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A mechanical engineering class in thermodynamics led by Robert Henry Thurston, dean of the Sibley College of the Mechanic Arts from 1885 to 1903.

October 1868

The campus was not exactly ready for the sixty-four students of engineering and the mechanic arts who ventured up East Hill to begin the first year of Cornell University. Founder Ezra Cornell acknowledged as much. He said there would be work for skilled and able-bodied students, building with their own hands a university they would be proud to call their own. 

Engineering on their application papers meant civil engineering, the civilian side of the military engineering taught initially at West Point. Mechanic arts was the other subject—besides agriculture—that New York’s newly designated land-grant university was obliged to teach. The promise of a science-based engineering education implied laboratory experiments to learn the nature of the forces they would try to harness.

Not until 1869 did the spirit of full disclosure move engineering faculty members to use the word “experiment.” Eli Whitney Blake was the first dean of the College of the Mechanic Arts when the University Register printed the following plan to make engineering students the masters of their art, and to distinguish Cornell engineering schools from shops:

It will easily be understood that the instruction in this College must be at first largely experimental in character. It is not its purpose, however, to teach rudimentary branches—to narrow down its instruction to any single trade or to the ordinary use of simple tools. The schools for this are the myriads of shops scattered throughout the country, and in them this work is done on a much larger scale, in much more varied ways and in places much nearer the homes of students than the University can ever hope to do it. It would be a misapplication of funds to devote them to adding one or two simple workshops to the thousands on thousands already in existence, and to do at the University what must necessarily be done better elsewhere. The great want of the country in this department is master mechanics who are thoroughly trained. The waste incurred through uninstructed or half-instructed master mechanics would more than suffice to endow splendid institutions for this sort of instruction.

Interested?

If you would like to read more, download a PDF of the history, Cornell Engineering: A Tradition of Leadership and Innovation, or order a copy from Engineering Gear.