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175 Years of Engineering at U.Va.

1861 to 1895: Rising From the Ashes

The Virginia Legislature was still debating the wisdom of secession when it learned of the attack on Fort Sumter. It passed an ordinance of secession on April 17, 1861, which was ratified by the voters on May 23. Caught up in the enthusiasm for the war, the Board of Visitors met four days later and resolved to create a School of Military Science & Civil Engineering. They intended to hire a professor and two assistant instructors, petition the governor for cannon, muskets and small arms, and cut expenditures in other areas of instruction.

Reality set in over the summer as faculty members and students left to join the conflict. By September, the Board had decided to postpone indefinitely further action on this new school.

A New Start

Immediately following the end of the war, professor of mathematics Charles Scott Venable persuaded the Board to reinstitute an engineering program. Venable seems to have been motivated in part by the prospect of government funding for engineering and agricultural education under the Morrill Land Grant Act, passed in 1862. Accordingly, the Board created a School of Technology and Agricultural Science and a School of Applied Mathematics. In 1867, Leopold Boeck, a Polish engineer, was appointed adjunct professor of applied mathematics, and John Mallet was named professor of analytical, industrial and agricultural chemistry.

Agriculture ceased being a focus of engineering education at the University when Morrill Act funding was used in 1872 to create the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in Blacksburg.

timeline of events

Thornton Takes Charge

Before resigning in 1875, Boeck, now a full professor, developed curricula leading to professional degrees in both civil and mining engineering.

When William Mynn Thornton arrived in Charlottesville to replace Boeck, he immediately set out to modernize the engineering curriculum. In the past, professors simply lectured. Thornton, by contrast, assigned the most up-todate textbooks and field manuals to his students, lecturing only to supplement and reinforce their reading. Because the School lacked laboratories, he was forced to emphasize the theoretical side of engineering. Between sessions, he visited manufacturers, identified problems and prepared case studies based on his observations for student discussion.

During the late 1880s, the University’s finances improved. Enrollment rose from 298 in 1883–84 to 562 in 1891–92. With increasing revenue from student fees, the University equipped a machine shop and testing laboratory for the department of engineering in the basement of the Rotunda and the Rotunda Annex. The department’s lecture hall and library were also housed in the basement. Thornton inaugurated a degree program in mechanical engineering with the help of his former student and adjunct professor of mathematics, William H. Echols.

And then disaster struck. On the morning of October 27, 1895, a student noticed smoke seeping from the corner of the Rotunda Annex. Despite Echols’ efforts to create a firebreak by throwing sticks of dynamite at the Annex from the Rotunda dome, all that was left of the Rotunda and the Annex the next day was a smoldering brick shell. The engineering shop and laboratory were completely destroyed, though the massive Olsen testing machine (used for determining the mechanical properties of materials) escaped relatively unscathed.

timeline of events
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