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A History of Engineering Mechanics
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Dan H. Pletta*

An Introductory Parable

The Indian scouts who guided settlers through the American wilderness of the 18th Century had a habit of looking backward periodically as they reached high ground. They did this to see the trail they had followed from a different vantage point, so they could find their way back on return trips and then guide pioneers better on future trips. The scouts also used these observation points to survey the routes; looking backward over terrain to see how they might have circumvented obstacles, and looking forward to select the easiest routes. They tried to accomplish their missions to minimize the energy expended and time needed for each trip, and to maximize their profit and the number of people served.

Education resembles those early migrations. The teachers resemble Indian scouts, guiding students seeking to prepare for professional careers through what often appears to them as a wilderness that is all up-hill. This history of the first forty years of the Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics might be used to look backward over the trail we have trod. A few of us are still around who guided its progress from 1932-1972 and welcome the opportunity to reminisce. The effort presents an opportunity to record the events which have shaped our destiny. It built the sound foundation that enabled the department to grow after 1972 into one of the most prestigious in the world in the 1980's. It seems fitting now to document the early departmental history, and to describe the mistakes made as well as the obstacles overcome.

This introductory parable, comparing a westward geographical migration with an educational, intellectual adventure, illustrates their similarities. Both are time dependent; both are subject to change. Migrations ended when the west was won. Education will continue only so long as man continues to serve his species without annihilating it.

* University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of ESM.

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