November 1 is the 250th anniversary of Stephen Van Rensselaer’s birthday. Fifth in direct descent from Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, the first Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer III (1764-1839) inherited a vast landed estate in Rensselaer and Albany counties at age 5.
He graduated from Harvard and spent time in state government and as a member of the U.S. Congress (1822-29). His chief services to the state, however, were economic and educational. Van Rensselaer was a member of the Erie Canal commissions and president of the state’s first board of agriculture. He was a lenient landlord for 3,000 tenants. He was founder and supporter of a wide variety of social, educational, business, and governmental institutions.
In 1824 it was his vision and support that enabled Amos Eaton to establish the Rensselaer School “for the purpose of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life.”
Van Rensselaer died on January 26, 1839 at the age of 74. He is buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery.
Political Strategy In 1900 the United States was planning for a Nicaraguan canal. Meanwhile, the French were desperate to sell their Panama Canal Zone rights to the U.S. for $109,000,000. The U.S deemed the price too high and continued with their decision for a Nicaraguan canal. Supposedly, just prior to the U.S. House ruling in favor of a Nicaraguan Canal, French lobbyist named Phillipe Bunua-Varilla mailed a Nicaraguan stamp depicting the eruption of Momotombo volcano spewing lava and smoke to each undecided U.S. senator. The House ruled in favor of Panama. The French offered the zone, and all rights and equipment for $40,000,000. The U.S. accepted the offer.
Colombia immediately created obstacles for the U.S. therefore the first order of business was to back Panama in becoming its own nation. President Theodore Roosevelt seized the opportunity to support a Panamanian revolt. Colombia, discouraged by the arrival of the U.S. warship Nashville, withdrew forces and within 24 hours Panama declared independence without any bloodshed. On November 3, 1903 the U.S. recognized the new nation and three days later Panama’s ambassador granted full control of the Canal Zone to the U.S.
“Make the Dirt Fly” Between 1904 and 1914 construction of the Panama Canal fell under three different chief engineers: John F. Wallace, John F. Stevens and Colonel George Washington Goethals. Wallace lasted one year until the stress and toil nearly ruined him. John Stevens, engineer of the Great Northern Railroad, was then hired by President Roosevelt. Stevens exhibited a no nonsense attitude and a realistic vision. Defying Roosevelt’s demands to “make the dirt fly” Stevens ordered all work to cease as soon as he arrived in Panama. He insisted the Panama Railroad be rebuilt and utilized for the canal project and that a lock canal, not a sea-level waterway (which Roosevelt still thought possible), be constructed. Perhaps Stevens’s most important contribution was the support of Colonel William C. Gorgas, who abated yellow fever and malaria.
After two years Stephens resigned. Roosevelt, tired of delays, took a different hiring approach and appointed someone who couldn’t resign. He chose Colonel G.W. Goethals, an Army engineer who served until the canal’s completion in 1914. Under Goethals the greatest feats of engineering began: damming the violent Chagres River, building a dam at Gatun Lake, and designing the locks.
Rensselaer Engineers Between 1904 and 1914 seven Rensselaer engineers were involved in planning and construction of the canal. Walter Dauchy (Class of 1875) was appointed division engineer on the Culebra section in 1904. Ricardo Arango (Class of 1887), a Panamanian, was an engineer under both the Columbia and Panama governments. In 1904 he was division engineer in Ancon, Panama. Arango remained in Panama and became the chief engineer of the Republic of Panama. William Baucus (Class of 1887) was a civil engineer with the Municipal Engineering Department in Panama from 1904 to 1907, and was appointed consulting engineer for water works and sewerage systems by the Canal Commission. Baucus also contributed his expertise in the construction of the pipelines for the Pedro Miguel locks.
There were three Canal Commissions over the course of U.S. construction and a Rensselaer engineer was on each. William H. Burr (Class of 1872) served on the First Canal Commission appointed by President Roosevelt in 1904. In 1905 Burr was appointed to the International Board of Consulting Engineers to choose what kind of canal would be constructed. In 1905, Rear Admiral Mordecai T. Endicott (Class of 1868) was appointed to the Second Commission. After Endicott resigned, Rear Admiral H.H. Rousseau (Class of 1891) was appointed by Roosevelt to serve on the Third Canal Commission. Under G.W. Goethals, chief engineer of the Panama Canal, Rousseau was appointed as his assistant, a position he held until 1914. Rousseau designed the dry docks, wharves, piers, ship repair shops, coaling plants, fuel plants, breakwaters, and floating cranes.
Gatun Lake, the Chagres River, and Culebra Cut A giant dam was created at Gatun Lake to prevent the violent Chagres river from flowing into the sea. At the time the dam was created, it was the largest man-made lake in the world covering 164 square miles of what was once jungle. Between Bas Obispo (the spot where the Chagres flowed down from its source) and Pedro Miguel was the nine-mile stretch of continental divide known as Culebra where the canal had to be “cut” out of the mountains.
Equipment The steam shovels and dredgers employed by the Americans for canal work were famous in their own right. A ninety-five ton Bucyrus steam shovel excavated 4,823 cubic yards of earth and rock in five hours and twenty minutes. Disposing of the earth dredged by the Bucyrus steam shovel was the other battle. For this, the Lidgerwood System was adopted and consisted of trains of flat cars, a plow to sweep the load from the cars, and steel cables reaching the length of the train. Via this system a mass of earth 100 feet wide, 100 feet deep and 50 miles long was removed.
Locks The most remarkable feature of the canal are the six locks. Each has a steel gate with concrete chambers measuring 110’ wide by 1,000’ long. The lock gates themselves measure 7’ thick, 65’ long and 47’ to 82’ high, weighing 300 to 600 tons each.
An Engineering Marvel The Panama Canal is 50 miles long. In passing through the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a vessel enters a sea-level channel in Limon Bay (Colon), travels seven miles to Gatun where it enters a series of three locks. The vessel is lifted 85’ above sea level to Gatun Lake where it can travel at full ocean speed for 24 miles. At Bas Obispo it will enter Culebra Cut and travel a distance of 9 miles to reach Pedro Miguel Lock and be lowered 30’ to a small lake, where it sails for about a mile to Miraflores. At Miraflores it enters a series of two locks and is lowered to sea level, passing out to the Pacific 8 ½ miles away. No vessel can enter or pass through the canal under its own power.
It takes approximately nine hours for a ship to pass through the canal. The largest ships that can pass through are called “Panamax.” Many modern ships surpass the parameters of Panamax, therefore the canal is currently undergoing the construction of two new sets of locks – one on the Pacific and one on the Atlantic side of the canal. Furthermore, the project includes deepening existing navigational channels in Gatun Lake and Culebra.
In spite of the new construction on the Panama Canal, history comes full circle this year with plans for a Nicaraguan Canal to stretch 173 miles from Punta Gorda on the Caribbean through Lake Nicaragua to the mouth of the River Brito on the Pacific. Engineers for the Hong Kong-based HKND Group said the canal would be between 230m and 520m wide and 27.6m deep. The idea of a Nicaraguan canal is nothing new but unlike the canal A.G. Menocal mapped in the 1870s at a potential cost of $52,000,000, this canal could easily cost about $40 billion! See http://www.wired.com/2014/02/nicaragua-canal/
Before the Panama Canal was built ships traveling from the Atlantic to the Pacific traveled around the southern tip of South America. The journey was 13,000 miles around Cape Horn from New York to California. The Panama Canal reduces the journey to 5,200 miles. Today, the canal accommodates 14,000 ships a year on average, carrying over 200 million tons of cargo, representing five percent of the world’s shipping. The Rensselaer engineers who helped connect the oceans, helped changed the world forever. Today even more Rensselaer engineers continue this legacy with new lock construction in Panama.
This concludes our Panama Canal Centennial Celebration post blitz. Please check out the exhibit in Folsom Library on the 2nd floor.
The construction of the Panama Canal begins with the French. In 1875, while the United States was conducting surveys across Mexico and Nicaragua, trying to find the right canal route, France became very active and ambitious, eager to make their mark. The French spirit had been so greatly aroused by Ferdinand de Lesseps’s completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, that France decided to take the lead and attempt to conquer the Isthmus of Panama. Again, RPI Engineers were involved, in varying capacities.
Ferdinand de Lesseps was a French diplomat. During his early career he was posted to Tunisia and Egypt. In 1854 Said Pasha of Egypt gave de Lesseps permission to build the Suez Canal. De Lesseps’s scheme was backed by an international commission of engineers with financial support from the French emperor Napoleon III and others. The Suez Canal opened in November 1869.
The Geographical Society of Paris organized a committee in 1876 entitled Congres International d’Etudes du Canal Interoceanic seeking international cooperation for the purpose of building an inter-oceanic canal through Panama. Having gained fame for his Suez endeavors, de Lesseps desired to repeat his success in Panama. Being a national hero, he was asked to lead the Congres and make a canal in Panama come to fruition.
The French felt that further exploration and more surveys needed to be conducted. French Navy Lieutenant Lucien N. B. Wyse was assigned by the French government to explore possible routes on the Isthmus. When Wyse arrived on the isthmus, the Colombian government assigned Pedro Sosa (RPI 1873) to the expedition as scout engineer and chief of technical control and topography. In the second survey expedition, Sosa traveled alone through the jungle. The difficulty of this exploration won him the admiration and respect of his comrades. When the expeditions were finished, the Congres agreed on a route that followed the path of the Panama Railroad, one that went straight through the continental divide, still with the conviction that a sea-level waterway was possible. The Congres met in Paris on May 15, 1879, agreeing to name the route the “Wyse-Reclus-Sosa Line”, in honor of the engineers who had mapped it. Sosa was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his work.
Few individuals on the Congres were actually engineers; the majority were diplomats. One notable engineer, Aniceto García Menocal (RPI 1862), who had always advocated for a Nicaraguan canal constructed by the United States, stood up against de Lesseps’s sea-level waterway scheme, stating how impracticable the project would be. Menocal made a brave, bold stand against the French hero, who enthralled his audience with exuberant confidence and infectious enthusiasm over conquering the terrain of Central America. De Lesseps convinced everyone (at least those who were not engineers) that a sea-level canal was possible, and work began on January 1, 1881.
