Ask AmytheArchivist

Posted by John Dojka on July 6, 2009 in

QuestionMark2One of my primary duties is answering people's questions -- we call this reference.  They may be quick questions -- when did my great-grandfather attend RPI? -- or they may be in-depth research questions -- what were the origins of American human space flight? For in-depth research, I help people access collections where they search for the answers they seek.

Reference activity tends to slow down in the summer, so I thought I would try to drum up some business.  Here is your chance to ask anything about RPI history -- people, places or things!  Leave your question in a comment to this post and I'll do my best to respond with an answer.  There are limits to what any human archivist can do so keep it within reason!  :-)


In reply to by egglel

Mon, 03/27/2017 - 12:21 Permalink

Hi Arthur-

We searched our collections for anything related to the Secret Seven, and the only references are in the <em>Polytechnic</em>. Fortunately the <em>Poly</em> is available online at (Rensselaer Digital Collections). I found four issues that mention the society by searching the database using these parameters:
1. In the drop-down menu, select The Rensselaer Polytechnic.
2. Type "secret seven" (without the quotes) in the search box.
3. Click the Exact option.
4. Press Go (or hit Enter).

It looks like the Secret Seven was a short-lived society with the goal of honoring student leaders. It's not clear what led to their demise, but perhaps it was the fact that no one knew who was in it. Just guessing!


Erica Rekstad
Tue, 07/07/2009 - 08:54 Permalink

What was the first building built on the RPI campus? What is the oldest building still erect on campus? How much was tuition in 1824?

In reply to by egglel

Tue, 07/07/2009 - 09:28 Permalink

Erica, thanks for your questions. The first building built by RPI was the <a href="…; rel="nofollow">Main Building</a> in 1864. This building was destroyed by fire in 1904. The oldest building still standing is the <a href="…; rel="nofollow">Winslow Building</a> built in 1866.

The tuition fee for the first fifteen week term which began in January 1825 was $15. A degree could be completed in two terms so you could say the annual tuition was $30. This did not include supplies, food or lodging. In 1828, tuition plus fees for supplies was $52 per term.

Tue, 07/07/2009 - 11:48 Permalink

what became of the former St Vincent's Orphan Asylum building (800 8th St) when it was sold to RPI in 1946? Is it still being used by the university?

In reply to by egglel

Tue, 07/07/2009 - 12:27 Permalink

The former St. Vincent's building was renamed <a href="…; rel="nofollow">Mason House</a> when RPI acquired it. It was used as apartments for faculty and staff. The building was later converted into a laboratory. I learned recently that the adjacent chapel housed the archives for a while. The building, unfortunately, no longer exists. It was torn down in 1975. The area once occupied by this building was recently landscaped and a stone &amp; brick RENSSELAER monument was erected on the corner of 8th and Peoples. I'll try to get a current photo linked soon.

Tom Engel
Tue, 07/07/2009 - 14:34 Permalink

Several biographical sources credit Gen. Eli Parker as attending or graduating from RPI. Parker was a war time staff assistant to U. S. Grant and was the person who actually penned the surrender document Lee and Grant signed.

The story was that he earned a Law degree from Harvard, but as Native Americans could not be admitted to The Bar in 1850s America, he switched to Civil Engineering - and Rensselaer. I seem to recall that RPI could find no record of his attendance. Has that changed?

In reply to by egglel

Tue, 07/07/2009 - 15:18 Permalink

No, that has not changed. There is absolutely no evidence that Gen. Eli Parker attended RPI. An error in the Dictionary of American Biography many years ago was propagated in other sources. In 1977, extensive research in the Parker papers at the American Philosophical Society and the records at Rensselaer revealed no connections between Parker and the Institute. The issue was readdressed in 1991 with the same conclusions. It's common for people to believe that early engineers must have received formal education. Since there were few engineering institutions in the early nineteenth century, they inevitably assume connections to RPI. This kind of query comes up every once in a while.

