History of the Purdue School of Aeronautics and Astronautics

first official delivery of U.S. airmail from Lafayette, IN

First official delivery of U.S. airmail by John Wise in his balloon Jupiter, from Lafayette, Indiana, on August 17,1859. (Courtesy of Tippecanoe County Historical Association.)

Although the Purdue University School of Aeronautics and Astronautics was not formally established as a separate academic unit until July 1, 1945, the Purdue and Lafayette community have a much longer aerospace tradition. The first airmail delivery in the U.S., for example, originated by hot air balloon in Lafayette on August 17, 1859. Flown by John Wise of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, this balloon carried 123 letters and 23 circulars approximately 25 miles to Crawfordsville, Indiana, until forced to land by lack of buoyancy. Mr. Wise also conducted experiments for a local resident to detect the presence of ozone in the upper atmosphere during this flight. Thus, ten years before Purdue University was founded in 1869, Lafayette already had a history of experimentation with air travel, and with using that new technology for scientific exploration.

Community interest in aviation continued when Purdue was established across the Wabash River in what was to become West Lafayette. The Purdue Aero Club was organized in 1910 under the direction of Professor Cicero B. Veal of mechanical engineering, and the community's first aircraft demonstration was held on June 13, 1911. Sponsored by the Purdue Alumni Association and the Lafayette Journal newspaper, this "Aviation Day" attracted an estimated 17,000 people. Other flights to campus during the next few years continued to draw large crowds.

The first Purdue graduate to become an aviator was J. Clifford Turpin (class of 1908), who was taught to fly by Orville Wright. Turpin set an altitude record of 9,400 feet in 1911, establishing an alumni tradition that was continued 55 years later, when an X-2 aircraft flown by Captain Iven C. Kincheloe (BSAE 1949) set an altitude record of 126,000 feet in 1956. That record was subsequently surpassed by alumni Neil A. Armstrong (BSAE 1955) and Eugene A. Cernan (BSEE 1956) during their flights to the moon. Lieutenant George W. Haskins (BSME 1916) was the first alumnus to land on campus, as he flew from Dayton, Ohio, in 1919 with a resolution from the Dayton alumni group proposing formation of a School of Aviation Engineering at Purdue.

That challenge was met during the 1921-22 academic year when four elective courses in aeronautical engineering were offered by the School of Mechanical Engineering. Professor Martin L. Thornburg, a 1915 ME graduate and veteran of the Air Service, was in charge of instruction. Professor Thornburg left in 1924, and responsibility for the new aeronautical courses was given to Professors Elbert F. Burton and Alan C. Staley. They were followed by Major William A. Bevan, who was in charge of the aeronautical program from 1926 to 1929.

Airplane on Purdue Stuart Field (1918)

Airplane on Purdue Stuart Field (1918).

Professor George W. Haskins, the same Lieutenant Haskins who had flown to Purdue in 1919 from Dayton, returned in 1929 as an Associate Professor. He taught the aeronautical engineering courses, which were still offered as technical electives in mechanical engineering. An aeronautics laboratory was well established by this time in Heavilon Hall. It was equipped with a fully assembled airplane and operating engines, along with wind tunnels for aerodynamic measurements.

Several other aviation related developments occurred on campus during this period. In 1930 Purdue became the first U.S. university to offer college credit for flight training, and it opened the nation's first college-owned airport in 1934. President Elliott was later responsible for bringing Amelia Earhart to Purdue as a "Counselor on Careers for Women," a staff position she held from 1935 until her disappearance in 1937. Purdue was also instrumental in providing funds for Earhart's ill-fated "Flying Laboratory," the Lockheed Electra which she intended to fly around the world in 1937. The University library houses an extensive Earhart collection, which continues to be studied by those seeking to solve the mystery surrounding her final flight.

