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Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Mechanical Engineering records

Identifier: AC-0259

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Scope and Contents

Series 1 consists of printed copies of the Department of Mechanical Engineering Annual Reports and Biennial Reports for the years 1977-1995. Series 2 documents the administrative history of the Department of Mechanical Engineering from 1942 to 1992 with emphasis on 1960-1985. A significant amount of information can be found concerning the department's facilities at MIT; funding requests; attempts to comply with federal and MIT policy regarding affirmative action hiring and enrollment; restructuring of the department and the curriculum in the 1960s; and the operations of the myriad laboratories and centers associated with the department.

Of particular note are the reports of the various laboratories and centers; the minutes and agendas of the Senior Council and the Steering Committee, which were the policy-making bodies in the department; the files concerning curriculum and course evaluation, including the records of the Curriculum Committee, which became the Undergraduate Committee in 1968, and Pi Tau Sigma; the files on affirmative action and faculty recruiting; files concerning the organization of the department; and the records of ME faculty meetings.

The collection also includes an archived version of the Department of Mechanical Engineering's Solid-State Solar Thermal Energy Conversion Center (S3TEC) website.


  • Creation: 1942 - 1992
  • Creation: 2021 March 19 - Ongoing


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Conditions Governing Use

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.

Historical Note

Brief History of Mechanical Engineering, 1865-1992

The Department of Mechanical Engineering (ME) was designated as Course I of six courses offered when classes began at MIT in 1865. Of the Institute's first fifteen students, only Albert F. Hall '68 majored in mechanical engineering. William Watson, professor of descriptive geometry and mechanical engineering, taught mechanical engineering and "stereotomy," which involved drawing and modeling. The ME course focused on the study of existing machinery and the principles behind their construction and operation. Students spent a good portion of their studies in the drawing room, and traveled outside the institution to view engines and machinery in operation.

In 1872 ME became Course II and civil engineering became Course I. That same year Assistant Professor Channing Whitaker '69 began to teach mechanical engineering and redirected the emphasis of the course towards empirical studies. Whitaker proposed the use of in-house teaching laboratories and increased excursions to industrial and civic sites. When local entrepreneur George B. Dixwell contacted MIT in an effort to solve a problem, he was convinced by the Institute to finance a laboratory. Thus, in 1874 ME's first lab was built for direct application to engineering problems. This was the beginning of ME's close relationship with the industries for which it trained its graduates. The educational and research program of the new lab was applied in its approach and focused primarily on the steam engine. Among their activities, the students studied and maintained the boilers and engines that provided heat and power for the Institute.

Under the chairmanship of Gaetano Lanza, who taught theoretical and applied mechanics, ME became a formal department in 1883. Two years later, the course had developed sufficiently to permit students to choose a specialization by selecting an "option" in their senior year: marine engineering (offered until 1913); locomotive construction (offered until 1918); mill engineering, which eventually became textile technology; and naval architecture, which became a separate department in 1894. In 1886 student enrollment in ME exceeded that of any other department, and more students graduated from ME than from any other department until 1908. In 1899 the option of heat and ventilation (offered until 1913) was introduced, and in 1908, steam turbine engineering (offered until 1918). Lanza was one of the first engineers to apply scientific methods to solving mechanical engineering problems, and he urged the use of full-scale specimens in testing. The course work also included time spent learning to use the woodworking and other machines in the machine shops.

Lanza was succeeded as head in 1911 by Edward F. Miller, who taught mechanic arts at the Institute as early as 1886. Lanza and Miller provided a continuum of progress in the field of mechanical engineering education that covered a period of fifty years (1883-1933). Miller designed the facilities for the department when the Institute moved from Boston to the "New Technology" in Cambridge in 1916. Miller's labs and classrooms performed experimental work in steam, gas and diesel engines, compressed air, hydraulics, large scale mechanical testing, machine tools, textile manufacture, and the founding and processing of metals. New options during this period were engine design (1913-1925), automotive engineering (1923-1949), ordnance (1923-1924), and refrigeration, which became refrigeration and air conditioning.

By the 1930s the steam engine was past its prime, and the department began to move away from engineering practice towards engineering science. The appointment of Jerome C. Hunsaker as department head in 1933 marked a major change in the direction of the department. Hunsaker pioneered the aeronautics program at MIT and incorporated that curriculum into ME when he became head. Hunsaker's interests lay in fluid mechanics. He altered the traditional course in hydraulics to a study of the mechanics of fluids generally, with specific application to lubrication and heat transfer. Hunsaker modernized the laboratories as well as the curriculum and in 1935 replaced the old woodworking workshop with a welding lab and foundry. With the onset of World War II and the ensuing cold war, much of the research in the department focused on military and aerospace applications. Starting in 1939 ME and the Departments of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering offered a special course to train naval engineers. In 1943 the Sloan Automotive Laboratory was enlarged to accommodate the development of torpedoes for the war.

In 1934 ME initiated a cooperative course in conjunction with the General Electric Company. Course II-A was a master’s program in which students spent their time alternately with GE and MIT during the junior and senior years, then completed a fifth year of study at MIT.