In addition to Menocal and Sosa, we know of two more RPI engineers involved in the construction of the canal at this point in history. Though scant information exists, Auguste Henri Albert Millet (RPI 1867) was Chief of Technical Bureau, from February 1882 to October 1882, and then Chief of Section at Culebra (the mountain zone) from October 1882 to May 1883. John Henry Curtis (RPI 1873) also began working for the French in September 1883. According to our resources he was appointed as contractor for “the removal of Bohio Mountain” in the Panama Canal Zone.
Sadly, however, what our engineers would have seen and were exposed to is hard to imagine. Never enough of the right type of equipment for mountain terrain; a massive death toll in human lives due to yellow fever which came in two- or three-year cycles; malaria too continued to take even more lives than yellow fever. Ultimately, poor planning doomed the French to utter failure. No one understood yellow fever and malaria, and worker housing was sub-par at best. Arrogant determination to cut a sea-level waterway through the continent persisted, leading to the reckless purchase of supplies compounded by corruption and scandal.
All work on the canal ceased in 1889, and the French company in charge went bankrupt. $262,000,000 had been expended by the French, with little to show. Overall the French excavated about 22,600,000 cubic yards through the Culebra Mountains. This was the point of deepest excavation. Nevertheless the vast quantity the French excavated wasn’t even close to the amount of wet and dry earth that needed to be removed.* Ferdinand de Lesseps was indicted for fraud and sentenced to 5 years in prison although the sentence was never carried out and he died two years later, his reputation forever marred by the Panama Canal fiasco. The French debacle cast such a dark cloud over the idea of a canal in Panama that no one was interested in revisiting the idea again until 1901. When President McKinley was assassinated, Theodore Roosevelt took office and almost immediately declared the need for a canal. Roosevelt strong-armed Colombia into submission in order to carry out what President Grant envisioned 32 years prior as “an American canal under American control.” Stay tuned for the next post which reveals even more RPI engineers, their legacy, and the completion of the Panama Canal.
*To place the cubic yardage in perspective, by the time the Americans were finished excavating, 188,280,312 cubic yards of earth were removed from the canal zone.
August 15, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal – its completion being one of the greatest feats of engineering by mankind, and one which rested on an idea four centuries old! This fact brings to light the amazing contributions of Rensselaer engineers who followed in some pretty hefty footsteps of those eager to connect the oceans. Some played a rather small part, while others rose high above the ranks, and were bestowed with great honor for their achievements. This post is the first in a series that weaves the contributions of our engineers into the indefatigable triumph over nature to build a canal that many people never thought would come to fruition.
Around 1502 Columbus made his fourth and last voyage to the New World, sailing along the never ending stretch of Central America looking again for a passageway through the Isthmus. In 1513, Vasco Nunez de Balboa gathered a hundred men and set out on an expedition across the Isthmus to find the mighty sea that natives spoke of. Balboa, though on foot, became the first European to observe what we now know as the Pacific Ocean. Since this time men have been eager for a passageway.
Not until the 1800s did men seriously consider carving a path across the Isthmus to connect the oceans. Numerous surveys were conducted across Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama primarily by the United States government but also by the French and British. Nevertheless, the first colossal endeavor that made the oceans meet was the Panama Railroad, backed by New York financiers and completed in 1855 accommodating those eager to reach California for new found gold. The railroad satisfied many needs, but a water route was always the ultimate goal. Here we give praise to Gilbert T. Taylor (RPI 1844). Though we know little about his career we’ve discovered he was a general freight agent on the Panama Railroad throughout the 1850s.
Three places were considered for a water route, one across the Isthmus of Tehuentepec in Mexico, another option was across the Isthmus in Nicaragua, and another, across the Isthmus of Panama. We are pleased to also discover that Frederico Garcia y Garcia (RPI 1872), was sent by the government of Peru in 1873 to verify one particular survey by Commander Thomas Oliver Selfridge for an inter-oceanic canal route on the Isthmus of Panama.
Other RPI engineers placed their mark on this part of history too, handing us quite a legacy!
In 1870 President Ulysses S. Grant named Estevan Fuertes (RPI 1861) Chief Engineer in charge of studying a potential water route via Tehuantepec in Mexico to connect the oceans. The report that Fuertes wrote is one of the most valuable documents that exists regarding this potential passageway through Tehuantepec.
In 1872 President Grant then placed Aniceto Garcia Menocal (RPI 1862) in charge of mapping a route across Nicaragua. In 1875, another team from the U.S. surveyed Panama — then a part of the Republic of Colombia — for a feasible canal route. Nevertheless, Menocal remained a staunch advocate for the Nicaraguan Canal arguing that it possessed lower mountain passes and existing usable lakes and that a canal placed there would lie closer to American ports than one built across Panama. Menocal was invited to France in 1880 and was one of only a few American delegates invited to speak at the Congres International d’Etudes du Canal Interoceanic. While there, he stood up against Ferdinand de Lesseps, the “Great Engineer” responsible for the Suez Canal in 1869, opposing de Lesseps proposition for a sea-level waterway through the isthmus.
In 1869 President Grant insisted upon “an American canal under American control.” He regarded a canal across the isthmus of the utmost importance to the political positioning of the United States but the French prevailed!
Stay tuned for next weeks post regarding the French Debacle…
During the mid-19th and early 20th centuries fire twice played a seminal role in determining the Institute’s future location. The destruction of Rensselaer’s entire physical plant during the Great Troy Fire of 1862 resulted in its initial move up the hill overlooking the City of Troy and the Hudson River. Then in May 1904 a fire severely damaged Winslow Laboratory, and on June 9th a second fire destroyed the Main Building.
The 1904 fires raised the problem of finding suitable space for rebuilding and expanding the Institute. Leaving Troy was one possibility. Immediately following the fire Columbia University’s President Nicholas Murray Butler wrote to Rensselaer’s President Palmer Ricketts suggesting that the Institute take over all of Columbia’s engineering education, merging with its School of Mines. Rensselaer would retain its name and identity within the university. Ricketts went to New York City to confer with President Butler. He was skeptical that Rensselaer alums would be in favor of the merger but found that most of the graduates he consulted had no objections provided that the Institute retained its identity. Ricketts himself does not appear to have favored the idea nor did Rensselaer’s trustees who voted to reject the offer at their December 7, 1904 meeting.
A month earlier, in November 1904, President Ricketts had addressed a public meeting organized by the Troy Chamber of Commerce. Ricketts appealed to Troy’s self-interest in retaining an institution which brought in more than $300,000 annually to the city’s merchants and landlords. A fund raising committee of distinguished alumni was formed and several prominent city residents proposed a number of possible relocation sites in Troy. In February 1905, Rensselaer’s trustees finalized the purchase of the 10 acre Walter Phelps Warren estate for $125,000. Directly east across Eighth Street from the Main Building site, the property contained a large house and a stable located on what is now Hassan Quad.
The Warren house, named “Mount Airy”, was built in the Italianate style in 1862 by Joseph Warren (1813-1896), a successful local businessman. After being sold to Rensselaer by Joseph’s son Walter Phelps Warren, the house was converted into a student dormitory in 1907 and remained the only campus housing until 1916. The house was officially named the Campus Dormitory by a resolution of the Board of Trustees in 1916. The Institute rented rooms to about thirty students. A caterer supplied meals and was paid directly by the students. In 1935, after the construction of two new dormitories, the Board of Trustees decided to dismantle and remove the old Warren House.
The Institute deeded the old site of the Main Building to the City of Troy, with the understanding that Broadway would be extended up the hill by means of a broad, granite staircase—The Approach, which was completed in 1907.
I was looking for a good sports theme for this post when I read that the RPI women’s lacrosse team was hosting the Liberty League championships this year. I decided 2014 would be as good a time as any to watch my first lacrosse game. I was not disappointed!
But since I’m an archivist, I first wanted to know more about the team’s background. Using the digitized student newspaper collection, I found lots of useful information. Ads for organizational meetings indicate a women’s club team was formed early in 1981. There are no articles about the team that first year, so it’s unclear if they played any games. However, a 1983 write-up indicated the team’s 1982 record had been a respectable 1-0-1.
By Fall 1983 the club was already planning a spring training trip to Florida to prepare for the ’84 season. Three years later the players petitioned for varsity status after “an exceptional season” (Rensselaer Polytechnic, April 29, 1987); however they were not immediately successful. A subsequent petition was approved in December 1990 by the Student Athletics Board, E-Board, and the Athletic Department. The team would attain Division III varsity status in 1992.
The early 1990s brought another improvement for the laxwomen, as the Poly occasionally refers to them. In 1991, Vice President for Student Affairs Lee Wilcox announced the addition of a second full time coach for women’s sports. Beth Stacey was hired to coach both field hockey and lacrosse during the latter’s formative varsity years. While the team finished with a 5-5 record in its inaugural year, they had an 11-1 second season in 1994. Three years later RPI was undefeated in league play, ending up with a 13-3 overall record.
Fast forward to May 3, 2014. On a cool, damp Saturday afternoon I headed over to Renwyck Field where the women’s lacrosse team was hosting Union in the final game of the league championship. At half time RPI was up 10-4, but part way through the second half Union started coming on strong, scoring twice in just 29 seconds. Soon, however, the home team rallied, ending the game with a decisive 15-8 score.
While I know little about the game, it wasn’t hard to see the talent among the Rensselaer players. The goaltending was impressive, and once RPI had possession players quickly moved the ball up-field to set up their offense. Once there they showed great control and even greater patience, working the ball until a good scoring opportunity arose. Only then they struck, scoring on 15 of 21 shots. Amazing!
A week later RPI faced Fredonia in the second round of the NCAA Division III tournament. This was the team’s third consecutive appearance in nationals, and once again the home team emerged victorious, taking a one goal lead in the final seconds of regulation time. Unfortunately, this time Fredonia had the home field advantage, winning 9-8 over a strong Rensselaer opponent.
While I’m sure this was a tough loss, I fully expect the women’s lacrosse team to continue to work toward the ultimate goal in any college sport – a national championship. Good luck, ladies. I’ll be watching!
In our efforts to bridge the gap between the past and present, we share with the Class of 2014 a look back one hundred years ago, when Rensselaer bid farewell to the Class of 1914.
Not your average commencement, the senior class of ’14 and the Students’ Council presented plans for the first ever grand, innovative commencement celebration for the Institute’s 90th birthday. What was different? According to several class histories in the Archives, there were mixed emotions regarding the expansion of the Institute. Classes familiar with the Institute before it moved up the hill believed there had been more camaraderie and stronger school spirit during their time at the Institute. Those who experienced the expansion of campus on the hill, who watched as buildings were constructed, a field was created, and a clubhouse for students was offered, felt that they had an even greater love for the Institute and everything it offered.
