature. President Angell was keenly interested in the growth and development of the professional departments, recognizing their worth to the state and to society and providing them all the assistance within his power.

It was during Angell’s tenure that the Department of Engineering was set off from the Literary College in 1895. More specifically, in 1895 the Regents resolved “that a school of Technology be organized, comprising the departments of Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Electrical Engineering, and that Professor Charles E. Greene be appointed Dean.”8 The new College of Engineering and Architecture continued to grow during Angell’s tenure, adding departments of chemical engineering, naval architecture and marine engineering, and architectural engineering.

Ironically, both Greene and Cooley were reluctant to separate the Department of Engineering from LS&A, since they believed that an engineer’s education should be as broad as possible and that in a professional unit the tendency would be to narrow it. This was an issue that would return from time to time throughout the history of engineering at Michigan, including my own tenure as dean.

Despite Angell’s strong support, it is also the case that engineering at Michigan frequently had to struggle with facilities inadequate to accommodate either its enrollment or the rapidly evolving nature of technology. Like the Literary College, it frequently had to make do with cast-off buildings such as that vacated by the Dental College (one of the original professors’ houses on the campus) in 1891, the old power plant (including its coal bunker) in 1897 to house highway and automotive engineering, segments of the old University Hospital Pavilion for the surveying department and even a discarded elementary school (the Tappan School adjacent to East Engineering) in 1923.  Yet this pragmatic willingness to accept and utilize second-hand space could also be an asset, as the eventual move of the College of Engineering to the University’s North Campus was to demonstrate in the 1980s.

The late 19th century was a particularly active time for engineering education across the nation. The Morrill Act of 1863, sometimes known as the Land-Grant Act because of its provision of federal lands to the states for the establishment of public universities, called for the encouragement of instructional programs in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.” By 1880, there were 85 engineering schools in the United States, and by 1918 this number had grown to 126, 46 of which were in land grant colleges.9

The key player in the rapid progress of the College of Engineering during the early decades of the 20th Century was Mortimer Cooley, named as Greene’s successor as dean in 1903. During Cooley’s tenure at Michigan both as faculty member and then dean, enrollments in the College grew from less than 30 to more than 1,800; the faculty grew from two instructors teaching several courses to more than 160 professors and staff teaching hundreds of courses, and from a temporary shop of 1,720 square feet to over 500,000 square feet of well equipped buildings.

Cooley was an academic leader of remarkable energy and vision. During his 24 years as dean, the College grew considerably in strength and reputation and its campus presence assumed the form that would characterize it until its move to the North Campus in the 1980s. The West Engineering Building was completed in 1904.

This building would also be added to many times, first to accommodate the naval towing tank in 1910 and then later to accommodate various other programs.

Throughout most of the history of the University, the arch through West Engineering (named after Denison but commonly called “the Engineering Arch”) would become the symbol of the College of Engineering.

Under Cooley, the College continued to expand with the construction of East Engineering in 1923, built to accommodate the departments of Chemical Engineering, Metallurgy, and Aeronautical Engineering. This building was later expanded to accommodate the rapidly growing Department of Electrical Engineering.


Cooley’s remarkable energy extended far beyond the University campus. Since he served as mayor of Ann Arbor and in 1924 was the Democratic candidate for the United States Senate, he was a well-known presence throughout the community and the state. Cooley also had strong views about the nature of engineering education. It was noted earlier that he had initially opposed the separation of engineering from the Literary College, believing in the importance of a well-rounded education. He also believed that engineering should become a six-year curriculum, with the first two years devoted to cultural subjects, and the later years focused on professional education similar to Medicine or Law. (Perhaps it is not surprising that my own views of engineering education are very similar to those of Cooley!)

After finally stepping down as dean at the age of 73, Cooley was succeeded by the chairman of naval architecture, Charles Sadler, who served for the next decade. After the two-year tenure of Henry Anderson (of whom Cooley observed that “his health was such that he never should have taken the heavy responsibilities which he shouldered for so brief a time, and which without doubt greatly hastened his death”), the University recruited its first dean10 from outside, Ivan Crawford, who had served in similar roles at the Universities of Idaho and Kansas.

Although the College enrollments continued to expand during the decades of Sadler, Anderson, and Crawford, there was relatively little new activity in either programmatic development or building. To some degree this is not surprising, since the Great Depression and World War II had a major impact on both the University and engineering education more generally. But it is also the case that Mortimer Cooley was simply a hard act to follow, and it was unlikely that the extraordinary growth of the College during his tenure would soon repeat itself.

The teaching, research, and service activities of the College were conducted through a growing constellation of academic departments and programs, each with a distinguished and in many cases fascinating history. Fortunately, most of these departments have chronicled their own history, available through both written reports and websites, so it is not necessary to go into great detail here. But a few comments are necessary.

