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Memoirs of the First Forty Years, by Dan H. Pletta

Early History and Growth

The Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics was first formed in 1932 when the two existing departments of Applied Mechanics and Experimental Engineering, and of Power Engineering and Machine Design, were reorganized and emerged as the departments of Applied Mechanics (ApM) and Mechanical Engineering (ME). Until 1932, theoretical and applied courses in applied mechanics, thermodynamics, aeronautics, power, and machine design were taught in these two former departments. They administered the B.S. and M.E. degrees awarded in mechanical engineering and the service courses in mechanics and thermodynamics required of all engineering students. After 1932, Applied Mechanics continued as a service department offering theoretical and laboratory courses in applied mechanics, engineering materials, and aeronautics.

The laboratory then was well equipped with machines for testing the static and dynamic properties of materials and with an excellent wind tunnel. The tunnel had been designed with a 3 foot diameter open throat by Norval White Conner, a young assistant professor, and built in the VPI Woodshop. The tunnel had a maximum throat velocity of 150 mph and a profile of the flow across its circular area that was exceptionally uniform. In fact, its nearly perfect performance led to its inspection by personnel from what was later known as NASA's Langley Research Center. The tunnel is still in use by two departments for research, testing, and teaching.

Teaching of the remaining theoretical and applied courses and administration of the mechanical engineering degrees were assigned to the newly formed Mechanical Engineering Department. A separate department of Aeronautical Engineering was created later in 1942 to offer B.S. degrees in that field.

These departmental splinterings might be construed as a continuing de-emphasizing role for Applied Mechanics. Actually the reverse was true, for that department continued to expand its courses, particularly in the graduate field, to increase its staff and research, to support all engineering degree granting programs, and to merit their respect. College enrollment decreased materially during the World War II years, but the department's undergraduate offerings continued to be specified for soldiers in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP).

A significant change occurred in 1946 as the War ended. It was then that the Applied Mechanics Department was authorized to grant M.S. Degrees. The department's name and title of its degrees were changed from Applied Mechanics to Engineering Mechanics in 1958. The latter title was chosen because it was more appropriate and less confusing than applied mechanics for an engineering program. Initial enrollment was sufficient to grant 2 M.S. Degrees in 1948, 8 in 1949, and from 5 to 17 with a yearly average of almost 9 from 1950 to 1972. By 1951, the growth in the graduate and research programs had achieved a level which justified the approval of a Ph.D. degree program. The first doctorate was awarded in 1954, and from none to three per year through 1963. Thereafter 5 to 16 with a yearly average of 9 Ph.D. degrees were awarded through 1972. From 1947 to 1972, a total of 211 Master's degrees had been earned; the number of doctorates awarded beginning in 1954 totaled 98 by 1972.

Of those who received graduate degrees in Engineering Mechanics at Virginia Tech up to 1972, approximately 20% were, at that time, engaged in college teaching at universities, 75% were in governmental or industrial research development laboratories, and 5% were in other kinds of engineering work. Many of the graduates, though still in the 30-40 year age bracket in 1972, held responsible positions such as department head, research director, dean, vice-president, and president. Two graduates became entrepreneurs and owned their own firms.

An effort was made to accelerate and strengthen the program even further by starting to plan for an undergraduate curriculum in Engineering Mechanics in 1956. This course of study followed the suggestions outlined in the ASEE Report on Evaluation of Engineering Education, especially with regard to emphasis on mathematics and the physical and engineering sciences. It was an exceptionally broad program with at least a one year sequence of courses in electronics, electrical circuit and field theory; in thermodynamics and heat transfer; in materials science; and in solid state and modern physics. This material was founded on and capped by over three years of course work in mathematics and applied mechanics. The latter included six required advanced senior courses in vibrations, dynamics, fluid mechanics, strength of materials, experimental mechanics and materials of engineering.

Students in those early post World War II years were a hardy lot with a keen sense of humor. They referred to their six required senior courses as electives since the departmental faculty had elected them -- "to build character." And they did! For many years almost all who graduated had at least a B average. Two, who went to Cal. Tech., breezed through their M.S. program there in nine months, whereas many from other schools took as long as two years there.

The first B.S. Degrees were awarded in 1958 when three students finished the requirements. Thereafter, until 1972 the number awarded varied from 2 to 23 and averaged 6 per year. Of the 186 who were awarded the B.S. degree through 1972, about 60% pursued graduate work. Effective with the beginning of the 1972-73 academic year, the undergraduate degree and the name of the department were changed to Engineering Science and Mechanics. All graduate degrees are still designated Engineering Mechanics.


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