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

Departmental Staff, Equipment and Accomplishments

The two essential elements needed for any university are students and faculty. Professional schools like engineering need a third element to fulfill their function; i.e., laboratory equipment to investigate physical behavior and to verify theory. Libraries, a fourth element, help but are not as essential as people. It may be remembered that Lord Rayleigh's THEORY OF SOUND was written with no access to a library as he journeyed on a house boat trip up the Nile in 1872 while recuperating from rheumatic fever. Numbers for these elements signify quantity but not quality. Nevertheless, some of all four elements must exist, for otherwise there would be no output whose quality could be measured. Appendix A documents the quantity of available staff and courses but not the quality of the educational effort. The following brief description of current research equipment indicates something of its scope and potential up to 1972.

The department had assembled an impressive amount of support equipment from 1932-72 for teaching experimental research in engineering mechanics. Testing machines varied from an MTS combined torsion-tension facility large enough to test structural components to a very low strain rate apparatus with sensitivity of +/- 0.01 grams, two Instron universal machines, and an Instron dynamic cycler. In addition to the usual tension, creep, and fatigue machines, special equipment included a 20 channel high speed data acquisition system, a fifteen channel Textronix simultaneous recording system, a data processing oscilloscope, hotwire anemometry and spectrum analyzers, and a computer controlled data acquisition and handling system; a photomechanics laboratory equipped with modern research and teaching equipment including interferometric holographic, moire and photoelastic apparatus for advanced state of the art analyses; Weber environmental chamber and environmental controlled creep and fatigue machines; a bar impact tester; and a MB-50 magnetic shaker with a sweep frequency generator and pulse echo ultrasonic apparatus. Audio-visual equipment included an Arriflex motion picture camera, T.V. tape cameras, a recorder and player system, and a time-resolved video thermographic camera with a ten color isotherm display laser anemometer, an acoustic flow facility, X-ray diffraction equipment, time resolved X-ray apparatus, acoustic emission devices, and a scanning electron microscope; a 100 ft. towing tank, wind tunnel, and water glycerin tunnel facilities were also available.

The University Computing Center was started in 1959 with an IBM 650 and an IBM 1620 computer. Later the processors had had 3 megabytes of fast core memory disk units providing another 3.3 megabytes of peripheral equipment of high-speed readers, printers, plotters, terminals, etc. Ultimately all major language compilers and interpreters were available. The College of Engineering operated a hybrid computing facility with the EA1 580 analog and GE 4020 digital computers. In addition, the facility operated three PB 440 digital computers. The department obtained a PACE analog computer and used it for teaching for years before any other department had any computational facility.

The ultimate measure of the quality of any educational program, however intangible it might be, is reflected in the objectives of the department and in the scholarly accomplishments of its staff. The ESM Department has always been committed to the pursuit of excellence. That objective was carried on by the staff as it increased from three faculty in 1946 to 24 in 1972. Their appointment may have been more a matter of luck than of judicious selection. All appointees had a doctoral degree or the ability to finish one at a reputable engineering school. Eclipsing that academic requirement, however, was evidence of their enthusiasm for teaching as well as for research.

Funds in those early days were too meager to hire full professors. All additions to the staff had to be at the assistant professorship level and at salaries considerably lower than those at existing prestigious schools. Nevertheless, almost all applicants who were offered appointments accepted the positions. I believe they did so because of the challenge, for all were expected to develop a small graduate course area. They were like young colts in their very own pasture and fulfilled their missions. Many became well known worldwide in such research specialties as structural aerodynamic stability, brittle fracture, nondestructive testing, composite materials, adhesion science, and fluid mechanics, or in developing new courses in computer programming, the statistical analysis of catastrophic failure, etc. Names like Frank Maher, Bill Smith, Ken Reifsnider, Carl Herakovich, Hal Brinson, Tom Davis, Dan Frederick, Howard Sword, Dean Mook, Arpad Pap, Victor Maderspach, and Bob Heller are representative and come to mind for their research and teaching. A few of the young faculty members who were appointed left for greener pastures. They also added to the luster of the department, particularly E. Q. Smith, Jack Huffington, Vic Szebehely, Lowell Collier, Jerry Counts, Bob Armstrong and Rich McNitt. Their pursuit of excellence reinforced the department's goal to ensure good student-teacher rapport both in formal classroom lectures and in informal learning situations such as research tasks. The traditional "open door" policy resulted in easy student access to professors. Recognition of the teaching effort was reflected by the teaching awards made to ESM faculty.

From 1960 to 1972 departmental faculty were selected for a series of awards for excellence in teaching, research and scholarly publications (Table I). Those for excellence in teaching included two ASEE Regional Western Electric Fund Awards, three VPI Wine, and three VPI Sporn Awards; one of its original six University (Distinguished) Professorships, and one ASCE Huber Research Award (for members under age 35). In the years after 1972, many more such awards, honors, and named professorships were to follow.


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