Therefore, in 1914 the students advocated for the graduating class to become more acquainted with returning alumni and for alumni to feel more at home on the new campus situated upon the hill. The students asked that every Rensselaer man, graduate or undergraduate, make an effort to take part in a Grand Pageant and that all classes dress in costume!
Commencement events lasted three days beginning on Monday, June 15, 1914. On Tuesday at 2 p.m. the Grand Pageant, with all of the classes in costume, assembled on Seventh Street near Broadway. The procession paraded throughout the city of Troy, traveled up the hill on Avenue B (Sage Ave.) and continued around the ’86 Field. The festivities came to a close with cheers and yells and the approval of President Ricketts. Several students dressed as clowns and participated in a unique array of stunts, while one seemingly jolly horseback rider in a tutu proceeded to mosey through the crowds!
Aside from descriptions of this Grand Pageant in the Polytechnic, a lovely photo album of the grounds and the parade exist. We presume a woman named Marie Etta Leadley compiled the album. Her name is written on the inside cover but unfortunately we don’t know who she was. We rarely see female names related to student life activities from the Institute’s early days. Nevertheless, we interpret the album as telling a story about a unique period in RPI’s history. The first few images showcase the Institute on the hill beginning with the newest constructions: Carnegie (1906), The Approach (1907), Walker Laboratory (1907), Student Clubhouse (1908), Russell Sage Laboratory (1909), Pittsburgh (1912), ’87 Gymnasium (1912), and Tillinghast Gate (1914). The album ends with the Grand Pageant on June 16, 1914, and follows the parade trajectory through the streets of Troy up to the new campus and ’86 Field.
To the Class of 2014 we share with you this unique glimpse into Rensselaer’s history.
Who is this man? What is he looking at? What is he doing?
I think documentation meets artistic license, but my colleague thinks she knows things about the image and the gentleman depicted that might challenge my subjective interpretation. Our student assistant has offered a scientific perspective. Please, tell us what you know!
As many of you know, the main publication on the RPI campus is the Rensselaer Polytechnic. But did you know why the Polytechnic was revived in 1885, after being out of publication for nearly fifteen years? I stumbled across the answer to this question while completing my first project as an intern here at RPI, digitizing nineteenth century student newspapers.
In 1856 the first RPI student newspaper, the Commentator made its appearance. TheCommentator was edited anonymously, and featured the story “The Challenge-but not the Duel” in installments, as well as news and satiric comments about the Troy Female Seminary (now the Emma Willard School) and RPI students. Interestingly, it was rumored that the Commentator was “an ingenious and vengeful production by a group of students from the Troy Female Seminary,” though this was never proven (Rezneck, 1968). After a few issues were published, the Commentator slipped into oblivion.
The Commentator was then succeeded by the Surveyor and the Rod and Leveller during the mid-1860s. They too did not last long. Both appeared to have lasted throughout the 1865-1866 academic year before publication ceased. Interestingly, it seemed as though the two were rivals. A month after the Surveyor was introduced the Rod and Leveller published a critique of the new paper, calling it “fine by defect, and delicately weak.”
The Rod and Leveller and the Surveyor were followed by the earlier version of the Polytechnic. According to its masthead, the Polytechnic was a “record and review of civil, mechanical, and mining engineering and general college news.” Although the student newspaper was deemed a success by local and national newspapers, it was unable to last past 1869 (Polytechnic, December 18, 1869).
Fifteen years later, five students contemplated publishing a quarterly scientific newspaper. In February of 1884, they sent out a letter seeking subscribers and contributors to help make the proposed newspaper a success. The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Quarterly was published three months later in May. The Quarterly’s publication came with great difficulty, “owing to the failure of the alumni to respond to calls for contributions” (Quarterly, 1884). The editors were unable to tell readers when the next issue would appear, but hoped that it would appear in November.
Unfortunately that issue would never be produced, and the RPI campus was without a student newspaper. The failure of the Quarterly did have one positive side effect though. Due to the lack of a “medium for the regular exposition of matters of interest to [the Institute], its alumni and the public,” a group of students decided to revive the Polytechnic. Unlike its predecessors, including its earlier version, the Polytechnic was able to last more than a few issues! Luckily, issues of these early student newspapers survived and can be accessed through Rensselaer Digital Collections.
“I remember my first chemistry professor…he was in the front of the class of course, and he said, ‘This reminds me of classes I had’–and he mentions where he was at the time–because that was co-ed. Here I am right in the middle of the first row with about…sixty fellows.”
On November 23, 2013 and again on January 6, 2014, Archives staff captured the sound portrait of Mary Ellen Rathbun Kolb, RPI Class of 1946. Mary graduated on April 22, 1945 with a degree in Metallurgical Engineering. She entered the Institute with one other female, Lois Graham, in September 1942. Mary and Lois were the first female graduates, after 116 years of RPI being an all-male college. What changed? RPI felt the pressure of World War II looming.
On September 12, 1942, Livingston W. Houston, Secretary and Treasurer of the Institute, stated in a press release, “In view of the rapidly increasing need to train women to replace men in the war effort, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will admit a limited number of qualified women students to its degree-giving courses. They will be accepted for entrance during the week of September 14.” So much had changed on campus, practically overnight. Only a few months prior to Houston’s announcement, the Board of Trustees had dismissed the option to admit women.
We first met Mary for lunch and to introduce ourselves in August 2013. We talked casually and asked her to tell us a few things about her days at RPI. She shared a few typical college antics. For example, Mary explained how she played matchmaker for several young RPI men, getting them dates with Russell Sage ladies! We also caught glimpses of some fun-filled times with the Sigma Phi Epsilon (Sig Ep) fraternity house (where she met her husband Edward Paul Kolb ’44, president of Sig Ep at the time). In sharp contrast to this sort of fun however, Mary frequently recalled the atmosphere of war. In fact, during the first interview Mary stated “you have to remember there was still a war going on. It wasn’t your normal student relationship with the surroundings that you have now. The guy next to you was liable to be in the army tomorrow and liable to be dead the next day. I mean it was a very different atmosphere.” Several different times throughout our interviews she conveyed similar sentiments regarding wartime on campus.
We were taken with Mary’s memories of wartime. That first meeting with her guided the background research we conducted prior to the formal interviews. We focused on RPI’s campus environment from 1940-1946 and quickly discovered that engineering schools across the country were in high demand for the war effort, and the U.S. Government offered funding for campus alterations and accommodations of military programs. RPI was one of those colleges that “went military, or rather naval, in quick order” (Education for a Technological Society, Samuel Rezneck 346). In September 1941 the Naval Reserve Officer’s Training Corps was established at RPI, and soon afterward, the V-5, a Navy Flight Preparatory School for enlisted men was created. In July 1943 a regular training program for naval officer candidates was introduced called V-12. Despite a predominant Naval presence on this campus, Mary’s memories reflected classmates being drafted or disappearing into a variety of different war programs and branches of the military. For the duration of time that Mary attended RPI, war was the overarching theme. In fact, the Class of 1943 stated in their yearbook that they are a “war class” using the phrase The Fighting Engineersto describe themselves.
Fun was not completely eliminated during the war years, even though as Mary pointed out, “We were trying to get through school as fast as you could. Get out and maybe do something for the war effort…You had to keep up with your studies…You didn’t have time for a lot of extra stuff.” Nevertheless, dances at the Sig Ep fraternity or the ’87 Gym were still a prominent aspect of student life. Mary shared one incident where she was trying to push a Sig Ep brother up the stairs at Sage, “..the place where the girls were.” According to Mary this young man hadn’t dated before and they were eager to get “him going.” Another fun glimpse into Mary’s life, particularly at school, but a lifelong pleasure is playing cards. During the interview Mary’s son prompted her to comment on playing cards with her professors. Mary said “I always play cards whenever I have a chance.” The interviewer asked, “Did you beat them?” Mary replied, “Of course.”
What was it like to be here then, with all those young men? The interviewers expected Mary to explain separate female policies, curfews, lodging assistance, perhaps even a female adviser. Rather she stated “I don’t remember RPI providing anything except an education which I certainly appreciated.” Mary explained that she lived at Russell Sage, and when they weren’t in session, she lived wherever she could. At one point she lived in north Troy with her eye doctor’s secretary. She would take the bus each day which dropped her off at the foot of the Approach, where she “crawled up the Approach,” and continued going on to her classes. We also asked her if she “encountered many attitudes about women students?” Mary replied, “No, never. I’ve been asked that over the years and there was no animosity at all. A lot of liking…But we were all in the same boat…”
The Institute Archives has countless scrapbooks, diaries, and student notebooks from 1824 to the present documenting student life at Rensselaer, but virtually all of these collections belonged to male students, describing an all-male campus. Now we have a different perspective. Mary described this vignette: “There weren’t any women around really for a while. I remember we did get one woman instructor…I remember her distinctly. I was walking by the school one day and I looked up at the window and she was there waving at me—I said ‘oh my gosh that’s an instructor, what did I do?’”
It’s not easy to remember the past, especially when you’re asked to recall experiences from over 69 years ago. We are truly grateful for the opportunity to meet and interview Mary, and learn about this momentous time from a female perspective. March is Women’s History Month, a great time to announce the completion of this oral history interview with a woman who loved science and was one of RPI’s first female engineers.
The construction of the Main Building in 1864 marked the beginning of the steady expansion of Rensselaer’s campus up the hill on Troy’s eastern edge. There were two exceptions: the Gymnasium (the subject of our December 3 post) built just below the Main Building in 1887 and the lesser known Alumni Building erected on Second Street next to the Troy Savings Bank in 1893.
Despite its name, the Alumni Building was not intended as a center for Rensselaer alumni activities, but rather as home for the Institute’s geological and mineralogical collections and its principal administrative offices. Rensselaer’s entire collection of geological and mineralogical specimens (many of which were collected by Amos Eaton) was destroyed in the Troy fire of 1862. Following the fire Professor of Natural History Henry B. Nason began assembling a teaching collection of minerals, rock specimens, and fossils which were housed on the top floor of the Main Building.
