Page images

polytechnic institute in 1824. The founder, Stephen Van Rensselaer, was born in New York November 1, 1765, and died in Albany January 26, 1839. He was known as the “eighth patroon,” having inherited his rank and estates from ancestors who had for generations ruled over that enormous feudal estate purchased and colonized early in the 17th century by Killian Van Rensselaer of Amsterdam, Holland. Stephen Van Rensselaer lost his baronial rights on the establishment of the colonial government during the revolutionary war, and the extent and value of the estate, which included the entire territory now comprised in the counties of Albany, Columbia and Rensselaer, were considerably diminished, but after graduating from Harvard college, he took active steps looking to the improvement of the very large property still remaining, and also rapidly became a prominent figure in the politics of the new nation, being in many ways peculiarly fitted for public duties and responsibilities. His early interest in engineering is proved by the fact that he was the first to propose a canal connecting the Hudson river with the great lakes. As a commissioner of the state, he made a personal investigation of the route, and in 1811 a report which was received with favor. The war of 1812 with Great Britain intervening to postpone action upon this important enterprise, he entered the military service as commander of the United States forces on the northern frontier. At the close of the war he again took hold of the canal project and became chairman of the canal commission. In the discharge of his duty as such, he caused to be made by Professor Amos Eaton in 1821-23, a geological survey along the line of the canal from Albany to Buffalo, the examination being also extended some distance into Massachusetts. The importance of the results of this work so impressed itself upon him, together with the lack of men capable of properly conducting such enterprises, as to convince him of the desirability and necessity for scientific and technical education. Professor Eaton, who executed this early geological survey for Van Rensselaer, was a man of many


and varied accomplishments, ready to adapt himself to the conditions under which his work was done, and possessed of much ingenuity and skill in inventing and constructing simple devices for taking the place of more elaborate but inaccessible instruments. Such a man was likely to make an impression upon the patroon, who was himself a man of liberal education and broad views. It is to this combination that the Rensselaer polytechnic institute owes its origin. Professor Eaton, its first director, was a native of the state of New York, born in 1776. When fourteen or fifteen years of age, having acted as chainman during a land survey, he determined to become a surveyor. He negotiated with a skillful blacksmith who agreed to work for him at night if he would "blow and strike” during the day. A needle and a good working chain resulted and an old pewter plate, smoothed, polished and graduated, served as a compass circle. At the age of 16 years he did actual surveying with these instruments. Later he entered Williams college and was graduated in 1799. His love for science led him to Yale college in 1815, where he received instruction from Professor Silliman. He gave courses of lectures at Williams college in 1817, developing a remarkable talent for popular exposition of scientific discovery, which resulted in his giving a course of lectures before the members of the New York legislature in 1818 on the invitation of Governor De Witt Clinton, and eventually in the geological survey already referred to at the request of Van Rensselaer. In his first letter to those selected to constitute the board of trustees Van Rensselaer named Professor Eaton as professor of chemistry and experimental philosophy, his office to be designated the “senior professorship.”

This was dated November 5th, 1824, and something of the founder's idea of what his school ought to do is shown in “Order 7” of the same communication. He says: “These are not to be taught by seeing experiments and hearing lectures, according to the usual method. But they are to lecture and experiment by turn, under the immediate



direction of a professor or competent assistant. Thus by a term of labor, like apprentices to a trade, they are to become operative chemists." The opening of the school occurred on Monday, January 3rd, 1825. It was incorporated in March, 1826, the act providing that the clear annual income of the invested funds of the institution should not exceed twenty thousand dollars. It was at first named the “Rensselaer school ;” afterward the “Rensselaer institute" and afterwards the “Rensselaer polytechnic institute.” Professor Eaton served for seventeen years as the senior professor, and during this period the course of study covered only one year. An important epoch in the history of the institution was the appointment of Professor B. Franklin Greene as senior professor in 1846, who became director on the establishment of that office in 1850. From that time the institute became more distinctly a school of civil engineering. The course of study was lengthened to three years and the corps of instructors was enlarged. The buildings and much of the equipment were destroyed by fire in 1862, but they were replaced by friends of the school and more extensive equipment was provided.

