April 23, 2019 | 71° F

Celebrating 150 years of engineering

Photo by Courtesy of Special Collections |

Clockwise from top left: Sol-gel formation, 1956. Engineering open house, 1964. Ceramics labs from the school’s earlier years. The electrical engineering class of 1895. Engineering entrance exam, 1948. The Morrill Act of 1862 played a fundamental role in the birth of Rutgers University School of Engineering.

One hundred and fifty years is a long time — about four times longer than Doctor Who has been in production, three times longer than Star Trek has been around and roughly enough time for a student to repeat a full four-year education 37 times.

Rutgers University School of Engineering is celebrating just that amount of time — it turns 150 this year.

Rutgers’ history is one that spans many centuries and political movements. One in particular was responsible for the birth of the School of Engineering: The Morrill Act of 1862.

Thomas Frusciano, the University archivist, keeps careful track of the Rutgers history in his book-filled office at the Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus.

“[The Land-Grant Act received] proceeds from the sale of western lands, west of the Mississippi.  Each state got one piece of land mass, and that money would get devoted to institutions of higher education,” he said. “Rutgers had to persuade the legislature to go against Princeton and Trenton Normal School, which we now know as The College of New Jersey.”

Each state was awarded 30,000 acres of land for each member of Congress that represented it, according to the School of Engineering website.

Rutgers, represented mainly by George Cook and David Murray, won the land grant resulting in the formation of the Rutgers Scientific School, Frusciano said.

“Before you know it, there was more [Rutgers] Scientific School students than there were students in the traditional liberal arts,” he said. “The [Rutgers] Scientific School students also received more scholarships from the extra funding.”

He said the Morrill Act of 1862 is the most significant piece of legislation that affected higher education until the G.I. Bill.

Rutgers Scientific School’s first class consisted of 13 students of which seven were engineers, according to the School of Engineering website.

Frusciano said Rutgers Scientific School was originally located on the College Avenue campus, in the building used today by the Department of English, Murray Hall. But there was a plan to move to Busch Campus, known as University Heights at the time.

This geographic separation caused the Rutgers Scientific School to slowly disassemble — engineering was moving to Busch Campus while agriculture stayed on Cook Campus, he said.

By January 1925, Dean Walter Marvin determined that the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Engineering should re-organize. This led to the creation of the School of Engineering, led by Dean Alfred Titsworth.

The presence of the School of Engineering was then solidified by the creation of the current School of Engineering Building in 1962. The $5.5 million building allowed research labs for all fields of engineering in one area.

Since the land-grant act, there have been large charges in enrollment, curriculum and available disciplines, driven by industrialization and war, he said.

While the University started with its roots in civil engineering, other specializations such as ceramics, sanitary engineering and agricultural engineering were offered over time, according to a 1956 booklet titled “Engineering at Rutgers.” Many of these fields of study are no longer available.

The School of Engineering now hosts more than 200 faculty members and 3,000 students, according to the School of Engineering website.

Jeffery Rankin, the assistant dean of the School of Engineering, finds value in the school’s national standing.

“There are [more than] 300 engineering colleges in the United States,” he said. “[Nationally,] less than half of the students who start their first year in engineering majors actually finish their degrees. … Last year’s first-year class of 2016 moved on successfully with an 89 percent retention rate.”

Rankin associates this success with their recruitment efforts, professional community connections and dedication to undergraduate teaching and classroom engagement.

Fred Bernath, associate dean of academic affairs for the School of Engineering, praises the faculty, students and alumni for the progress that the School of Engineering has seen so far.

“We have many successful alumni who have made major contributions to society,” he said.

Examples of these include: Richard Frenkiel, regarded as one of the inventors of the cell phone, and Terry Stewart, president and chief executive officer of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

“Rutgers [School of Engineering] alums are everywhere,” he said “From Main Street to Wall Street, from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley, from N.J., to China — making their marks and contributing to society.”

Thomas Farris, dean of the School of Engineering, said he hopes for a new era of growth through the school’s involvement in the Rutgers University Strategic Plan — the inclusion of a new engineering building on Busch Campus.

The faculty of the School of Engineering expects to support interdisciplinary research in the areas of sustainability, wireless communication technologies and manufacturing, he said.

“As we reflect on our 150th anniversary, the School of Engineering has been part of the innovations that define our world through faculty and student research and the achievement of our alumni in the various professions they pursue,” he said. “We are sure to see that success continue another 150 years in the future.”

By Andrew Rodriguez

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