At an alumni meeting in January of 1888 in Troy, Professor Nason urged that the Institute erect a fireproof building in which the collections could be housed. The State Geologist of New York James Hall, Class of 1832, promised a valuable collection of fossils if such a building was constructed.
Part of the funding for the fireproof building was raised by subscriptions from participants in the Troy meeting and in January 1889 Pittsburg alumni pledged enough to cover construction costs. A lot on Second Street immediately north of the Troy Saving Bank (where the Rensselaer trustees held their meetings) was purchased in 1890 for $10,000 with funds subscribed by the trustees. The building was designed by the Wilson Brothers architectural firm of Philadelphia (all three brothers were alums).
Fifty feet square and three stories high, the building was faced with brownstone on the first floor and yellow brick and terra-cotta on the top floors. The first floor contained the Institute library, an office for the Institute’s director and a meeting room for the board of trustees. The top floors contained the geological and mineralogical collections (about 10,000 specimens) and a lecture room for the department of geology. The total construction cost was $35,000.
The Alumni Building was in use from 1893 to 1912 when all the collections and offices were moved to the newly constructed Pittsburg Building. Sold in 1915 to the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, the building is now owned by First Niagara Bank.
Palmer C. Ricketts, who occupied an office in the Alumni Building first as Institute Director and then President, summed up his exasperation with its location in his 1934 history of Rensselaer:
“No good reason has ever been given for the erection of the Alumni Building on Second Street, so far away from the other buildings and so far below them. Its use as the office of the director was extremely inconvenient. The library, while in it, was almost useless. The collections housed in it compelled its use for the teaching of geology and mineralogy, to the great inconvenience and loss of time of students all of whose other recitations were conducted in the buildings half a mile away from the Alumni Building and on the hill about 100 feet above it. When the Warren property was bought and buildings began to be erected still further up the hill and the number of students began to increase, the inconvenience became still greater…”
The staff of the Institute Archives is pleased to announce the digitization of back issues of RPI’s student newspaper, The Rensselaer Polytechnic. As of January 2014, 121 volumes (1869, 1885-2001) are fully searchable in the library’s digital repository. That’s roughly 2,800 issues, for a total of over 41,000 pages!
Background and future plans This digitization project was just one step in a larger effort to reformat the Poly. In 2001 the newspapers were microfilmed to preserve the fragile originals. While microfilm is an effective preservation format, it’s not exactly user friendly for access purposes. Eventually, the 41 reels of film were scanned by Hudson Microimaging, which also used optical character recognition (OCR) software to capture the text for indexing.
Our next challenge will be adding “born digital” issues dating from 2002 to the present. Later we hope to devise a method of capturing digital content at the point of creation. This is a critical step in providing long term access since several recent issues were published exclusively online.
About Rensselaer Digital Collections Rensselaer Digital Collections consist of materials of intellectual, historic and cultural value to Rensselaer in a wide variety of image, audio, video and text formats. The goals of the Digital Collections are to facilitate the preservation of these resources, to expedite research through enhanced search and retrieval, and to promote Rensselaer by providing an avenue for the dissemination of work by its faculty and students to the widest possible audience.
Materials from the Institute Archives and Specials Collections include school histories, RPI songs, materials relating to the RPI lacrosse team that played in the 1948 Olympics, Union Annual Reports, and other items documenting the history of the Institute. Also, the alumni magazine is in the process of being digitized, so stay tuned!
Disclaimer Due to copyright issues involving syndicated content, newspapers from 1977 and later can only be accessed either from on campus or with a current RCS login. We’ll try to remedy that, but in the meantime, we hope off-campus visitors enjoy the earlier Polytechnics.
Access and navigation The Poly can be accessed by either browsing or searching the online collection via Rensselaer Digital Collections (RDC). To browse by date, just click on “The Rensselaer Polytechnic (student newspaper)” under “Featured Collections.” You can select a volume from the list, then open any issue by clicking on its thumbnail image. When a copyright page opens, just click the “Continue” button.
RDC offers various search options, but the easiest method is limiting your search to “The Rensselaer Polytechnic (student newspaper)” in the “Select collection” drop down menu. Simple keyword searches such as “rpi playhouse” or “amos eaton” work well, especially if used in combination with the “Exact” search option. Once the results appear you can sort them by date to hone in on a particular time period. Searching works best in Internet Explorer, which highlights search terms within the results.
For more information, send us a comment, or contact Tammy at 518-276-8333.
Lately we’ve been reviewing our collections for information about the era in which the first women students were admitted to Rensselaer. This occurred in the fall of 1942, after the United States entered World War II, as industries clamored for … Continue reading →
Following the Great Troy Fire of 1862, which completely destroyed Rensselaer’s physical plant, all of the Institute’s new buildings moved steadily east up the hill overlooking the city and Hudson River. An exception was a gymnasium which opened in March of 1887 on a plot of land on the south side of Broadway at the foot of the Main Building.
The facility came about as a result of a student petition and what the Institute administration labeled as “agitation.” About half of the funding for the project was contributed by alumni, trustees, students and residents of Troy. The remainder was appropriated from Institute funds. Total construction cost was $20,000. The two story building was 80 feet by 44 feet and constructed of red brick trimmed with stone and terra-cotta.
Gymnasium, 2nd floor with upper story running track
The first floor had a reception room, dressing rooms, showers, and a bowling alley. The second story was one large hall 30 feet high outfitted with the latest in “gymnastic apparatus.” An elevated running track encircled the hall. The gym remained in service until the ’87 Gymnasium was opened in November 1912.
In 1914 and 1915 the building was rented to the Troy Academy and then remained vacant until the Masonic Order started using it in 1924. In 1929 Rensselaer’s Dramatic Club received permission to convert the building’s upper story into a 400 seat theater named the RPI Playhouse.
The conversion cost about $4,000. The story below the theater was used for dancing and after 1934 converted into an apartment and dressing rooms for The Players. The “Old Gymnasium” was demolished in 1966.
On November 5, 1824, Stephen Van Rensselaer wrote a letter to the Reverend Dr. Samuel Blatchford stating “I have established a school at the north end of Troy, in Rensselaer county, in the building usually called the Old Bank Place, for the purpose of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life.”
Surely it’s time to celebrate, and have cake with the weR Society. We’d like to thank them for the opportunity to shed light on this wonderful anniversary and the document itself, housed in the Institute Archives!
Management education at Rensselaer began in 1925 with the establishment of the Department of Arts, Science, and Business Administration. In 1933 business and management education was further expanded and operated in parallel with the development of an industrial engineering program. The two curricula later combined and resulted in the establishment of the Department of Management Engineering, which combined both industrial engineering and business education. By January 1963 a decision was made to create the School of Management.
School of Management, 1980s
The new School of Management was initiated to prepare students for careers in industry, business and government. The program encompassed studies in accounting, finance, marketing, personnel and industrial relations, and production and statistics. Often, we are asked in the Archives to provide early course schedules, so looking back I thought our readers might find it interesting to peruse the management courses required in 1963!
Lally Hall, 2013
The Union Clubhouse was the first home for the new management school. Soon after the building ceased being the student union in 1967 it became known as the Management Center until it was formally named the Lally Management Center in 1981. By this time the program offered (in addition to a B.S.) a minor in Management, a joint Program in Engineering and Management, an accelerated Management-Law Program, and an M.B.A. Other programs were also included to sharpen leadership and management skills for business people.
George Low with Kenneth and Thelma Lally, 1981
On October 1, 1980, Kenneth T. Lally (1914-2008), a trustee of Rensselaer, Teledyne Gurley retiree, and his wife Thelma P. Lally (1913-2005), presented a $1 million gift to Rensselaer. In recognition of their generosity Rensselaer formally named the building the “Lally Management Center.” Mr. Lally was President of Teledyne Gurley while Thelma was a dedicated teacher for 35 years. Both had impressive professional, charitable and educational backgrounds.
In 1998, the Lally’s pledged $5 million toward a $7.5 million dollar renovation project for the Pittsburgh Building and $10 million to endow and support programs for the Lally School of Management, “a preeminent business school that creates and disseminates knowledge to leverage advanced management practices, analytical insights, and technology for the benefit of society.”
Rensselaer had the deep seated insight to continue expanding upon the established track of management and business programs due to the early speculation of an exploding technological business world. Today, thanks to many parties who have been staunch supporters of the School’s growth and stability we now celebrate 50 years of management at Rensselaer.
A recent inquiry by a member of the class of 1953 brought to our attention a former Rensselaer staff member who was a popular figure on campus from the late 1940’s to the early 1960’s. This person was Helen Liddle Warren, Rensselaer’s first Director of Social Activities. Mrs. Warren was hired by President Livingston Houston in 1947 when there was little in the way of organized campus social activity. Her responsibilities included planning and coordinating an annual calendar of social events ranging from dances, pep rallies, bridge tournaments, and concerts to coffee hours and “smokers” (an informal social gathering). From her office in the Rensselaer Union Clubhouse (present day Lally Hall) she also dispensed advice and instruction on social etiquette to the student body as well as assistance with an assortment of perplexing problems. As she explained in the Rensselaer Handbook for 1952-1953, “I am only too happy to help you with a difficult letter, help choose a wedding present, sew on a button or get you a blind date.”
She delivered two annual lectures on social etiquette to students in the Introduction to Engineering course required of freshman. Topics included making introductions, sending and replying to invitations, and proper use of silverware. She also compiled a booklet on etiquette for distribution to freshman. We have not been able to locate a copy, but a 1955 Rensselaer Alumni News article on Mrs. Warren contains several excerpts. Our favorite: “Don’t take such large mouthfuls that you resemble a chipmunk.”
Helen Liddle Warren was born in 1896 in Hoosick Falls, NY. After completing high school she trained and worked as a nurse in New York City. She became a nursing supervisor at Troy’s Samaritan Hospital in 1921 and married Walter P. Warren, Jr. in 1922. She was the director of the Day Student House at Russell Sage College from 1934-1941 and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Sage in 1941. She was an administrator at Samaritan Hospital from 1941 until she joined the Rensselaer staff in 1947. She retired as Director of Social Activities in 1962 and died in 1980.
This weekend (October 4-6, 2013), alumni and their families will congregate on campus to celebrate an annual ritual: RPI reunion. Folks who received their degrees in years ending in 3 or 8 will revisit the site of their student days, reveling in memories while noticing the many changes that have taken place at Rensselaer.