The Rensselaer polytechnic institute offers two courses of four years each, one in civil engineering and one in natural science. Upon those who complete the first it bestows the degree of C. E., and for the second that of B. S. In 1899 its instructors were fifteen in number and its students 143. It has graduated 1219 men, of whom 874 are living. Being the first school of its kind its list of graduates doubtless excels all others in the number of men who have reached distinction in professional life. It is supported by the income from its endowment funds and by tuition fees. Its government is rested in a board of twenty trustees, with the mayor of the city of Troy, ex-officio.

The next in order of time and one of the foremost in the country is the Massachusetts institute of technology at Boston.

This now famous institution owes its existence to the wise



[ocr errors]

foresight, the earnest and never-flagging enthusiasm, and the rare personal charm of Professor William B. Rogers, its first president and real founder. Professor Rogers was born in Philadelphia in 1804, his father, Dr. Patrick K. Rogers, having emigrated from Ireland a few years earlier. In 1819 Dr. P. K. Rogers became professor of natural philosophy in William and Mary college, Virginia, and there Professor W. B. Rogers was educated. At an early age he was distinguished for his scientific attainments and for an eloquent and persuasive speech which greatly increased his influence among men. For a long time he was professor of natural philosophy in the University of Virginia and he also served as state geologist for many years. It was while still a professor in the university that his mind was turned to the problem of scientific and technical training, and in 1846 he drew up a scheme for a school of technology which some years later and with slight modifications he brought to a realization in the Massachusetts institute of technology Although not a New England man by birth or education, he had occasionally visited Boston and was greatly impressed with it as a suitable locality for such an institution. He left Virginia to reside in Boston in 1853, and here, for a period of nearly ten years he worked, wrote and lectured, keeping all the time in mind the organization and development of the school of technology, the plans of which he had so long and so carefully considered. On April 10, 1861, the act incorporating the Massachusetts institute of technology received the approval of Governor Andrews, just as the nation was plunging into what proved to be a mighty struggle for its existence. A year later Professor Rogers was formally elected president of the institution, which as yet had no material existence. Indeed the war for the preservation of the Union delayed the consummation of his desires until February, 1865, at which time instruction in the new school was actually begun. During these years, as well as during the earlier years of the actual existence of the school, the organization was maintained


[ocr errors]

and the work carried on under great discouragement, mainly through the personal exertions and influence of Dr. Rogers, its president. He had already attained a high reputation as a scientific man, and to this he added a rare power of lucid explanation and popular exposition of scientific discovery This, with his simple and engaging manner, enabled him to gather about the young and feeble educational experiment a number of men, many of them distinguished in various walks of life, who loyally put themselves under his leadership in all matters relating to the institute. The earliest financial support came from two citizens of Boston, Dr. Walker and Mr. Huntington, who contributed $50,000 towards the erection of a building. When instruction began in 1865 there were enrolled 15 students, but the marvellous material development of the country which followed the civil war was favorable to the growth of the school and its prosperity rapidly increased. In 1870, owing to ill health, Dr. Rogers retired from the presidency and was succeeded by Professor John D. Runkle, who had been professor of mathematics from the beginning. In 1878 Dr. Rogers, having partially recovered his health, was induced to return to the presidency, holding that office until 1881, when, on his recommendation, General Francis A. Walker was elected as his successor. A year later, at noon of May 30th, 1882, Dr. Rogers, in the midst of an address to the graduating class of the institute, in which his hearers were delighted with an apparent revival of the spirit and eloquence with which he was accustomed to enrich every occasion for dignified address, fell upon the platform of Huntington hall, surrounded by the material realization of his dreams of nearly forty years earlier, and by those who, by the closest associations, had learned to love him as few are loved.

Under the able leadership of his distinguished successor, the Massachusetts institute of technology entered upon a new career of growth and development which has placed it in the front rank of its kind throughout the world.

By the act of incorporation of 1861 William Barton

« PreviousContinue »