Continuing Up the Hill: William Weightman Walker Laboratory

The first two buildings erected on the Warren estate property, purchased by the Institute after the 1904 fire which destroyed the Main Building, were the Carnegie Building (described in our last Continuing Up the Hill post) and Walker Laboratory. These two buildings mark the beginning of Rensselaer’s red brick-green roof campus.

The Institute’s growing student body (up from 175 students in 1899 to 426 in 1905) put an increasing strain on the facilities in Winslow Laboratory and in 1905 it was decided to build a new state-of-the-art facility. The Walker Laboratory was constructed at the same time as the Carnegie Building and was finished at the end of 1906 for a cost of $110,000. J.J. Albright, (Class of 1868), contributed $50,000 for the new laboratory. The building was designed by the Lawlor (Class of 1888) & Hesse architectural firm. The building’s 22 rooms included five large laboratories for various specialties. In 1913 changes were made to enlarge the laboratory spaces. Then in 1917 the increasing number of chemical engineering students made it evident that yet more laboratory space was required and the building’s size was doubled by an addition on its east side in 1921.

Shortly after the building was completed in 1906 it was named the William Weightman Walker Laboratory in memory of Dr. William Weightman Walker (Class of 1886), in gratitude to Mrs. R.J. Walker, Dr. Walker’s mother, who was a major benefactor to Rensselaer after the Main Building fire.

A two year renovation of Walker Laboratory was completed in 1996 to incorporate 21st century innovations in the teaching of chemistry, including state-of-the-art wet labs and studio classrooms. At present the building is used for interactive learning in chemistry and related fields. It has housed the undergraduate chemistry program since it opened in 1906.

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Have a Very Poly Holiday

The end of the Fall semester is always associated with the holiday break. As for faculty and staff, we go our separate ways for awhile, and head off to enjoy a break with friends, family, and loved ones. As for … Continue reading

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Baking Powder Revealed

Rumford Chemical Works Recipebook cover, 1906October is National Cookie Month as well as American Archives Month, therefore baking powder is the perfect topic for a post. While Library and Archives staff came up with their favorite recipes to share with the Rensselaer Community, I recalled an important collection in the Archives regarding Rumford Chemical Works, thus making the unique possibility of uniting cookies and archives a reality.

I, personally, have always taken baking powder for granted. Why not? The first cake I ever baked came out of a Pillsbury box. “From scratch” wasn’t in my milieu at the age of 10 when I wanted to try my hand at baking. I didn’t really get a good sense of baking ingredients until much later when my girlfriends and I would stay up late on the weekends and bake Nestle’s Toll House Cookies! Even then, ingredients were taken for granted, and I certainly didn’t contemplate baking powder. Until now.

Horsford's Rumford Yeast PowderRumford Chemical Works opened in 1854 in Seekonk (now East Providence), R.I. by the able partnership between Eben Norton Horsford (RPI Class of 1838), the civil engineer turned chemist and George Wilson, a school teacher with a penchant for business. The main product to be manufactured was Horsford’s “Rumford Yeast Powder.”  This new yeast powder reached its ultimate form in 1859 with Horsford’s new and improved baking powder which consisted of calcium phosphate. To be sure, Horsford did not invent baking powder – he revolutionized it! Horsford’s “Rumford Baking Powder” changed the look and taste of baked goods.

Rumford, wholesome pure foodThis Thing Called Baking Powder: There were three kinds of baking powder. They all had one purpose, to leaven batter or dough. All three had cornstarch and bicarbonate of soda. One had alum, another had cream of tartar (both left an aftertaste and had a laxative effect). Horsford’s calcium phosphate though, was tasteless and made the end product fluffy. Plus, Horsford’s baking powder solved the supply problem of cream of tartar which came from Europe where price fluctuations depended on the grape harvest.

Rumford Chemical Works "Typical Radio Talk" 1931Cookies in the Archives: The majority of the Rumford Chemical Works collection is patents and correspondence, but I went straight for the scrapbooks, intrigued with the diligent marketing campaign that spans 75 years of the company’s history. I was especially looking for their contribution to promoting the cookie. It appears that their marketing campaign was certainly meant to hook every single grocer and consumer (man, woman, and child). Imagine my excitement  when I came across the Rumford Company nationwide radio talk show advertisement. This flyer lists every radio station throughout the country offering the topic entitled “When Cookies Go to School.” The show was scheduled for October 9, 1931 and aired in Albany, NY on WOKO.

