Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Rutgers: A History

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution pushed the United States into a new era of innovation and efficiency. New technology allowed Americans to abandon manual labor methods for machines, leading to improved production of everything from chemicals to crops. The economy was better than it ever was. Nobel Prize winning economist Robert E. Lucas, Jr., even expressed his shock at the country’s growth, writing that, “nothing remotely like [the country’s] economic behavior [was] mentioned by the classical economists, even as a theoretical possibility.”

Every American citizen felt the country’s success; the revolution improved almost every aspect of daily life. For Congressman Justin Smith Morrill, the revolution meant improved science education. Under the influence of Midwestern professors and farmers’ call for creation of agricultural colleges, Morrill drafted the Morrill Land-Grant Act to develop a practical education in the sciences that fueled the Industrial Revolution. The bill proposed distribution of 30,000 acres of land to every state for each member of Congress the state had. The land would house the state’s so-called land-grant college dedicated to science education. President Buchanan vetoed the act in 1857, but in 1862 President Lincoln signed it into law under the condition the institutions would teach its students military tactics in addition to science in preparation for the Civil War.

After much debate with Princeton University, Rutgers College became the official land-grant college of New Jersey in 1862. The college’s Board of Trustees established its science institution, Rutgers Scientific School, two years later. The admission requirements were arithmetic, algebra, English grammar and geography. Led under the guidance of George H. Cook, a geologist and professor of chemistry, the institution taught engineering, agricultural sciences and military tactics. Its first class of 13 students included 7 engineers. Educated by Brevet Major Josiah Holcomb Kellogg of West Point, the engineers all graduated with Bachelors of Science in civil engineering. Their curriculum, like those of today’s engineering programs, focused heavily on math. The students also took courses in electricity and mechanics of materials, but the school would not establish departments for electrical and mechanical engineering until after the turn of the century.

The Department of Mechanical Engineering at Rutgers was founded in 1908 with a focus on driving the country’s industrial growth. Aerospace Engineering was added in 1965 and today the 28 full-time faculty members of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department educate more than 600 undergraduate students and more than 175 graduate students. Excellence in both teaching and research is the top priority for our faculty.