History of The Department of Mechanical Engineering

The Department of Mechanical Engineering, commonly referred to as "Mech E," was designated Course I of the six courses offered when classes began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1865. The course focused on the study of existing machinery and the principles behind their construction and operation.

In 1872 the department became Course II and Civil Engineering became Course I. That same year Assistant Professor Channing Whitaker, MIT class of 1869, began to teach mechanical engineering and redirected the emphasis of the course towards empirical studies. Whitaker proposed the use of in-house teaching laboratories and increased excursions to industrial and civil sites. In 1874 mechanical engineering's first laboratory was built for direct application of current methodology to engineering problems. The education and research program of the new lab was applied in its approach and focused primarily on the steam engine.

Mechanical engineering became a formal department in 1883. The following specializations were offered: marine engineering (offered until 1913); locomotive engineering (offered until 1918); mill engineering, which eventually became textile engineering; and naval architecture, which became a separate department in 1894. In 1899 the option of heat and ventilation (offered until 1913) was introduced and in 1908, steam turbine engineering (offered until 1918).

Edward Miller, who became head of the department in 1911, designed the facilities for the department when the Institute moved from Boston to the "New Technology" in Cambridge, Mass., in 1916. New options during this period included engine design (1913-1925), automotive engineering (1923-1949), ordnance (1923-1924), and refrigeration, which became refrigeration and air conditioning.

The appointment of Jerome C. Hunsaker as department head in 1933 marked a major change in the direction of the department as he incorporated the aeronautics curriculum into mechanical engineering, and altered the traditional course in hydraulics into a study of the mechanics of fluids in general. He also modernized the laboratories.

The work that was carried out in the department between 1930 and the early 1960s served to codify many basic principles in the field of mechanical engineering. Seminal publications in dynamics, heat transfer, mechanics of materials, and thermodynamics were produced, and by the mid 1960s the department was renowned for pioneering the development of system dynamics and control and man-machine systems as fields of study within the profession.

In 1965 Ascher Shapiro became head of the department and furthered the shift towards applied mechanical engineering as the focus of research moved away from military applications to quality of life applications such as the environment and biomedical engineering. By the mid 1970s, continuing to the present (as of 1995), research was concentrated within four major programs: biomedical engineering; energy and environment; human services, including transportation; and manufacturing, materials, and materials processing.

The Department of Ocean Engineering merged with the Department of Mechanical Engineering effective January 1, 2005, and the merged department is known as the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Within the Department of Mechanical Engineering an undergraduate specialization in ocean engineering and graduate programs in Naval Architecture and Construction (previously XIII-A) and the Joint MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Program (previously XIII-W) will continue.

Heads of the course and Department of Mechanical Engineering

William Watson 1865-1872
Channing Whitaker 1873-1883
Gaetano Lanzo 1883-1911
Edward Furber Miller 1911-1933
Jerome C. Hunsaker 1933-1947
C. Richard Soderberg 1947-1954
Jacob P. Den Hartog 1954-1958
Joseph H. Keenan 1958-1961
H. Guyford Stever 1961-1965
Ascher H. Shapiro 1965-1974
Herbert H. Richardson 1974-1982
David Neal Wormley 1982-1991
Nam P. Suh 1991-2001
Rohan C. Abeyaratne 2001-2008
Mary Boyce 2008-2013
Gang Chen 2013-2018
Evelyn Wang 2018-2022
A. John Hart 2023-


The Department of Mechanical Engineering Timeline

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