Professor Haskins returned to the Air Corps in 1937, and later joined the Civil Aeronautics Board. He was succeeded by three key individuals who continued to expand the aeronautical engineering program at Purdue. Professors Karl D. Wood and Joseph Liston joined the faculty in September of 1937, and Professor Elmer F. Bruhn joined the school in January of 1941.

Professor Karl D. Wood came from Cornell University, although the year before joining Purdue, he was a full-time member of the engineering staff of Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation. Professor Wood authored one of the first comprehensive books on airplane design (K.D. Wood, Airplane Design, A Textbook on Airplane Layout and Stress Analysis Calculations with Particular Emphasis on Economics of Design, published by the author, 1st edition, 1934). This text, and subsequent revisions, made a lasting imprint on aeronautical education. Professor Wood was a strong advocate of balanced education in theory, technical analysis, testing, and design. Professor Wood left Purdue in 1944 to head the Aeronautical Engineering Department at the University of Colorado.

Professor Joseph Liston (Purdue BSME 1930 and MSME 1935) joined Purdue from the faculty of the University of Oklahoma Mechanical Engineering Department. He was a former naval aviator, and pioneered landings on aircraft carriers. Professor Liston's primary interest was in aircraft propulsion, and he developed several outstanding power plant design courses and test facilities during the 1940's. Professor Liston remained on the Purdue staff until retiring in 1972.

Professor Bruhn and students (note slide rules)

Professor Bruhn and students (note slide rules).

Professor Elmer F. Bruhn came to Purdue in January of 1941 to teach in the structural design area. Professor Bruhn received a BS in civil engineering from the University of Illinois in 1923, and an MS degree in 1925 from the Colorado School of Mines. After teaching mechanics and structures for five years at Colorado, he spent 12 years with North American Aviation and Vought-Sikorsky Aircraft Companies. He was deeply involved in several aircraft design projects for those companies, and at the time he joined Purdue was supervising the final design and construction of a long-range flying boat.

Professors Wood, Liston, and later Bruhn quickly initiated steps to upgrade the laboratory facilities, and to revamp the academic programs. Their efforts led to greatly expanded capabilities that were able to respond to educational needs spawned by World War II. The aeronautical engineering option in M.E. was expanded to a full four-year degree program in 1941. Mechanical Engineering was changed to the School of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering in 1942, and the first B.S. degrees were awarded in August of 1943. Other WWII training programs were also conducted at this time, forming the nucleus for an independent School of Aeronautics in 1945. The first MS degrees were awarded in 1947 and the first PhD was granted in 1950.

Professor Elmer F. Bruhn served as head of the new school for 5 years, until being succeeded by Professor Milton Clauser in 1950. The school initially offered B.S. degrees in both aeronautical engineering and the new field of air transportation. Both programs were quite popular following World War II, as returning veterans brought total undergraduate enrollment to 736 students in 1947. Although the air transportation program was initially well accepted, and graduates received good positions in industry, enrollments declined, and the air transportation degree was discontinued in 1955. The School merged with the Division of Engineering Science in 1960, and changed its name to the School of Aeronautical and Engineering Sciences. This joint program continued until the engineering sciences effort was ended in 1972. The present name of the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics was adopted in 1973.

Neil Armstrong

Neil A. Armstrong

The School has produced the most aerospace engineering degrees in the U.S. over the past ten years, and during the last fifty years has awarded 6 percent of all BS and 7 percent of all PhD degrees. These alumni have led significant advances in research and development of aerospace technology, headed major corporations and government agencies, and have established an amazing record for exploration of space. (Twenty-three Purdue alumni have been selected as astronauts, for example, and over one third of all of NASA's manned space missions have had at least one Purdue graduate as a crew member, including the first and last men to step foot on the moon.) Having celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2005, the School looks forward to continuing its instrumental role in providing the world with undreamed-of opportunities for air and space travel.

Further details of the history of the Purdue School of Aeronautics and Astronautics are described in One Small Step: The History of Aerospace Engineering at Purdue University. One Small Step is being sold by the Purdue University Press and more information can be found here.


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