Wed, 07/08/2009 - 08:37 Permalink

Is there a graph somewhere showing how the RPI Endowment has changed over the years depending on the current President?

In reply to by egglel

Wed, 07/08/2009 - 10:29 Permalink

I have not been able to locate a graphical representation of the change in endowment from one president to the next. The <em>Rensselaer Magazine</em> did an article about the endowment in the <a href="…; rel="nofollow">Spring 2007</a> issue. This doesn't answer your question, but it does provide a bit of historical information.

Mon, 07/13/2009 - 07:33 Permalink

I'm curious to understand how RPI fit into the framework of higher education at the time of its founding. It's my understanding that university education was grounded in the liberal arts (in the true, classical sense of the word) and that more specialized vocational training and scientific research took place in separate institutes, for which a basic liberal university education was a prerequisite. Was RPI founded as one of these institutes? If so, how and when did it evolve into a "college?" If not, was it a precursor of the modern trend towards separating college students into specialized fields of study rather than offering a traditional liberal arts education? Thanks for your time!

In reply to by egglel

Tue, 07/14/2009 - 09:40 Permalink

Kay, you have posed a very interesting question! Several histories of Rensselaer are available as <a href="; rel="nofollow">online publications</a>. They contain a wealth of information regarding the founding of the Institute and the evolution of the curriculum. <em><a href=",RP_1924/index.html&…; rel="nofollow">A Chapter in American Education</a></em> by Ray Palmer Baker, specifically addresses the nature of your query. If you prefer the print version of this volume, it may be available to you at your local library through interlibrary loan.

Chris Werner
Mon, 07/20/2009 - 09:32 Permalink

Hi I'm an alum and think this website if very cool, suprised to find it. I have an odd and hard question. In my spare time I like to Ice Race with AMEC and they have this old picture:…

"It dates back from the late 1960's during an ice race on Lake George. As I understand it, the car on the right was built by three R.P.I. students. The body was made of ash wood. They called it the "Cigar Car". It used a Saab 96 floor pan and running gear and the inner cavities of the body were filled with some type of foam insulation. It is reputed to be the only ice racing car ever built, that would actually float if the ice ever failed. "

If it was actually just built on the side by students I'm sure you can't help me, but any records of this being a department or club project or even what clubs exists in the 60s that would pertain? I've been members of the RPI Sports Car club and Auto Shop but not sure how long they've been around and know they don't have any records themselves.

Just curious more about the car or students or etc.

In reply to by egglel

Wed, 07/22/2009 - 08:39 Permalink

Well, Chris, you are correct -- this is a difficult question! I haven't been able to find anything about this car or any RPI student involvement in the ice races at Lake George. I checked every source and possible connection that I can think of -- including clubs and professional societies. As you mentioned, it could have been just a group of students who built it on their own. Perhaps an alum from the late '60s will see your comment and fill in the blanks for us! In the meantime, if I stumble upon any useful information I'll let you know.

Wed, 08/19/2009 - 14:44 Permalink

Amy, thanks for the link to the Baker book. I will enjoy reading it! My husband graduated from RPI in 1987, and our son will be starting his freshman year. I have a great interest in classical education, and education in general, so I'm looking forward to learning of RPI's place in American higher education.

John Caddell
Thu, 09/03/2009 - 09:30 Permalink

I am looking at historical trends in university tuition as compared to inflation as a whole. Can you tell me what RPI's tuition was in 1950?


John Caddell '84

In reply to by egglel

Fri, 09/04/2009 - 08:06 Permalink

The cost of undergraduate tuition at RPI in 1950 was $700.

Fri, 10/23/2009 - 09:43 Permalink

Hi Amy!

I noticed that the secret society Theta Nu Epsilon had a chapter at RPI, but I'd never heard of them (I guess that's the point) - do you know of any other secret societies that were on campus? Wasn't Phalanx secret at one point?


