Engineering Historical Collections

Dittfach History of Engineering Part 1

A history of the institution and College of Engineering, as written in 1973 by Professor John H. Dittfach.

A history of the institution and College of Engineering, as written in 1973 by Professor John H. Dittfach.

The School of Engineering [now the College of Engineering] in the university was established on September 1, 1947. Instruction in engineering had been a part of the curriculum on the campus since the founding of the Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1863. However, it did not develop as rapidly here as at many other land-grant colleges throughout the country, largely because of the many other fine engineering schools in Massachusetts, including M.I.T, which shared the original land-grant funds.

A Department of Agricultural Engineering was established in 1914, and for many years a Department of Mathematics and Civil Engineering existed. In 1936 this work was combined into a Department of General Engineering, lasting only long enough to separate in 1946 into two separate departments, again Agricultural and Civil. The pressure for a full-scale School of Engineering came from the returning veterans of World War II, who returned to civilian status with a G.I bill for education in their hands and found inadequate facilities in the Commonwealth for engineering education. Thus, the history of the School of Engineering really begins with the establishment of the University of Massachusetts as a university in 1946 and the establishing of the School of Engineering as a member of the academic community in 1947. To accommodate the surge of veterans at that time, classes were conducted at two locations, some on the Amherst campus, but the bulk of engineering students received their first two years of instruction at Ft. Devens, until that university activity was phased out about 1951. These students represented some of the finest men and women that we have had in that their motivation, as older and war-matured people had an incentive to work to their highest potential.


The first Engineering building to be so indentified and built on this campus was Gunness Laboratory, constructed in 1949 at a cost of $400,000. Additional buildings came “on stream” as follows: Marston Hall, one-half, 1950, $500,000; Marston Hall, one-half, 1954, $850,000; Goessmann addition for Chemical Engineering, 1959, $1,000,000; Engineering Laboratory, 1964, $2,200,000; and Engineering Building East, 1965, $1,900,00. Summarizing, the five buildings, at a construction value (including equipment and furnishings) of $6,850,000, provide an excellent physical plant to carry out our programs of teaching, research, and service.


With the establishment of a School of Engineering in 1947, the four major Departments of Agricultural, Civil, Electrical, and Mechanical Engineering were authorized to have degree-granting programs. The first designated engineering degree to be awarded was a B.S in Civil Engineering in 1949. The Agricultural Engineering department was transferred to the School of Agriculture in 1954. Chemical Engineering was established as a program in 1948 in the Chemistry Department. In 1952 it was transferred to the School of Engineering as a department. Industrial Engineering was initially an option within the Mechanical Engineering Department, but in 1966 it was established as a separate department. More recently, in an effort to identify its educational role more correctly, it has taken Industrial Engineering and Operations Research Department.

It was also in 1966 that the Mechanical Engineering Department responded to national need and expanded to include the aero-space designation in its title, as well as offering the separated degree in that specialized field. At the present time, the Mechanical and Aero-space Engineering Department retains that name, but the aero-space activities, as well as material study, are included as options within the Mechanical Engineering degree program. A natural result of the computer age was to expand the Electrical Engineering field, so in 1972 the Electrical Engineering Department changed its name to the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. At present it awards one of the two degrees to its graduates; namely, Electrical Engineering or Computer Systems Engineering.

It should be mentioned that all undergraduate engineering curricula are accredited at the present time by the Engineer’s Council for Professional Development. Civil Engineering distinguished itself by being the first Department accredited in 1949; followed quickly by the Electrical, Mechanical, and Industrial Engineering Programs in 1950. This recognition in record time reflected the high quality of organization and staff put together by Dean Marston in those early days. Likewise, Chemical Engineering was immediately accredited after it became a Department within the School of Engineering.


The large wave of World War II veterans passed through the campus in the early 50s, peaking in 1951 when 251 engineering degrees were awarded. The low point following this wave occurred in 1954, when only 45 engineering degrees were awarded. From that point, undergraduate engineering showed steady climb, with minor ripples, to peak at 1,050 undergraduates students in 1969-70. This was followed in the next few years by a declining enrollment to minimum of 907 undergraduates in 1972-73. For the current academic year, 1973-74, it has increased to 983 students, and predictions for 1974-75, based on freshman and transfer student applications, indicate that this figure should increase about 5%.

Graduate student enrollment has also increased steadily to a peak of 351 students in 1972-73, with an insignificant drop off to 348 in 1973-74. To date approximately 500 students have received an M.S. degree and 65 students have received the Ph.D. degree. The First M.S. degree was awarded in Civil Engineering in 1953, followed by an M.S. in Electrical Engineering in 1954, and an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 1955. It should be noted that all departments offer both levels of graduate work in their respective disciplines at this time. The Ph.D. degree programs were first begun on a small scale about the mid-sixties, starting initially in the Civil and Chemical Departments. Additional M.S and Ph.D. degrees in Environmental and Ocean Engineering were started in1968 and 1969.

While the nationwide trend has been towards decreasing engineering enrollment for a number of years, we point out that our current enrollments have not decreased percentagewise as much as the national average, and furthermore, we appear to have turned the corner to an upward trend several years ahead of the national trend. We attributed this to several things, but most importantly to bringing knowledge of the university and of the Engineering School, in particular, to the high school and community college campuses through a vigorous information campaign. We expect this upward trend to continue in the future.

Student Activities

An important factor in the student/faculty/industry relationship is the establishment of student chapters of the national professional engineering societies on campus. The first such chapter to be established was a student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers in January, 1950. This was followed by student chapters of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (September, 1950), the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (October, 1950), the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (February 1954), and the American Institute of Industrial Engineers (October, 1960). To reflect its current membership more aptly, the Electrical Engineering Society is now identified as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Scholarship has always been an important aspect of engineering education. National engineering honor societies exist to recognize and promote such recognition. Tau Beta Pi elects member from all disciplines of engineering and was established on this campus as Massachusetts Zeta Chapter in February, 1955, under the direction of its faculty advisors, Professors Hendrickson and Dittfach. At that time it was the 99th Chapter to be established in this country. Today, there are 144 active chapters of Tau Beta Pi. Three departmental honor societies have been, or are being, installed at this time. Eta Kappa Nu (Electrical Engineering) was established in May, 1960; Alpha Pi MU (Industrial engineering and Operations Research) was installed in October, 1966; and Pi Tau Sigma (Mechanical Engineering) expects to be installed in Fall, 1974.