It’s impossible to highlight the experiences of so many people in a single blog post, so I’ve chosen one class whose college days are well documented in the archives. They are the Class of 1973, a group of students whose years at RPI spanned a unique era in American history.
Fraught with conflict – local, national, and international – the years 1969 to 1973 saw a wide range of protests and activism on campuses throughout the US. Rensselaer was no exception, and our collections testify to student involvement in these movements. We have photographs and posters, meeting minutes and correspondence, official publications and student newsletters, reports and brochures. Everything from student rights to campus governance; from improving humanities and social sciences offerings to demanding a “fine new library”; and from social injustice to military opposition was addressed. In 1970, student activists even delivered a series of demands to President Folsom titled “Requisites for a Technological University.” Those were some very heady days at the ‘tute!
Some of these items will be on display in the Archives this weekend, along with selected materials from other reunion classes. So if you’re on campus, stop in and say hello – we love to share documents from days gone by at Rensselaer!
Presentation: “Exploring Space at RPI”
Space can be described as “the stage upon which the drama of communal life unfolds.” At Rensselaer, the academic, athletic, social, and common spaces used, and often created by students and administration have come and gone, ebbing and flowing from one decade to the next. Assistant Institute Archivist Jenifer Monger has dug deep within the Archives collections to place at center stage key spaces which have been utilized, advocated for, appropriated, and experienced throughout campus and its environs. Inspired by photographs and documents, Jenifer will explore these spaces from myriad vantage points, analyzing the meanings of spaces that have played major roles in campus life and memory, both past and present.
When: On Friday, October 4that 9 a.m., Friends of Folsom Library will host a talk given by Assistant Institute Archivist Jenifer Monger entitled “Exploring Space at RPI.”
Where: The presentation will take place at Russell Sage Dining Hall’s banquet room during Homecoming/Reunion and will include a continental breakfast.
The event is free and everyone is welcome, but an RSVP to Adrienne Birchler (518-276-8329 or email@example.com) by September 27th is required to secure a seat.
I’ve come across photographs in the Archives that depict students doing some interesting things on campus! I thought I’d seen it all until recently. Perusing the Grand Marshal Week photograph file, I discovered the images you see to the left and below but I need some verification from our readership. When I found these images I recalled a comment someone made to me last fall regarding students back in the 1980s participating in something called an “egg drop.” In fact these photos are dated 1985. Readers, is this it? I don’t see eggs here but I do see baskets being dropped from windows.
I will be so happy if our readership provides me with some insight on the “event,” and maybe stories. Were you there? Are you in the photo? Was this an ongoing Tradition?
Following the construction of the Main Building (1864) and Winslow Laboratory (1866), Rensselaer’s trustees began planning for a third instructional facility—an astronomical observatory.
The Williams Proudfit Astronomical Observatory was built in 1878 at a cost of $15,000. It was presented to the Institute by Mr. and Mrs. Ebenezer Proudfit of Troy as a memorial to their son Williams Proudfit, a student in the class of 1877, who was fatally injured by being thrown from his carriage in 1875. The Observatory, known as Proudfit Building, was built on the Rankin property that had been purchased in January 1877.
The central part of the brick building was 30 feet square with three wings, the total dimensions being sixty feet by seventy-six feet. The main part was two stories high, with a dome twenty-nine feet in diameter, under which was the main pier intended for an equatorial telescope. The wings were one story in height and were built to house apparatus used for astronomical purposes.
The observatory dome was constructed in Troy by Elisha Waters & Sons. It was made of Crane Brothers linen fiber, molded in sections and bolted together. The dome revolved on cannon balls placed on grooved iron tracks.
A large telescope was never placed under the dome and the observatory was therefore not of much benefit to the Institute. In 1900, the dome was replaced by a roof and a second story was added to the three wings. M.F. Cummings designed the renovated building, which became a laboratory for mechanical and electrical engineering. Mrs. Proudfit gave $6,500 towards the renovation. Westinghouse Electric and General Electric gave $6,000 worth of electrical machinery. The Alumni raised $36,000 as an endowment.
The building was partially destroyed by fire in 1902. As part of the renovation in 1903, a third story was added and the basement deepened. A boiler house, including a steam turbine for experimental purposes, was added on the north end. In 1904 two stories were added to the boiler house. The following images show the interior of Proudfit.
Proudfit, first floor laboratory, east wing, looking west
Proudfit, 2nd floor laboratory, northeast wing, looking east
Proudfit, first floor laboratory looking southeast
Proudfit, round museum room, first floor, looking northwest
In 1909 the electrical laboratories were moved to the Russell Sage Laboratory and Proudfit was devoted to the mechanics department. In 1924 it was used by the department of arts, science and business administration. Williams Proudfit was eventually razed in 1959 and the site is now occupied by the John A. Schumacher ’66 Park. The engraved arched stone that was over the building’s doorway was saved and placed in the south wall of the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center dedicated in 1961.
Rio Grande Bridge, Pacific Railway of Costa Rica. Designed by Theodore Cooper, Class of 1858.
The Institute Archives and Special Collections has a new website! It was time to spruce things up a bit, share more images, and improve the site navigation to accommodate our various audiences.
As you may recall, last year we migrated the RPI History Revealed blog from WordPress.com to .org, which gave us the freedom to customize and rid ourselves of silly advertisements. We also planned on revamping the Archives website, and it made much more sense to present our content by utilizing the same tool. Now our blog and web site have the same look and feel. Moreover, both sites have visual details that resemble the Rensselaer home page!
I’m excited to announce that we have more images on our site, lending to our audience a stronger visual appeal. The site visitor will see something new on just about every page, and the banner images depicting bridges, that fade in and out, are a nifty touch! Archivists often use the word bridge as a metaphor. For example, we talk about bridging the historical past with the contemporary present, or how researchers bridge the gap between differing outlooks on history. Therefore, for a redesign, bridges were quite fitting and I chose to highlight bridges that our RPI graduates were responsible for in one way or another, connecting our visitors with visual representations of alumni legacies.
Please enjoy and definitely change your bookmarks! To get there, just go Home from the navigation bar above.
The Archives has a new exhibit on display in Folsom Library! We are showcasing fourteen letters, written from 1819 to 1837 by Rensselaer School co- founder Amos Eaton to Emma Willard. Mrs. Willard was the founder of the Troy Female Seminary (now known as the Emma Willard School). This correspondence documents Eaton’s interest in making scientific instruction available to both women and the general public. Many of the letters deal specifically with Eaton’s efforts to influence the science curriculum and teaching at Mrs. Willard’s school, which will celebrate its bicentennial in May 2014.
For those who can’t make it to Folsom Library, we’ve created an online exhibit where you can read through the correspondence at your leisure. Enjoy!
“On the 15th of September, 1909, there entered into Sage Laboratory a crowd of fellows who were to represent the class of 1913. After having received a lecture on how we should act while at the Institute, we elected temporary officers to take us through the cane rush… Having been given instruction by our worthy friends, the Juniors, how to win it, we entered it and came out victorious, with a score of nineteen to ten.”
As I go in and out of the Archives door, I can’t help but catch the vibe around the library; students cramming for finals, anticipation of the future, and of course commencement. I decided to look back 100 years, asking “what was 1913 like?” The flood gates opened; I kept finding more and more: photographs of the students while at Rensselaer, menus from the Junior and Senior dinners (they liked steak!), the commencement program specifying that graduation was held for the first time in the new ’87 Gymnasium, and letters and photographs covering 50 years of class reunions, 1923 to 1963.
Carl James Wright ’13 donated numerous class photographs along with additional memorabilia, while Livingston (“Liver”) Waddell Houston ’13 (11th President of RPI) left us correspondence between himself and classmates that covers the 10th, 25th, 35th, 40th, 45th, and 50th reunions.
For years we can trace who attended the Reunions, but moreover, what is conveyed in the correspondence is age, admittance of illnesses, balding and larger bellies, all described by members with really good cheer!
Unfortunately the reality is that a complete era of RPI students eventually passed into our history for good. By the last reunion, we glimpse the eagerness of remaining in touch commensurate with their decreased ability to make the trek to Troy. Carl Theissen’s letter to Liver is by far the most amusing, despite his struggles and physical setbacks (he eloquently describes the loss of his teeth, and his disappointment that he would not be able to turn the shindig into a Hootenanny!)
We are pressing on with the Mystery Image series. Here we present another unusual scene, but details abound in this image: an antique car, a fire hydrant, a toy baby, a toy rocket(?) and a man wearing a police cap standing on what we presume to be the hood of that car.
Will someone please tell us what is going on here??
I do have one clue for us all, the image is dated 1949-1950.
Send along your comments – we love hearing from you!
On April 3, Rensselaer lost a true patriot of the Institute, Carl Westerdahl. Carl’s passing hits close to home to many in the RPI community due to his enduring relationships with students, alumni, staff, and especially those of us in the Institute Archives and Special Collections department.
Carl’s career as an administrator at Rensselaer spanned over two decades, but we knew him best as a researcher and donor. He was always working on some project (or many) to highlight the accomplishments of Rensselaer’s best and brightest.
After retiring from the Institute in 1993, Carl started a consulting business called Unconventional Wisdom. One of his first projects was as co-author of Rensselaer: Where Imagination Achieves the Impossible with Thomas Phelan and Michael Ross. Carl was the primary photo selector for the book, which contains nearly 250 illustrations documenting people, places, and activities associated with Rensselaer history.
Carl became a chronic researcher a few years later through his involvement with the RPI Hall of Fame selection committee. He researched each nominee, putting together illustrated biographies to help the committee select the best candidates. Carl then donated copies of the bios to the Archives so future researchers wouldn’t have to repeat all of the work he had done.
As a member of the Friends of Folsom, Carl teamed with our former colleague Amy Rupert (a.k.a. amythearchivist) to present a series of luncheon presentations on RPI history. Filled with anecdotes and images, their tag team productions were both enlightening and entertaining.
One of the many ways Carl thanked us for our research support was his annual holiday gift of delicious dried apricots. It’s impossible to indulge in these treats without remembering him!
Perhaps Carl’s most ambitious project was documenting the life of founder Stephen Van Rensselaer III. He continued his research over many years until illness interrupted his plans. As a final gift to the Archives, Carl donated his research materials for the use of future SVR researchers.
We will miss Carl and his good cheer, but we will also celebrate the many contributions he made to RPI, the Archives, and to us.