It has already been noted that Civil Engineering and Mechanical Engineering played essentially the role of founders of the College, contributing the first two deans (Greene and Cooley) and enrolling its early students. They were joined by Electrical Engineering in 1888 and Chemical Engineering in 1889. Although the University had introduced a chemistry curriculum in LS&A in 1884, it was discontinued in 1896, and from then until 1916 when the chemistry degree was reinstated, all chemistry activity was in the Department of Chemical Engineering. In fact, throughout most of the University’s history, the enrollment in chemical engineering generally outnumbered that in chemistry. Ironic indeed, therefore, that when both programs were finally provided with new facilities in the 1980s, Chemical Engineering shared space with Materials and Metallurgical Engineering in a modest $12 million building on the North Campus while Chemistry received a new chemical sciences complex that was several times larger and worth $50 million. (This provides yet another demonstration that the closer the proximity of an academic unit to the president’s office, the more generously it is supported...)

Electrical Engineering grew rapidly with the electrification of the nation and soon outgrew its space in the Physics Laboratory and later West Engineering. It also moved rapidly into newly emerging areas such as telecommunications. In fact, the first campus radio station was operated by Electrical Engineering (and, at one point, had future MIT president Jerome Weisner as its engineer and future CBS news reporter Mike Wallace as its on-air talent!).11  In 1947, a major wing was added to East Engineering to accommodate the department. Yet with the growth of the electronics industry and then computers, this department was to continue its growth to the point where today it comprises over 30% of the enrollment of the College and spills out beyond the massive Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Building into several adjacent laboratories on the North Campus.

Although Dean Cooley first arrived at Michigan as professor of “iron shipbuilding,” the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering was not formed until 1901. Cooley did have the foresight to provide for a 300-foot-long tank in the basement of the new West Engineering building where ship models could be towed and studied. The importance of shipping in the Great Lakes stimulated the rapid growth and prominence of the department.

Michigan launched the first program in aeronautical engineering in the nation in 1911, created by a European engineer, Felix Pawlowski. Although the courses were first taught in naval architecture, a separate department was formed in 1930. Throughout its history, the Department of Aeronautical Engineering (and later Aerospace Engineering) has ranked among the top programs in the nation, graduating leaders of the aerospace industry such as Kelly Johnson (founder of the Lockheed Skunkworks and perhaps the most famous designer in American aviation), Willis Hawkins and Robert Fuhrman (both CEOs of Lockheed), and George Skurla (CEO of Grumman).

A program in industrial engineering was first introduced in 1926, and later, following the introduction of operations research methods in World War II, expanded to become the Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering. The College continued to be an innovator throughout the 20th Century, introducing the first programs in the nation in nuclear engineering (1957), computer engineering (1959), and integrated manufacturing (1986).

The College also had a number of more specialized programs reflecting both the nature of engineering education and the needs and opportunities of the moment. For example, since mechanical drawing played such a major role in engineering practice, the College had a separate Department of Engineering Drawing, complete with blueprinting equipment and numerous drawing rooms in West Engineering. With the introduction of computer aided design, the department was gradually phased out in the 1970s.

During the years of WWI, the College formed a Department of Military Science and Tactics. It also mobilized its resources in support of officer training during WWII. Since that time it has played a major role in supporting ROTC efforts on campus.

Finally, during the 1920s, the College organized a Department of Engineering Research under the leadership of Albert E. White, a faculty member in metallurgical engineering. This activity evolved into a major research organization, the Engineering Research Institute, conducting research for both industry and the federal government in the years after WWII. However, eventually the increasing bureaucracy associated with federally sponsored research stimulated the University to launch its own Division of Research Development and Administration, reporting to the vice president for research, that took over all responsibilities for research administration campus-wide in the 1950s.

The College of Engineering has played a particularly important role in the history of the University. From its earliest days as the third degree program offered by the University (after LS&A and Medicine), it has enrolled roughly one-quarter of the University’s students. It has also had a major impact on the evolution of the academic programs of the University. For example, both the programs in architecture and art first were developed within the College (1906) and did not become independent schools until 1931 and 1972, respectively. Similarly the College of Engineering played a major role in the development of programs in mathematics, finally merging its mathematics curriculum with that of LS&A in 1928. The University’s modern languages programs also trace their beginning to instruction in the College in German and French, later joining with the LS&A counterparts in 1929. Public health can be traced to early instruction offered by Engineering and Medicine in public health engineering and later a program leading to the degree of doctor of public health in 1911. The College even participated directly with the School of Forestry and Conservation in developing joint programs in wood technology.

The College of Engineering provided leadership for the University in many other ways. It was the first academic unit to establish a mentor system for first year students. Furthermore, it adopted an honor code system, based on the principle that “it is dishonorable for any student to receive credit for work which is not the result of his or her own effort.” This system derived its authority directly from the students, who both investigated possible violations and prescribed sanctions. It continues to operate today as a model for student responsibility and integrity.

The engineering faculty also served the University in many other ways. During the early years, they operated and maintained the University power plant (as well as the water treatment facilities of the City of Ann Arbor). For most of the history of the University, engineering faculty members have served as the marshals for University commencement exercises, beginning with Dean Cooley himself.