The work that was carried out in the department from 1930 to the early 1960s served to codify many basic principles in the field of mechanical engineering. Publications in dynamics, heat transfer, mechanics of materials, and thermodynamics were produced within the department under Hunsaker and his three successors, C. Richard Soderberg (1947-1954), Jacob Den Hartog (1954-1958), and Joseph Keenan (1958-1961). By the end of Guyford Stever's tenure as department head in 1965, the department was contributing to development of system dynamics and control and man-machine systems as fields of study within the profession.

During this period five new options were introduced: production, which became materials and design and later, materials, design and engineering (1934-1949); general, which became general mechanical engineering (1934-1948); power (1934-1935 and 1948-1949); heat (1941-1943); and engineering science (1945-1948). In 1945 the undergraduate curriculum was revised and only three options were offered: general mechanical engineering; engineering science; and automotive engineering. In 1949 the curriculum changed again and ME adopted a division system in lieu of the options. The seven divisions established at that time were Applied Mechanics; Fluid Mechanics; Machine Design; Machine Tools and Metal Cutting; Materials; Textile Technology; and Thermodynamics.

In 1957 a second cooperative course was initiated. Course II-B enabled juniors and seniors to work at approved industrial sites. 25 percent of ME juniors and seniors enrolled in the course. Also in 1957, a two-week Special Summer Program was organized for practicing engineers and college teachers.

While some of the faculty were defining the parameters of mechanical engineering, others were blurring its edges by collaborating in research with faculty in other disciplines. In 1945 Samuel C. Collins came to ME from the Department of Chemistry to develop cryogenic engineering. In 1950 John E. Arnold proposed an industrial design program together with the schools of architecture and business. This interdisciplinary approach formed an undercurrent in the profession and helped place MIT's mechanical engineering department in the vanguard. Later in that decade MIT's Industrial Liaison Program fostered the ties between industry, ME, other engineering departments, and the School of Industrial Management (now the Sloan School of Management).

In 1965 Ascher Shapiro became head of the department and furthered the shift towards applied mechanical engineering. During Shapiro's term the focus of research moved away from military applications to quality of life applications. Research in the thermal fluid sciences was directed towards protection of the environment, and biomedical engineering became a prominent field of study. At the same time there was a de-emphasis of engineering science in undergraduate instruction and an increased emphasis on design, engineering applications, and the broader economic, managerial, and social aspects of engineering. Undergraduate enrollment in ME reached a record low for the century in 1970, and the department had to reduce its staff from sixty-five to fifty.

Two significant changes took place in the department's administrative structure during Shapiro's tenure. In 1966 the various divisions of the department were reorganized into a three-division system: Division I, Mechanics and Materials; Division II, Thermal and Fluid Sciences; and Division III, Systems and Design. Each division had a head and an associate head and was responsible for specific programs and facilities. The second change was the decline of the Senior Council, consisting of all tenured faculty, as a policy-making body. In 1968 Shapiro found the Council too large to be an effective policy board and formed a rotating Steering Committee which met periodically with members of the divisions. In order to provide an outlet for communication, the Senior Council met once each term.

Herbert H. Richardson succeeded Shapiro in 1974. In keeping with the recommendations of a planning committee appointed by Richardson, department research was concentrated within four major programs: biomedical engineering; energy and environment; human services, including transportation; and manufacturing, materials, and materials processing. It was under Richardson that Professor Woodie C. Flowers developed the undergraduate design course 2.70 that boosted enrollment figures in the department. Also during this period, biomedical engineering at MIT gained international recognition primarily through work carried out in the research program of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology, which was founded in 1972. Professor Robert Mann's work on sensory substitutes for the blind and an artificial elbow exemplify the department's interest in applying engineering to the rehabilitation of humans with major sensory and musculoskeletal deficiencies.

Emphasis on the four major research programs continued under Richardson's successors, David N. Wormley (1982-1991) and Nam P. Suh (1991-2001). The department has maintained its focus on engineering applications and has furthered its interactive role with the Leadership in Manufacturing Program. In 1989 Wormley initiated a detailed review of the undergraduate curriculum, which had not been substantially modified since 1972. To further this end, Suh created an ad hoc Curriculum Development Committee in 1991, and in the following year he established a similar committee to evaluate the department's graduate program. Suh also initiated the Distinguished Alumnae/i Lecture Series in order to increase student exposure to contemporary technology and societal issues.


29 Cubic Feet (28 record cartons, 3 manuscript boxes)

1 item(s) (1 archived website)

Language of Materials


Physical Location

Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Processing Information note

Some collection descriptions are based on legacy data and may be incomplete or contain inaccuracies. Description may change pending verification. Please contact the MIT Department of Distinctive Collections if you notice any errors or discrepancies.

Preliminary Inventory to the Records of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Mechanical Engineering
Preliminary Inventory
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2021 July 5: Edited by Lana Mason to remove aggrandizing terms in the historical note description.
  • 2021 October 22: Solid-State Solar Thermal Energy Conversion Center website added by Lana Mason.

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
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