PRISM Magazine Online - May-June 2000
Collecting the Past
A special archives created at North Carolina State University documents the history of engineering and technology.
By Russell S. Koonts

There are well over 300 colleges and universities in the United States that offer undergraduate engineering or engineering technology degrees. Although many of these institutions keep records about their specific programs, until recently, there wasn't any repository that documents all aspects of the discipline of engineering from education to practice.

The special collections department at North Carolina State University recognized the need to preserve engineering's history, and in 1997 established an engineering and technology archives. Specialists at the library have begun acquiring research material that reflect the scientific research and technological advancements in engineering, as well as the historic achievements.

Among recent acquisitions are books and films about one of IBM's first computers--the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator. Featured in the 1952 movie Walk East on Beacon, a documentary-style drama about an FBI investigation of espionage, the early computer was used to calculate the moon-position tables that plotted the course of the 1960 Apollo flight to the moon.

In the rare book collection is a 887-page tome written by civil engineer William A. Radford in 1913. While the book may have been helpful in taking the guesswork out of determining project costs, its 51-word title probably discouraged some engineers from ever looking inside.

A collection of materials tracking the history of the college of engineering at North Carolina State since its founding in 1889 provides a fascinating picture of the evolution of engineering education and research. When the university first opened, the engineering program consisted of two faculty members, and offered only a bachelor's of engineering in practical mechanics and mathematics. Five students earned their degrees in the first graduating class. Currently, the engineering college enrolls almost 6,000 undergraduates and 1,200 graduates, comprises 10 departments, and offers 16 bachelor's, 19 master's, and 15 Ph.D. degree programs. And steam machinery is no longer an important part of the curriculum.

The library is on the lookout for personal papers, correspondence, research files, organizational records, photographs, and audiovisual materials from engineering educators, practicing engineers, and professional societies of a historical nature. They would also like help in identifying rare engineering books, textbooks, biographies, and product catalogs.

Trivial Pursuit

Test your knowledge of the history of engineering. The questions are based on material in the archives.

 1. What glamorous Hollywood actress made substantial engineering contributions during World War II, and held the patent on which today's more advanced wireless networks are based?


2. In what institution did the first person hold the title of professor of engineering?

3. What was the first U.S. college to offer instruction in civil engineering?

4. What 19th century engineer designed the U.S.S. Monitor and the instruments for measuring radiant heat?

5. Who was the author of A Manual of Civil Engineering (1862), one of the first engineering textbooks?

6. What well-known engineering professor writes books about everyday artifacts, from forks and pins to paper clips and zippers?


7. When was the first woman awarded an engineering degree?

8. What early 20th century geological engineer consulted on the Catskill Aqueduct, and the Hoover, Shasta, Hungry Horse, and Grand Coulee dams?


9. How much did it cost to build the Hoover Dam, which took from 1932-1935?

10. What famous NFL coach with an engineering background took his team to five Super Bowls?


11. What husband and wife engineers were pioneers in the field of time/motion studies, had 12 children, and were the subjects of the movie "Cheaper by the Dozen"?

12. What was the first college to offer an engineering degree?

13. What Russian leader once practiced civil engineering?

14. What engineer created the first industrial research laboratory?


15. Name the two U.S. presidents who had engineering backgrounds.


  • 1. Answer: Hedy Lamarr
  • 2. Answer: Alden Partridge was appointed to the position at U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1813. Partridge went on to establish Norwich University in 1819.
  • 3. Answer: Norwich University in 1820
  • 4. Answer: John Ericsson 
  • 5. Answer: William John Macquorn Rankine, who also created the Rankine temperature scale
  • 6. Answer: Henry Petroski, chair of civil and
    environmental engineering at Duke University
  • 7.Answer: 1876, when Elizabeth Bragg received a civil engineering degree from the University of California, Berkeley
  • 8. Answer: Charles P. Berkey
  • 9. Answer: $165 million, which would be almost $2 billion in today's dollars
  • 10. Answer: Tom Landry
  • 11. Answer: Lillian and Frank Gilbreth
  • 12. Answer: École des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris (1747)
  • 13. Answer: Boris Yeltsin
  • 14. Answer: Thomas Edison
  • 15. Answer: Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter
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