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Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Mechanical Engineering curricula

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: AC-0434

Scope and Contents

This collection contains course notes prepared by instructing staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Many of the notes were privately printed for the use of students. The majority of materials date prior to 1935 and offer information about the development of teaching and laboratory instruction in Mechanical Engineering at MIT. Department circulars offer information about courses and descriptions of laboratory facilities.


  • 1872 - 1978


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open.

Conditions Governing Use

Condition of media needs to be reviewed. There may be restrictions on use.

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

The Department of Mechanical Engineering, commonly referred to as "Mech E", was designated as Course I of six courses offered when classes began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (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 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 Mechanical Engineering was designated Course II and civil engineering as Course I. That same year Assistant Professor Channing Whitaker, class of 1869, 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 the department's first lab was built for direct application to engineering problems. This was the beginning of the department'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, Mechanical Engineering 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 Mechanical Engineering exceeded that of any other department, and more students graduated from the department than from any others 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 initiated 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 the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Department 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 the Mechanical Engineering Department initiated a cooperative course in conjunction with the General Electric Company. Course II-A was a masters 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 contributed extensively towards the 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 the department 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% of ME juniors and seniors immediately enrolled in the course. Also in 1957, a two-week Special Summer Program was organized for practicing engineers and college teachers.

In 1945 Samuel C. Collins transferred 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, the Mechanical Engineering department, and the School of Industrial Management (now the Alfred P. Sloan School of Management).

In 1965 Ascher Shapiro became head of the department. 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 three-division system remains in place as the basic structure in 1994.

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 which 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.

Current information about Department of Mechanical Engineering research in the areas of Micro & Nano Engineering; Bioengineering; Ocean Science & Engineering; Energy Science & Engineering; Control, Instrumentation, & Robotics; Design, Manufacturing, & Product Development can be found at:

Historical Note

Early instructing staff represented in this collection include

Gaetano Lanza
1871-1911, emeritus 1911-1928
Charles T. Main
Peter Schwab
1883-1911, emeritus 1911-1928
Robert H. Smith
1886-1932, emeritus 1932-1933
George B. Haven
1894-1936, emeritus 1936-1953
Addison F. Holmes
1904-1948, emeritus 1948-1949
William G. Snow
1906-1910; 1913-1918


6.2 Cubic Feet (4 record cartons, 7 manuscript boxes, 1 flat box)

Language of Materials


Physical Location

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


This is an assembled collection, much of it transferred from the holdings of the MIT Libraries.

Related Materials at the Institute Archives and Special Collections

Silas Holman papers, MC 46, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Distinctive Collections

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Annual Reports to the President, 1872 to present

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Course Catalog, 1865 to present

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.

Guide to Massachusetts Institute of Technology Mechanical Engineering Curricula, 1872-1978
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.

Repository Details

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

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
Building 14N-118
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02139-4307 US