1 Emerson, George S., Engineering Education:  A Social History (David & Charles:  Crane, Rujsak & Company:  New York, 1973). 

2.  Howard H. Peckham, The Making of the University of Michigan, 1817 - 1992, edited and updated by Margaret L. Steneck and Nicholas H. Steneck (University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library:  Ann Arbor, Michigan 1997) pp, 1-15; Wilfred B. Shaw, editor, The University of Michigan, An Encyclopedic Survey (University of Michigan Press:  Ann Arbor, 1941- )

3  Paul E. Lingenfelter, The Firing of Henry Philip Tappan, University Builder, M.S. Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1970.

4  Henry Philip Tappan was quite an unusual leader for a 19th Century university. Unlike most university presidents of this period, Tappan was a broadly educated philosopher rather than a clergyman by training. He conceived of the university as a capstone of civilization, a repository for the accumulated knowledge of mankind, and the home of scholars dedicated to the expansion of human understanding. Among his many accomplishments as University president was the establishment of the traditions of emphasis on research, graduate education, student autonomy and freedom, and active faculty governance.


Yet both his vision and his personality stimulated considerable opposition. Led by the editor of the Detroit Free Press, the state’s newspapers were strongly opposed to his goal of building a true “university” in the European sense, but instead believed that a “high school” was the only goal deserving of state support. Within a few months after arriving on campus, Alexander Winchell developed a strong dislike for Tappan, both because of his personal assignments to various academic programs that he detested (civil engineering, mathematics) as well as to Tappan’s refusal to countersign an order for a microscope he wanted. Working closely with his close friend Erastus Haven, Winchell sent a private communication to the Regents claiming that Tappan had assailed his professional character. He then began to write letters under the anonymous name of “Scholastus” to the Detroit newspapers criticizing Tappan and his ideas. He also encouraged a resolution at the state Methodist convention questioning the moral conditions at the University. It was clear that by 1857 Tappan had made a profound enemy in Winchell, and that Winchell had a strong ally E. O. Haven. Both men believed Tappan must go, and Haven was toying with the idea of someday replacing him (as indicated in his letters).


When the new Board of Regents was elected, both men began to work with a new Detroit Regent, Levi Bishop, who also began to write hostile anonymous letters concerning Tappan to the Detroit papers. Most of the other Regents were not initially hostile to Tappan, but Bishop soon found a way to drive a wedge between them by being appointed chair of a committee to report on rules and regulations. His report recommended a committee structure that would assume most of the executive function of the President and the faculty. Tappan fought against this, noting that not only was this unconstitutional, but that the “president and the faculty are not mere “employees” but are, in fact, THE university. Bishop launched a counter attack, with vicious diatribes against Tappan’s “bundle of nonsense.” Winchell continued to ingratiate himself with the Regents to lobby against Tappan.


Finally, as the Regents approached the end of their tenure, they quietly moved to replace Tappan. Haven wrote to tell Alexander Winchell that he had been asked whether he would accept the presidency if it were open, and he replied that he would probably accept an offer. He let his Michigan friends know that he was “profoundly interested in educational matters.” On June 25, 1863, the Regents passed a motion to remove Tappan both as president and as Professor of Philosophy. They then unanimously elected E. O. Haven as president. Tappan was offered the opportunity to resign the morning of the motion but refused. The same day Haven wrote a letter to Winchell conveying his “surprise” and pleasure at the action of the Board and asking for Winchell’s assistance in preparing for the fall. Winchell wrote that “my worst enemy has been displaced and my best friend put in his stead.”


But years later, James Burrill Angel was to have the last word on the sordid incident:

“Tappan was the largest figure of a man that ever appeared on the Michigan campus. And he was stung to death by gnats!”

5 Mortimer E. Cooley, Scientific Blacksmith (University of Michigan Press:  Ann Arbor, 1947).

6 Mortimer E. Cooley was the first officer detailed to the University of Michigan from the United States Navy as Professor of Steam Engineering and Iron Shipbuilding in 1881 to establish courses in mechanical engineering in the Department of Civil Engineering. However his title was quickly changed to Professor of Mechanical Engineering, since he was, in fact, the only mechanical engineer in the state.

7 Charles Adams, then professor of History and later to become president of Cornell, used to stop by the little building to greet Cooley with “And how is the scientific blacksmith shop doing this morning”.

8 The Regents adopted the practice that all academic units enrolling first-year students (e.g., LS&A) were named “college,” while those enrolling only upper division or graduate students (e.g., Medicine, Law) were named “school.” Architecture would remain a department in Engineering until 1931, when it was spun off as a separate school with Emil Lorch as its first dean.

9 Wilfred B. Shaw, editor, The University of Michigan, An Encyclopedic Survey (University of Michigan Press:  Ann Arbor, 1941 - )

The University of Michigan

Leaders in Engineering Education 1880s