In reply to by egglel

Fri, 10/23/2009 - 11:58 Permalink

This is a great question Nicole! I don't know of any other secret societies at RPI. Theta Nu Epsilon has an <a href="; rel="nofollow">interesting history</a>. It was a sophomore class society and students were initiated in the fall of their sophomore year. The Lambda chapter was started at RPI in 1882. The first TNE convention was held in Albany in 1885 and the second was held in Troy in 1886. We have some interesting examples of invitations to the initiations and a newspaper clipping that describes the 1897 "ceremony" which took place before a crowd on Broadway. The initiates were masked and dressed in various costumes. We also have some banquet programs that were signed by the members. The "Devlings" names were listed in code in the <em>Transit</em> and the upperclassmen i.e. "Demons ex-Officio" (Juniors) and "Arch Friends" (Seniors) were identified by name.

<a href="; rel="nofollow">Phalanx</a> has always been described as a "non-secret society."

Tue, 02/09/2010 - 12:24 Permalink

The Lambda chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon is alive and well, thank you.


Mon, 03/08/2010 - 04:53 Permalink

Hi Amy, I have enjoyed browsing this blog. Great work! I'd like to ask if you know anything about RPI alumni/faculty who were involved in the modernization of Japan. I am trying to track down information, but it has been slow going. I'm in Japan now, and whenever I mention "RPI," I get these puzzled looks (everyone knows "MIT," however). Yet, RPI engineers designed or supervised the construction of a great number of bridges and railways in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), and there was even an alum (Samuel Wells Williams, of Utica, NY) riding shotgun, so to speak, with Commodore Perry when he opened the country by threat of force in 1853. If you know of any sources in the Archives/Special Collections, or if you can refer me to any books, I would appreciate it. Thanks!

In reply to by egglel

Mon, 03/08/2010 - 15:06 Permalink

Yes, S. Wells Williams (Class of 1932) was with Commodore Perry in Japan, 1853-1854 and acted as his translator. After the Meiji Revolution, several Japanese students were sent to RPI for an engineering education. Three of these men graduated with civil engineering degrees: Souichiro Matsmoto (Class of 1876), Seijiro Hirai (Class of 1878) and Kaname Haraguchi (also Class of 1878). They all made significant contributions to civil engineering projects in Japan, namely the public railroads. Matsmoto and Hirai were both presidents of the Imperial Railways of Japan. Haraguchi was a chief engineer in Tokyo and designed many iron bridges there.

We have brief biographies of all of these men in our files, but they are not available online. The Japanese students are briefly mentioned in one of the RPI histories: <a href="…; rel="nofollow">Education for a Technological Society</a>. Look at pages 179-180.

Taras, I hope this helps. Please feel free to contact me by email if you have more questions.

Crisse R. Lincoln
Wed, 04/21/2010 - 11:11 Permalink

Hi Amy,
The gentleman's name is Ned Lazaro, Collections Manager at Historic Deerfield. He can usually be found at the Flynt Center of Early New England Life, a state-of-the-art museum featuring exhibitions and a visible storage area modeled on those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Tell him you spoke to me and Iona Lincoln says "Hi!"
Regards, Crisse

John Wallace
Thu, 05/13/2010 - 17:24 Permalink


I've found some information (namely, a picture here: and a ca.1881 aerial map of Troy) hinting that West Hall may have, at one point, had a spire and may also have been expanded westward. Is there anything in the Archives that would verify if/when this was the case? I've checked the Architecture library; there's no blueprints or anything like that there.



Fri, 05/14/2010 - 09:48 Permalink

John, there is really nice, detailed, building history of West Hall that includes an architectural rendering and photograph of the original structure. You are correct. There was a spire with a cross on top and an addition was made to the west side. Please feel free to stop by the Archives or email me directly if you would like to access the historical report.

John Sanbrailo
Sat, 05/29/2010 - 18:14 Permalink

I am researching a book about the history of United States cooperation with Ecuador.

Two of your RPI graduates played key roles in the development of Ecuador--civil engineer Henry McClellan from 1870 to 1875, and in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, electrical engineer George Capwell.