Every now and then unusual things cross my desk and I get to figure out what to do with them! One case in point is a shopping bag of sports memorabilia, a pair of skates, and four wooden hockey sticks that were forwarded to me recently.
Old athletic equipment isn’t something we tend to collect. We have pretty good records on RPI sports teams, but the actual game equipment… not so much. As I looked over the individual items, though, I realized this was a pretty neat cache. Each stick has someone’s name on it, and two are autographed by a number of people. Now we’re cooking – hockey sticks with documentation! Right up an archivist’s alley!
Fortunately three of the sticks have the name Ned Harkness on them, so I figured they must date from his tenure as head coach, 1949 to 1963. And one of the sticks is annotated with information about the 1958-59 team, so that helped narrow down the time frame.
I consulted our collection of hockey programs and quickly identified many of the signatures, including Richard and Pat Chiarelli, Bob Ottone, Charlie Urmson, Don Wishart, and John Stopen. These guys played in the mid- to late-1950s following RPI’s first national championship. Someone thought to collect their autographs for posterity, and decades later they found their way back to Rensselaer.
Looking through our old yearbooks, I found an additional clue. Paul Midghall (Class of 1959) was named the 1958-59 Athlete of the Year, and a photo of him shows his name scrawled near the top of his stick, just like the lettering on the sticks we received. That makes a lot of sense, since all of the players used the same brand of hockey sticks at the time (even the goaltenders). But each stick would have been a different length and taped to the player’s specifications. Names must have been essential to quickly identify a particular player’s equipment.
One last thing. One of the donated sticks appears to have been used by RPI’s illustrious coach, since it has “HARKNESS” written down the front of the shaft in red marking pen. Unlike many hockey sticks of that era, its blade has a slight curve that suggests the coach was a left shot. Can anyone confirm (or refute) that? Inquiring minds want to know!
When we provide titles or descriptions to images in our database they’re usually very basic and point out identifiable characteristics of the photo so we can easily retrieve it for patrons or internal use. For example, the description for this image might be “Man using torch in lab.”
Since this photo includes an element of multitasking that we just don’t see anymore I thought our audience would find humor in providing their own title or caption to the mysterious image.
If you know who this is, and where they are, please let us know. More importantly, have some fun, give us a title and caption for the image too!!
Following the construction of the Main Building and Winslow Laboratory, Rensselaer’s trustees began planning for a third instructional facility—an astronomical observatory. In order to erect the observatory more land was needed and in 1877 the Ranken property, situated on the east side of Eighth Street across from the Winslow building was purchased. The property had a 150 foot frontage on Eighth Street and extended about 500 feet to the top of the hill. The purchase included a house and stable. The Ranken House was about 40 feet square by two stories high and built of brick. The building was used by the Department of Mechanics for recitation rooms and eventually to house the Institute’s first materials testing equipment. Both the house and stable were razed in 1910 when the Pittsburgh Building was erected. Click on the image below to begin the slideshow!
The Ranken House with West Hall in the background, circa 1875. The Pittsburgh Building is situated in this spot today.
Mechanics Room, Ranken House
Interior view of Mechanics room in the Ranken House.
Looking up at the Ranken House. The stairway up the hill follows a similar path to the current stairway which runs from 8th Street to the Pittsburgh Building today.
8th Street & Ranken House
Woman walking along 8th Street with the Ranken House situated behind her through the trees, in the background. This is now the home of the Pittsburgh Building.
8th Street & Ranken House
Students sitting on stone wall along 8th Street with the Ranken House in the background on the left-hand side. To the right and up on the hill behind is the Troy University (not visible here), now the home of Folsom Library.
Just for fun, we decided to mine the archives for some of those interesting items that don’t quite fit into our usual posts. Instead, we selected some gems that convey a campus mood or a mindset if you will! So this year we asked, what do we have that speaks to “winter, or holiday break?”
To some, it’s a long-awaited reprieve from homework and exams – a time for family and friends. Generations of students have anticipated the end of the fall semester with thoughts of rest and relaxation, mixed with generous amounts of fun and frolic. A December 19, 1885 article in The Troy Polytechnic advised against enjoying the holiday break too much, warning that “usually, the more fun a man experiences, the less he is inclined to study when he gets back to his books.” However, that never stopped Rensselaer students from enjoying themselves before, during, or after the holiday, as seen in a snowball fight engraving from January 1884!
For many members of the campus community,the focus this time of year is holiday cheer. Christmas activities and décor highlight the season, including parties, concerts, and gift giving. Post-World War II “polywives” even shared tips on sprucing up their barracks-like apartments with holiday greens in theRen’wyck News. For many years Campus Carols were a major event at the Field House; now the Institute holds a holiday concert at EMPAC.
And then there is… winter. Brrr. In spite of its harshness, we all find ways of coping with and/or celebrating the season. Whether huddled up with a book, watching the RPI Holiday Hockey Tournament, or enjoying the snow, we manage to plow through the break, until January arrives and a new semester begins. Such is the cycle of campus life!
Whatever your predilections, we hope you enjoy the break. See you next year!
Following the completion of the Main Building in 1864 planning was initiated for a chemical laboratory for the Institute. Construction was started in 1865 and work on the brick structure was completed the following year. The cost of the building was $10,000, half of which was donated by Rensselaer President John Flack Winslow. In recognition of his leadership and generosity, the new laboratory was named after Winslow. The state of the art facility was designed and equipped under the direction of Professor of Chemistry Henry B. Nason who had received his Ph.D. at the University of Göttingen. (click the image for a slideshow)
Viewing Winslow from the Main Building south, 8th Street to the right of Winslow, the roof of West Hall in the background.
Winslow Building, After Addition
Circa 1950, showing the Winslow building's current length of 142 feet.
Interior of Winslow laboratory after 1907 conversion to the "The Shop"
The laboratory, situated immediately north of the Main Building, was originally sixty feet long by forty feet wide and three stories high. Following a fire in 1884, which destroyed the upper story, the building was enlarged. After a second fire in 1902 a south wing was added bringing its total length to ninety feet. A third fire damaged the building in 1904. Winslow continued to be used as a chemical laboratory until 1907 when it was converted into a shop for the use of students in the new mechanical and electrical engineering degree programs. A foundry and forge and pattern and machine shops were installed to meet the needs of the students. The building was enlarged to its present one hundred by forty-two feet in 1930-31 and new electrically powered equipment installed. In 1990 the Winslow Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Mystery Image #30 generated an incredible amount of interest! I’m so pleased it was such a great hit. We received a few responses on place and date (Thank You!). General consensus is that the image was taken at the RPI Houston Fieldhouse in the late 1950s – early 1960s, but it was still unclear what the event was. Shortly after we posted the image my colleague Tammy perused our Sports Collection and found an interesting item – Tammy’s investigative edge proved extremely noteworthy. See what the man in the center is holding? Here it is:
This is the back cover of the 1959, NCAA Hockey Tournament held at the RPI Houston Fieldhouse (RPI did not play). This program was singled out as proof because we know of no other programs from that era with the Rensselaer Seal on the back cover! If you would like to see the entire program, we digitized it for you and entered it into Rensselaer Digital Collections. Enjoy the Program HERE! And of course, let us know if you were there.
For those who follow sports, the crisp air of fall is strongly associated with an old tradition: RPI football. Intercollegiate games have been played at Rensselaer since 1886, albeit on borrowed fields and without a coach for the first twenty … Continue reading →
On May 20, 1862, 10 days after Rensselaer’s physical plant was completely destroyed in The Great Troy Fire, the Institute’s trustees began planning a new home for Rensselaer. Under the leadership of John Flack Winslow, the trustees quickly accepted a building site on 8th Street at the head of Broadway (the present-day location of the Approach), which was donated by former student and trustee Joseph M. Warren. The trustees then initiated a campaign to raise a $50,000 building fund. (Click “Play” for the slideshow below)
Classroom with geological specimens in the Main building.
Classroom, Main Building.
Classroom with geological and natural specimens in the Main building.
Library, inside the Main building.
Assembly Hall, Main Building
Main building, view from 8th Street.
On John Winslow’s recommendation, plans for a new building were approved in August 1862. This was to be the first building specifically designed and built for the needs of the Institute. Construction began in the fall of 1862 and work was completed in 1864. The approximate cost was $44,000.
The structure measured 115 x 50 feet and had a five story central section flanked by two wings four stories high. Facilities included lecture and recitation rooms, drawing rooms, an assembly hall, a physics laboratory, and a library. Geological and natural history collections were housed in a large hall on the top floor.
The Main Building, as it came to be called, was destroyed by fire on June 9, 1904. For details see “Burning of the Institute”, The Polytechnic June 22 1904.
Fishing through some unidentified photographs yesterday, I came across a folder labeled “Students” and within it I found this great photograph of a cheering crowd. As I stood above the image smiling (because this photo told me it was the next mystery image), I asked silently, who, what, when, and where? Look at their faces, there’s so much intensity, excitement, maybe even dismay, perhaps suspension. This crowd is packed into a space with wood and leather seats, and one gentleman is holding what looks like a program with the Rensselaer seal on it. Hmmmm!
What do you think? Can you tell us where they are? Can you clue us in on what event this could be? Give us a shout, let us know!
In 1947, Samuel Rezneck (Professor of History at the Institute) replied to a researcher who asked why the Institute had adopted cherry and white as its school colors. We have Rezneck’s response to the query which reveals some colorful articles he found in The Rensselaer Polytechnic that I sought out for myself and couldn’t resist sharing with our readers. The following excerpts from the articles do not officially explain why cherry and white were chosen, but they’re fun descriptions which convey a growing sense of school spirit during the late nineteenth century.
The first reference to cherry was in 1887 when The Poly published an article analyzing the colors of other schools as a response to another college’s publication simply listing schools and their colors. That analyses goes like this:
“Cherry…not so flaunting as the scarlet of Rutgers, less gruesome than the ruddygore of Harvard, a great improvement on the weak pink of Hamilton, vastly less confederate than the cardinal and grey of Stevens and the Boston Tech…” In conclusion, Cherry was not to be “spoken of in the same day with the garnet of Union… There can be no doubt that cherry is a ripe color.”
Pride was certainly included in the above passage, but another article, equally as descriptive, points out objections to cherry being the only color adopted due to some drawbacks:
“…an ex-freshman procured a blazer of solid cherry but he was attacked by an infuriated bull… He then had to dye his blazer a different color.” Furthermore, “a player does not look well covering third base, with a uniform of block cherry. As for a football player… he much resembles a vulgar evil one, such as may be seen at any masquerade ball.” The editor therefore made a proposal: “Why not make it cherry and white?”
