A History of the School of Civil Engineering

CIVL Building


If there were funds available to establish only one of them, which do you think should be chosen, Domestic Economy or Civil Engineering?
Civil Engineering


According to Henry Huston, a member of Purdue's original staff in 1874 and professor of physics and applied electricity, the above dialogue took place in June 1887 on the day after commencement. Purdue's fourth president, James Henry Smart posed the question, and the vote in favor of Civil Engineering was cast by Huston, "as they walked along the path between the main building (University Hall) and the Old Dormitory with the president of the Board of Trustees, James Ratliff."

Although a decision of this importance could not have been made so casually, Civil Engineering was declared a separate school in September of that same year.

Civil courses were taught, however, from the opening of the University; and Purdue's second president, Abraham Shortridge, announced a full four-year curriculum in civil engineering in a November 1, 1874 report:

Students in Surveying and Civil Engineering will be required to be proficient in the use of engineering instruments in turning out ideal railroad lines, laying out curves, determining the amounts of excavation and embankment, drafting bridges, calculating materials and costs, and writing specifications.

By 1906 the curriculum for Civil Engineering had been stabilized.

A School of Civil Engineering was once again anticipated in 1878, when Purdue's third president, Emerson E. White, organized the University into three divisions - The Academy, College of General Science, and Special Schools of Science and Technology - and Civil Engineering appeared on the list as one of the "Special Schools."

Before 1887, however, because of low enrollment, courses in civil engineering were administered with those in mechanical engineering. The two engineering groups also shared quarters, first in Mechanics Hall (located on the site of the present Stanley Coulter building) and then in the first and second units of Heavilon Hall.

Two laboratories, which still continue in civil engineering, were introduced in the last decades of the 19th century. The first, a laboratory for testing materials, was installed in Mechanics Hall in 1883. Transferred to CE and placed under the direction of CE Head W.K. Hatt, in 1899, it was the start of what has become famous as the "Busting Lab."

The second Civil lab, but the first of many hydraulics labs, was added in 1891. Located in Heavilon Hall, the equipment included a Pelton water motor and a Leffel turbine water wheel, both of which inspired awe in a student writing about CE in the April 27, 1892, Exponent.

Civil courses in the first years of the School included Roads and Railroads, Roads and Pavements, Graphical and Analytical Statics, Mechanics of Engineering, Architecture, Geodesy, Engineering Designing, and Stereotomy; and all were taught by Albert E. Phillips, the first CE School head.

During those formative years, Civil was attracting students who went out to work with railway companies or looked to get jobs in such "romantic" areas as construction of the Panama Canal. Enrollment in CE, which began slowly with one student in 1876-77 and then two in 1877-78, grew to 29 students in 1887, and rose to 472 students in 1907-08.

By the latter date, CE was thriving in its own building, adjacent to Heavilon Hall. The first wing of the new building, which was three stories high and had 45,450 square feet of classrooms, was completed in 1906. The second and larger portion of the building, facing Grant Street, was completed in 1927.

Nineteen-Thirteen is remembered for two long-lasting and popular programs. The first was the Summer Surveying Camp, which was a requirement for all Purdue engineers for a time. The second was the creation of a major extension program that was organized to help local and state officials in the development and maintenance of the roadway network throughout Indiana.

President Stone and W.K. Hatt called a conference which was to be wholly devoted to the concept of experience sharing. It was the first Purdue Road School of county surveyors and city engineers, and it was a huge success. A resolution was passed that very first year

...that provisions should be made by laws of Indiana for a yearly School of Good Roads which shall be the official school of instruction and meeting of the County Road Superintendents....

The conference was called The Road School after 1915, and the resolution became law in 1921.

The Joint Transportation Research Program (JTRP), was conceived at the 1936 Road School. It began as a "skeleton organization" with an allocation of $25,000 annually and is currently funded by a combined total of $800,000 annually from the State of Indiana and the Federal Government. JTRP was authorized by an act of the Legislature and the Highway Commission on March 11, 1937,

...to cooperate with and assist Purdue University in developing the best methods of improving and maintaining the highways of the state and the respective counties thereof.

In 1959 a third road program, the Highway Extension and Research for Indiana Counties and Cities (HERPICC), was formalized by the Legislature. This last action brought all parties of the state together into close association with planning and implementation of highway research for local authorities.

CIVL Building In 1962, the current home of the CE building was ready for occupancy, and all but two of the Civil Engineering areas moved into their new, modern quarters north of the Engineering Mall. Materials and Geotechnical, which remained in the Grant Street building, now known as Grissom Hall, will join the other areas in CE, when the newest addition to the Civil complex is completed in 1988.

Involving the basic principles of civil engineering as they all do, today's special areas in Civil have some rare connections with the School's earlier curriculum.

The Hydraulics Lab, for example, which changed its location many times and was often renewed, once shared premises with Sanitary Engineering in an annex to the second Heavilon Hall (the replacement building following the burning of the first Heavilon Hall).

Sanitary Engineering, which dealt primarily with water supply and waste removal, was initiated by President Smart in an era when typhoid was still endemic and students were enjoined not to throw themselves or their fellow classmates into the Wabash River. In his appeal for funds, Smart contended that the age needed

...men who can give us a better water supply and better systems of sewerage for our cities... If the technical schools will turn out one [such] man...[that man will be] worth as much to the community as the cost of all the technical schools in the United States for the past twenty-five years.

Architectural Engineering, which entered the curriculum in the same year as Sanitary Engineering, was abandoned before the end of the century, but Sanitary Engineering has evolved into the newer Environmental Engineering area.

Among the earliest curricula in the School, Structural Engineering was the largest option as well and considered the "keystone" of civil engineering. It was rumored also to have been the most difficult barrier to graduation; but "once surmounted, the rest of the way was easier".

Interaction among areas in CE and between CE and other sciences was an additional force in the development of the School.

Geotechnical Engineering was added to the curriculum in the early 1930s. A new soils mechanics lab was designed and built in 1937; and since that time instruction has developed on several topics that interface with other areas, including pavement design, foundations, ground water, dams, and earthquakes, among others.

In the late 50s, when funding in radiology was unavailable for research in air pollution, a new appointee to the CE staff obtained an equivalent master's degree with the Public Health Service and joined with a professor of pharmacy in teaching Bionucleonics, making Purdue the "only university in the US that was working on the problems of Solid Waste" in the early 1960s.

Construction, also an important CE option from the earliest days, was, over its first seventy years, part of the course material in each of the special areas in CE. In the mid-seventies, a group of contractors came to President Hovde, requesting an addition to construction education. They wanted students who were trained as engineers but who could also "jump" into management. Their suggestion was considered, and Construction Engineering and Management became a new division in the Schools of Engineering.

Materials Engineering, which required a lab that could deal with materials and resolve problems of transportation, traffic, highway configuration, and other planning and economic factors, originated as a part of the Joint Transportation Research Prgram. In 1941, the JTRP was divided into five basic areas: Soils, Physical, Chemical, Traffic, and miscellaneous. Rearranged later into generic categories: Asphalt, Concrete, Chemistry, and Traffic (Soils maintained a separate identity), it was split again in the late 1950s into two parts. It retained Asphalt, Concrete, and Chemistry; and Traffic joined with Highway, Railroad, and Urban Planning to form the Transportation area.

Transportation Engineering, which originated in the days of the early railroad, added the design of airports and runway pavements to its area, and continued its interest in the automobile and mass transportation, such as buses and subway design. Problems in the latter brought the total urban infrastructure and all aspects of undergraduate education in people and goods movement under one area.