The radio show focused on “The Standard Cookie Recipe” (aka the “Rumford Cookie”), which was their basic recipe and all other cookie recipes were variations on this. No surprise really, more emphasis was placed on baked goods that would rise to be fluffy and light like cakes, muffins and biscuits. The cookie can sort of fend for itself since a lot of cookie recipes don’t require baking powder.

The Rumford Cookie, circa 1936The Rumford company distributed countless recipes they used to promote their baking powder. From peanut brittle to meatloaf to pudding, everything, according to the company required baking powder. They didn’t get too creative with their cookie recipes though. In order to sell baking powder to promote the cookie, their ad’s were targeted for the children.  The reverse of the cookie recipes above states “If mother does not have any [Rumford Baking Powder] in the house, ask her to get you some. She will be delighted with the fine Cookies you can make with this powder.”

Nevertheless, we must recognize Eben Norton Horsford for his diligence back in the 1850’s. He even left his position as Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University in order to dedicate his time to “this thing called baking powder.”

Thanks Eben, I am no longer taking baking powder for granted!

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A Running Legacy

Whenever people return to Troy for reunion at least a few alumni visit the Institute Archives and Special Collections department.  It’s always fun to pull out materials and learn about their student experiences at the ‘tute.  This year an alum came in to do some research on a team he belonged to in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  While printing some pages of the Polytechnic for him I discovered what he already knew – RPI had a phenomenal cross country team 65+ years ago!

Tony DiamondBefore I share the story of that team, I’d like to introduce one of its central figures.  Tony Diamond, RPI Class of 1951, and his wife Irene stopped by with one of our regular researchers, Stephen Tzikas, Class of 1983.  After a brief discussion Tony asked to browse the Poly, and that’s when I realized what a star athlete he was.  Or rather, is – Tony is still competing and recently won several races in the National Games!

Poly, October 13, 1948Poly, October 20, 1948Back to RPI’s cross country team.  In the 1940s the Institute had both freshman and varsity squads.  Tony’s 1947 frosh team went undefeated, and Coach William Eddy had high expectations for the varsity program when the freshmen runners moved up in 1948.  However, the varsity team lost its first meet that year when frontrunner Diamond went off course.  It would be the first and last time Rensselaer’s varsity harriers would lose for the next three seasons.

Poly, October 25, 1950.As in any sport, it’s great to have individual stars, and Tony and his teammate Elwood Frymire were both standouts.  However, in team sports depth is even more critical to success, and as Tony puts it, his role as a captain was to help develop the underclassmen.  That focus clearly aided the team as it raced to victory in 18 consecutive meets.  A piece in the November 9, 1949 Polytechnic said it all.  RPI’s harriers were “THE team of the fall season” while the school’s football team foundered.  The following year the harriers went on to win the first annual New York State Intercollegiate Cross Country Championship in Cortland on November 18, 1950.

Transit, 1950

1950 Transit

Transit, 1950






I enjoyed learning about the cross country team’s accomplishments and I owe both Steve and Tony a debt of gratitude.  Steve for promoting the archives to other alumni and Tony for calling attention to a nearly forgotten piece of RPI history, now revealed.  Thanks guys – I hope to see you both next year!

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Commencement, 1916

1916 TransitEvery year leading up to commencement, we revisit the proud heritage that we have here at Rensselaer and offer the community glimpses into our history.  To the Class of 2016, we congratulate you and wish you the best moving forward. You too are leaving a legacy behind, as did the students in 1916.

Here are a few parting words from the Class of 1916 as found in the Transit from 1917:

Class of 1916“This chapter completes the history of the Class of 1916. We are now looking forward to June with a feeling of joy and relief not interspersed with regret. For nearly four years we have given “Old Rensselaer” our best effort. She has given us her store of knowledge. The future only will tell where the balance stands…We will soon be busy on our theses after which we will go out into the world of real problems to ‘toil for thy glory, Old Rensselaer.’ In leaving we can but beg forgiveness for any transgressions we have been guilty of in the past and give the Faculty our best wishes for the future.”

Class of 1916Commencement took place on Wednesday, June 14th in the ’87 Gymnasium. Alfred Treadway White (Class of 1865) gave the commencement speech to a graduating class consisting of 75. The first ever doctoral degree was awarded that year in electrical engineering along with a bachelors degree in science (1) and engineering : civil (37), mechanical (15), electrical (18), and chemical (2).

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