Rezneck found another article in The Poly on Dec. 20, 1890 regarding school colors. This time, the student union was considering the Institute color. Within this article a key concern was raised over the exact shade of cherry. Therefore, it was suggested that several shades be chosen, placed in the gymnasium, and compared, however we don’t know the outcome of that comparison.
Rezneck’s final discoveries of school colors were found in the June and October 1891 Poly. First, a committee was formed to design a button and retain the “old Institute color, cherry.” Permission was given to add white to the button, but the Poly doesn’t specify who gave permission. Finally, in October 1891, an Institute badge was created having cherry and white as the prominent colors, “Rensselear Polytechnic Institute” was written in gold, and the shape of the badge was the target of a leveling rod. We don’t have the badge, but to the right is a target.
If you have any further information on the history of cherry and white as the school colors, please comment!
May 10th of this year was the 150th anniversary of Troy’s Great Fire. The fire destroyed a major portion of the city’s downtown including the Institute’s entire physical plant. It was an important event in Rensselaer’s history because it marks the beginning of the move of the Institute from downtown Troy up the hill to its present location.
About noon on Saturday May 10, 1862 sparks coming from a locomotive started a fire in the wooden shingle roof of the Rensselaer and Saratoga Railroad Bridge located at the present site of the Green Island Bridge. By 6:00pm when the fire was finally brought under control nearly 700 buildings in a 75 acre area had been destroyed. Several people who were unable to flee their homes lost their lives and hundreds of families were left homeless. (Click the images below to enlarge)
The above photo captures the breadth and severity of the fire which extended from Federal to Congress Streets and from River Street to Eighth Street. The man with the horse and wagon is at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Federal Street. The arched structure to the center right is one end wall of the block long Union Railroad Depot, just west of Blitman Residential Commons. The tall spired building in the center of the hill is the Troy University, the present site of RPI’s Folsom Library. Immediately to the left is “Mt. Airy”, the Warren residence. Directly down the slope on Eighth Street is the Ranken house where the Pittsburgh building now stands. Also visible on Eighth Street in the far left of the photo is the Church of the Holy Cross. (Photograph courtesy of Charles Porter).
Map of the burnt district of Troy.
Since 1844 the Institute had been located in two buildings on the north-east corner of Sixth and State Streets. Both of these brick structures (a classroom building and a laboratory) were destroyed in the fire. Also lost during the blaze was the Institute’s furniture, laboratory equipment, geological specimens and a portion of its administrative records.
Institute building at Sixth and State Streets.
The 65 members of the student body finished the school term in temporary quarters at Troy University. In the fall of 1862 classrooms were established in the Vail building on the south-east corner of Congress and River Streets. The Vail building was used until a new permanent home for the Institute could be financed and built.
Annotated view of Troy, 1862
To the left, we have highlighted prominent landmarks.
With the new academic year approaching I decided to stage an exhibition of signs, seals, & symbols designed and used by the Institute’s offices and students throughout its history. The main point emphasized is that Rensselaer reaches its community through numerous visual methods.
The Swarm, 1980s.
The Institute’s official seal, the word “Rensselaer,” signifying icons such as the engineer, slide rule, and the transit, the student run newspaper The Polytechnic, sports, and the transition of logos embody the Institute, student traditions and alumni pride.
“The Engineer” 1940s.
We encourage our fan base of “RPI History Revealed” to visit Folsom Library to view the exhibit of visual materials displayed and take a trip down history lane. I’ve included here a small preview of the items and ideas conveyed in the exhibit. The exhibit will run until the end of the fall semester. Enjoy!
With the XXX Olympiad being held in London, this seems like an opportune time to highlight the achievements of one of RPI’s most illustrious athletic teams. After an undefeated season, coach Ned Harkness took the lacrosse team to London to compete in a demonstration game in the 1948 Olympics. Along the way, the team soundly defeated severalEnglish teams, and played to a thrilling 5-5 tie against an English all-star team. What a great opportunity for me to share some really cool stuff from the archives!
For starters, we have quite a few photos of the 1948 team in our image database. Some depict players practicing on the ’86 Field, while others capture the fund raising effort to cover the team’s travel expenses. Many photos document the team’s trip from Troy to New York City, where they embarked on their oceanic journey aboard the Marine Flasher.
One of my favorite items is a souvenir program which was sold for 35 cents to help fund the trip. It’s filled with information about lacrosse, team history, advertisements, schedules, etc. It also contains team and individual photos, as well as a nice section about Ned Harkness in the early days of his coaching career.
While we don’t have any 1948 game photos, we recently acquired an original programmefrom Wembley stadium on August 5, the day Rensselaer faced off against its All-England opponent. Someone’s penciled notes of the scoring are barely visible on one page.
But the pièce de résistance has to be the “Lacrosse Clipping Book 1948” I found in the archives a few years ago. There are no clues as to who compiled it, but its pages contain a wealth of information – clippings about games and players, photos, programs from some of the matches in England, and even a letter from the secretary of the English Lacrosse Union thanking RPI President Livingston Houston for facilitating the team’s trip. It’s a unique and awesome compilation, and it’s available online via Rensselaer Digital Collections.
The Institute Archives is not the only collector of Rensselaer lacrosse memorabilia. For additional clippings, check out this piece from the RPI Athletics Office. And read an Albany Times-Unionarticle about one of the co-captain Martin Davis and his gold medal. It’s great to know that archivists aren’t the only people who still cherish artifacts from an event that took place sixty-four years ago!
We have a visually unique collection of 40 fraternity party posters from the mid-1960’s, representing twenty two different RPI fraternities. According to the donor, Lombard Pozzi (B.Arch ’67) “The different fraternity houses would advertise their upcoming weekend parties by making original posters and tying them to the trees along the walk from the Troy Building to the old ’87 Gym.” As a freshman Lombard collected many of the posters for his dorm room, and later as house manager for the Rensselaer Society of Engineers he collected the house’s posters after parties.
I became intrigued with these posters since they convey an aspect of student life that we don’t always catch glimpses of here in the archives. By combing through The Transit and The Rensselaer Polytechnic, I discovered a simple quote in the 1963 Transit: “Parties are the best advertised feature of fraternities.” Lombard was right (!), but I still have a dozen questions and I’m hoping that our readership can shed light on the messages these posters sent to the students who passed by them!
Tequila, Hootenanny, Wipe-out, Raid, and Drag are written on many of the posters. Music by The Vagabonds, The Illusions, Boballoo, The Kingsmen, and The Bonnevilles allow us to imagine the atmosphere. Many of the posters, however convey a telling message, “Sorry, no Frosh.” The 1964 Transit explains this important tidbit written in the lower corner of the posters: “With the coming of the new semester that mocking phrase disappears from the party signs. Fraternity doors open wide to that now valuable commodity, the freshman.”
The Polytechnic, Wed., Sept. 30, 1964
Aside from The Transit being the best source of information on parties and posters, The Poly pointed to the bands! An article about The Kingsmen, Chiffons, Dick Madison and Josh White providing music for Homecoming was a welcome discovery. Check out this party poster! The Kingsmen were from the west coast though, so how big were these parties? Better yet, what was the Burdett drag strip like?
The Polytechnic, March 4, 1964.
I continued my search, and found a reference to Wilmer and the Dukes in The Poly. The article to the left mentions them playing at Crooked Lake. This band is listed on a Rensselaer Society of Engineers poster for “Wipe-out Night.”
My final search resulted in finding a dorm shot from 1963 with what certainly appears to be a party poster on the wall in the background! Now it’s clear how Lombard was decorating. These posters convey so much about student life, fraternity life and the social atmosphere of campus. We hope you can give us more insight. And by all means let us know what some of the acronyms are on the posters!
Delta Kappa Epsilon, Ride On Part Two-The Vagabonds
Lambda Chi Alpha, The Illusions and Hoosick St. Players
Phi Epsilon Pi, Friday Raid and Boballo
Phi Iota Alpha, Tequilla Party
Phi Kappa Tau, Weasel and the Wharf Rats
Phi Kappa Theta, Party Party Party
Phi Kappa Theta, Jerry Romeo Quartet
Phi Mu Delta, Les Cooper
Phi Sigma Kappa, The Kingsmen
Pi Kappa Alpha, Furies
Pi Kappa Phi, A.T. and the Agents
Pi Lamda Phi Epsilons
Rensselaer Society of Engineers, The Mystics
Rensselaer Society of Engineers, Wipe Out with Wilmer and The Dukes
Sigma Phi Epsilon (Yes '67)
Tau Kappa Epsilon, Uranus and the Four Moons
Theta Xi, The Bonnevilles
Zeta Beta Tau, Billy and Lillie
Zeta Psi, Quattlebaum and The Sharpichords (Twist and Shout)
“Although they provide some of the most enjoyable moments of fraternity living…they are not the fulcrum of fraternity life. At a fraternity party the surface of the deep friendships which are fostered is exposed, but this rousing and vital part of fraternity life is only a small part of the total experience.” The Transit 1963
Welcome to RPI HISTORY REVEALED, our new blog platform. We were a bit nervous about this transition, asking ourselves “will we lose them,” “will they stay tuned?”
Please remember, all of the content is the same. Anything you searched or found in the old blog over the years exists here (exact same posts and comments), things just look different.
I thought we’d begin our new blog with an RPI History Revealed Mystery Image tradition. We have this wonderful box of photographs labelled “laboratory.” I grabbed this box a few weeks ago in anticipation of finding some really great header images to incorporate into the new blog when I found one in particular that I just loved.
What is happening in this photograph? Which department would this activity have taken place in? Is it an experiment? I see a guy, an image of a gal, a black tube, a piece of plastic taped onto the black tube, a cement wall, a cardboard box and an outlet.
Can anyone tell us what technology (or forthcoming technology) this is!! And of course can anyone identify these individuals?
In our earlier post on the Class of 1912 we described the summer surveys conducted by students between their sophomore and junior years. In late June and early July the teams fanned out within a 50 mile radius of Troy to practice topographical and hydrological survey techniques. The survey teams of 5 to 10 students plus faculty advisor usually had group photos taken posed with their surveying equipment. Many of these photos appeared in the Transit over the years.