Do you have any information about these two RPI graduates?

I understand that you did an exposition several years ago about PRI graduates in Latin America. Was anything pulbished that I can obtain.

I am most interested in finding the papers of McClellan in Ecuador and his work in initiating that country's railoroad in 1870 and Capwell's work in expanding the country's electrical system, especially in Guayaquil.

I would greatly appreciate your help.

John Sanbrailo
Executive Director
Pan American Development Foundation
Organization of American States
Washington, D.C.
(202) 458-3969

In reply to by egglel

Tue, 06/01/2010 - 10:58 Permalink

Dear Mr. Sanbrailo,
I believe we have some information regarding Henry McClellan and George Capwell that would be useful to you. We have a small collection of Henry McClellan's papers that includes correspondence written during his time in Ecuador. Please refer to this finding aid for more information: We don't possess the papers of George Capwell, but we have an article about his work in Ecuador that appeared in our Alumni News. I would be happy to send you a photocopy of this article as well as copies of any McClellan correspondence that may be of interest to you. Please let me know if you would like to order copies.


Louis Shornick
Sun, 08/01/2010 - 16:16 Permalink


I don't know how far back the readers of this blog go, but I was in the Class of '39 BAe.

We had a devil of a Drawing Professor, who we called "Smiling Zero" Does anyone remember his name? was it H. Oakley Sharp? Also do you remember "Shaky Joe" Tillman. If he did not have "Tenure" I don't think he would have been teaching as to draw a straight line he had to put the chalk on the board and hit his hand in the direction of the straight line. It gave a long straight line which might not have been straight if drawn freehand, but I remember him as if it were yesterday and it was at least 74 years ago.

Help if you can give me an answer.


In reply to by egglel

Fri, 08/06/2010 - 15:24 Permalink

Lou - I don't know about the nickname, but H. Oakley Sharp was Professor of Geodesy and Railroad Engineering. Your drawing professor was probably Edward Chillman. Guy Phelps also taught drawing.

Louis Shornick
Fri, 08/06/2010 - 15:54 Permalink

I remember now that it was Edward Chillman (Smiling Zero). Tuition from 1935 to 1939 was $400. Total cost with books tuition, food and lodging was $4,800 for the 4 years, $1,200 per year and I had a car too, a luxury for most. Might have set a record going up to the Dorms from Faziolis there were 16 Freshmen on and in my 32 Plymouth, no recorded record, but they were on the running boards, fenders, and inside, but my 4 cylinder Plymouth had no problem going up the hill.

Tuition and living and books could cost much more than $50,000 a year now. WOW !

Fri, 03/25/2011 - 12:42 Permalink

How did the location of the RPI campus evolve? Why wouldn't be in Rensselaer? Where did the Rensselaer family live during the school's start up? Love your work!

In reply to by egglel

Mon, 03/28/2011 - 13:47 Permalink

The story of how RPI's location evolved is a rather long one. I suggest you read more about it in a published history of the Institute. <a href="; rel="nofollow">History of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute</a>
The Van Rensselaer family lived in Albany, NY.

In reply to by egglel

Arthur Copeland, MD
Mon, 03/27/2017 - 12:28 Permalink

thanks for the reply. it did exist about 1968-1969 it seemed like the GM or PU were in that along with other prominent seniors with majors like EE

Arthur Copeland, MD
Mon, 03/20/2017 - 16:01 Permalink

I am an alumnus, class of 1971. I was a " Biomed" In the years 1967-69 there was a " Secret 7 society" they used to hang a poster with a clock face and it pointe to 12 midnight with the saying " the Secret 7 taps at Midnight. What ever happened to them did it really exist? was it a prank.? I vividly recall this

Margaret Lethbridge-Cejku
Tue, 01/14/2020 - 19:34 Permalink

Is there any way to find out if my father Francis Donald Lethbridge, attended Rensselaer? Possibly before WWII?

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