One of our favorite photos of the Class of 1912 was taken during June or July 1910 of summer survey Section 12. The photo was taken somewhere in the Berkshires, presumably in front of the boarding house at which the team was staying. Normally the survey team photos are simply “the guys’ plus their survey gear.” However, this photo, which was published in the 1912 Transit, contains “the guys” plus survey gear plus an elegant young woman.
We do not know who the woman was. She is only identified in the accompanying Transit text as “Flossie, the girl at the boarding house.” (Flossie is a familiar or diminutive form of Florence.) She was however, a distraction for at least one member of the team who was teased about the amount of attention he paid to her. Possibly she was employed at the boarding house, or a daughter of the landlord, or, perhaps another guest.
We do know who the members of the survey team were. From left to right: faculty advisor George Herbert Bainbridge, “Johnnie” (John Goyer Brush), “Shad” (Frank Forrester Badger), “Abby” ( Carl Lohnes Abbott), “Jawn” (John Henry Spencer), and “Van” (Herbert Van Gaasbeek Du Mont).
June 12 is the 100th anniversary of the Class of 1912’s graduation from Rensselaer and we want to mark the occasion by providing some background on what the student experience was like at Rensselaer over a century ago.
In September 1908 when members of the new class entered the Institute, the majority of students enrolled as civil engineering majors. Coursework for two new majors—electrical engineering and mechanical engineering – had started in 1907, and about ten percent of the 200 freshman chose one of the new programs. Regardless of major, members of the class were embarking on four very demanding years of education and training.
In a practice that continued into the mid-1950s, students at the Institute were organized in four divisions: Division A, fourth year or seniors; Division B, third year or juniors; Division C, second year or sophomores; and Division D, first year or freshman.
The following slideshow takes you through the RPI Bulletin from 1908 and details the four year civil engineering program most class members experienced.
Class of 1912 celebrating their 50th reunion at the Troy Club.
Like most of the 667 members of the student body, members of the Class of 1912 found board and lodging in Troy “with respectable private families.” Prices for suitable board and lodging varied from $5 to $9 per week. (Multiply 1912 dollars by 25 to get a rough idea of 2012 dollars.)
Institute fees included tuition of $100 per term and a $15 deposit to cover laboratory breakage. For seniors there was a graduation fee of $8 which included the cost of a diploma. The cost of drawing instruments – the instruments used at the Institute were exclusively Swiss-made – ranged from $15 to $35. Textbooks and stationary cost about $25 per year. The fee for joining the Rensselaer Union Clubhouse, adjacent to the ’86 Athletic Field, was $5. The clubhouse was intended to be the center of student life and contained, besides showers and lockers, a kitchen and dining room, a billiard and “lounging” room, and committee rooms for student organizations.
The academic year was divided into two terms of 19 weeks each. The first term began on September 15 and ended the last weekday of January. After a one week vacation the second term started in early February and ended in mid-June. Summer vacation was a nominal 12-13 weeks.
Public examinations of all classes of the Institute were held at the close of each term. The exams were part oral and part written. They took place over an eight day period and covered the entire field of study for the term.
During summer vacation students in all majors in Divisions D, C, and B were required to prepare a thesis on a faculty approved subject. Generally these involved original descriptions of existing structures, machines, manufacturing plants, or processes relating to a branch of engineering.
Summer survey team.
In addition to their nine months of coursework and summer vacation theses, students in the civil engineering department who completed the work of Division C (sophomore year) took a three to four week course in topographical and hydrological surveying during late June and early July. The surveys generally took place within a 50 mile radius of Troy. Villages in Washington and Rensselaer counties, the Berkshires and the southern Adirondack region were popular destinations. The 10-12 member survey teams were accompanied by a faculty advisor and stayed at local inns and boarding houses. Students who completed the work of Division B (junior year) took a course of the same length in railroad field engineering during late August and early September. (In August 1911 members of the Class of 1912 laid out an electric railroad between North Creek and Warrensburg, New York).
Class of 1912 summer shop participants.
Other majors did not escape summer courses. At the end of their sophomore and junior years students in mechanical and electrical engineering took four week courses in shop work including machine and pattern work. The “shop” was located in the Winslow building. In both the surveying and shop work courses students worked 8 hour days, 6 days a week.
In their final year students were required to prepare and defend one last thesis. Senior theses usually involved the original design for a structure, machine, plant, system or process and were accompanied by drawings and models.
Class of 1912 celebrating their 50th reunion at the Troy Club.
Of the 200 members of the Class of 1912 who matriculated in 1908, 118 students received their degrees in June 1912 – 96 in Civil Engineering, 13 in Electrical Engineering, and 9 in Mechanical Engineering. We are not sure how to account for the high attrition rate. Students entering the Institute were required to pass a rigorous entrance examination, so academic standing was not the only factor. Other likely causes were financial, health issues and early departure to accept job opportunities.
Rendering of the proposed gymnasium as it appeared in the 1912 Transit.
As we noted in our Commencement 1912 post, the ’87 Gymnasium was dedicated in June 1912. Planning for the new facility went back a couple of years earlier to 1910 when a Board of Trustees committee was established to investigate the feasibility of developing a department of physical culture at the Institute. The committee concluded that a completely equipped modern gymnasium was necessary if such a department was to be established. In June 1911 Stewart Johnson, Class of ’87 and a member of the Board of Trustees, announced that his class would finance the construction and equipping of the building.
Architect’s drawing, front elevation as built.
Lawlor & Haase, the architects of the Walker Chemical Laboratory and Russell Sage Laboratory, were retained as architects. Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent of Harvard University, an eminent authority on college gymnasiums, was hired as project consultant. The construction contract was awarded to the Whitney-Steen Company of New York City. According to The Polytechnic, “The gymnasium is designed in the current American classical style. It primarily is colonial of the Georgian period and detailed in classical Italian.” It was built of Harvard brick, laid in Flemish bond style with limestone trim and a copper roof. The swimming pool was to be a duplicate of the Carnegie pool at Yale. Total cost of constructing and equipping the building was $150,000. Ground was broken for the building on September 12, 1911 and work was completed in November 1912.
View of the newly completed ’87 Gymnasium from east end of ’86 Athletic Field.
Work on the building was closely monitored by the student body, most of whom were civil engineering majors and no doubt enthusiastic sidewalk superintendents. The Polytechnic featured almost monthly progress reports, including photographs that have left us with a diary of the building’s construction.
Here, with excerpts of the accompanying text, is a slideshow of the photos from The Polytechnic:
December 1911 “The excavation has been completed and concrete placed in footings of the outside walls and partially placed for interior walls. The brickwork has been carried to ground level along the west wall.”
'87 Gym Brick Work
January 1912 “The brick work has been carried above ground on all sides, and much of the steel set for the first floor. The excavation for the pool has been completed and from its size, it gives promise of much enjoyment.”
'87 Gym Construction
February 1912 “Work has been temporarily suspended on account of severe existing weather.”
'87 Gym Progress
March 1912 “The new gymnasium is progressing favorably, although cold weather has hampered the work to some extent. The brick work has been completed up to the second floor.”
'87 Gym, Completed Masonry
April 1912 “The masonry has been completed as far as the second story and the girders for the second floor are now in place.”
'87 Gym Taking Shape
May 1912 “Things are taking shape now and there is great promise of the pleasure and benefit that will be derived from the new building with its opportunity for gymnastic work, swimming pool exercise and various indoor sports.”
Rensselaer’s 86thannual commencement exercises were held in the Troy Music Hall on Wednesday June 12, 1912. Institute President Palmer C. Ricketts presented diplomas to 118 graduating seniors. The Class of 1912 was the largest class to date to graduate from the Institute. Ninety six of the degrees awarded were in Civil Engineering, thirteen in Electrical Engineering, and nine in Mechanical Engineering.
The commencement address was delivered by Henry W. Hodge, Class of 1885. Hodge (1865-1919) was one of the foremost civil engineers of the era. His works included bridges spanning the Mississippi, Ohio, and Monongahela rivers as well as some of the largest buildings constructed to date in New York City, including the Singer, Woolworth, and Cunard buildings. He was a consulting engineer to the City of New York and trustee of Rensselaer and New York University. The title of Hodge’s address was “Qualities of Successful Engineers.”
Here is a slideshow of the entire commencement address:
Address to Graduating Class, 1912 by Henry Hodge '85
Address to Graduating Class, 1912 by Henry Hodge '85
Address to Graduating Class, 1912 by Henry Hodge '85
Address to Graduating Class, 1912 by Henry Hodge '85
At noon on the day preceding the commencement exercises members of the Class of 1887 made the formal presentation of the New Gymnasium (’87 Gymnasium) to the Board of Trustees. The presentation was followed by a lunch on campus, a baseball match between teams representing the student body and graduates, and class reunions and dinners. To finish out the day’s festivities at 9:00pm the Commencement Hop was held in the Pittsburgh Building.
During the construction of EMPAC, the Institute Archives and Special Collections had an exhibit in the Folsom Library lobby about performance spaces at RPI. Now with EMPAC well into its third year as a complete and dedicated space for the performing arts at Rensselaer, I had the opportunity to create an online exhibit from materials in the archives, including items used in the original lobby exhibit.
Battle of the Bands contestants performing in the Union’s McNeil Room.
It is amazing how much ingenuity has gone into appropriating a variety of spaces across campus and the community of Troy into venues for the various performing arts groups on campus over more than a century. Everything from the cliffs above the athletic field to the various incarnations of the Playhouse has been transformed from its original purpose to suit the needs of performers of all types.
Not being a native of the Capital District or even New York State, I found I learned a great deal about RPI and Troy in the process of creating this online exhibit, particularly when seeking out new materials to add. I flipped through decades of the Transit looking for a decent photograph taken of a performance in the McNeil Room of the Union and searched through dozens of programs and playbills for the most appropriate and beautiful examples in the collection.
Rendering of the elevation for EMPAC’s south wall.
EMPAC now offers a dedicated home for the performing arts but also shares its space with other events, whether stationary exhibits or lectures. It stands as part of the tradition of the performing arts venues at RPI in that every space welcomes the campus community to participate in a variety of ways. And even with a dedicated home, many performances still take place in the spaces they called home prior to the completion of EMPAC, the RPI Players and the Playhouse being a notable example.
I hope that everyone enjoys browsing this exhibit and learns even a bit of what I learned in the course of designing it.