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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.

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.

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.


Teaching Awards Year Recipient
ASCE Regional Western Electric Fund Award 1965 F. J. Maher
ASCE Regional Western Electric Fund Award 1968 D. H. Pletta
VPI Wine Award 1960 F. J. Maher
VPI Wine Award 1966 J. H. Sword
VPI Wine Award 1972 R. P. McNitt
VPI Sporn Award 1967 R. T. Davis
VPI Sporn Award 1968 Jerry Counts
VPI Sporn Award 1971 J. E. Kaiser
Research Awards
ASCE Huber Research Award (members under 35) 1960 Daniel Frederick
Teaching, Research and Publication
VPI University Distinguished Professorships 1970 D. H. Pletta

Faculty were also active in advisory appointments in national engineering society committees and boards, and served as editors and reviewers for numerous technical and professional journals.

Efforts to improve educational techniques included the creation and production of educational films by Professor Robert A. Heller on the "Mechanics of Materials and Structures" in 1965. This series of 16mm sound films found nation-wide adoption and substantially enhanced the student's understanding of the use of fundamental principles of mechanics in structural design. From 1954-72, twenty textbooks and manuals were written by staff members, some of which are still in use here and elsewhere at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In addition, the staff continued to publish their research findings.

Departmental Administration Reminiscences and Conferences

The impressive achievements of the faculty summarized in the previous pages were supported by a competent, loyal staff of technicians and secretaries, and by the following three department heads whose active leadership spanned three generations:

1932-1948 - Dr. Louis O'Shaughnessy
1948-1970 - Professor Dan H. Pletta
1970-------- Dr. Daniel Frederick

A word or two of this support, especially in the department's early years, seems apropos here because available resources then, like now, were perpetually inadequate. Faculty salaries were much lower at that time than the national averages. Nine month salaries for instructors to full professors in the 1930's ranged from $1,200 to $3,500. A $2,400 twelve month salary was enough then to build a seven-room house, buy a second-hand car, pay for a new baby, and have a full-time maid seven days a week living on the premises. Such perquisites, coupled with the low cost of living existing during the Great Depression of the 1930's and the contemplative life which college teaching provided were sufficient to attract and to hold a bare nucleus of competent staff. Funds were scarce. For instance, in 1936, Frank Maher as a graduate assistant was provided with $25 to purchase the stress-free lenses for the photo-elasticity polariscope he needed for his master's thesis.

Salaries remained below the national average until 1963 when Dr. T. Marshall Hahn assumed the Presidency. Until then salaries were supplemented with the opportunity to enjoy the local mountainous scenery, and to rear a family in a wholesome social environment. No one on the faculty in those early years had tenure. No one on the faculty was ever concerned about it! They had security! Professors felt that salaries were too low for the administration to fire anyone because of the difficulty it would have trying to find a replacement. Tenure was first granted at VPI in 1953.

The emphasis in the early days was on teaching. The teaching of graduate courses was approved as long as the faculty also taught 15 to 19 hours of undergraduate courses and everyone carried a full-load. Department heads taught 9 to 12 hours with the balance allowed for administration. Paper work was miniscule in volume. Dr. O'Shaughnessy, who also served as Director of Graduate Studies, had two small files of correspondence, one in each side coat pocket. Professor Pletta, in the early 1950's, continued the tradition of minimizing irrelevant paper shuffling. One example will suffice. He served as the departmental search committee for new staff, and remembers writing the Dean of Engineering the following letter:

Dear Dean Norris:

Please appoint Dr. Victor G. Szebehely* as an assistant professor at a salary of $XXXX beginning in September 1948, and arrange the necessary paper work.

Respectfully yours,

Dan H. Pletta, Head
Engineering Mechanics Department

Department heads in those "good old days"' also minimized other redtape by selecting their own graduate students and nominating fellowship and assistantship appointees. Gradually, however, as the university grew in size, administrative constraints multiplied. Teaching loads declined and emphasis on research increased as such funds became available for research, conferences, and buildings, especially after the launching of Sputnik in 1957.

The first mechanics conference at VPI was held in the summer of 1950. A $3,500 grant from the General Education Board of New York provided partial funding for the $250 honoraria (excluding travel) for some of the seminar speakers, for ocean passage for Sir Richard Southwell and his assistant Miss Jill Vaisey from England, and for the $75 fee for the five-week term for the 26 official representatives of other engineering schools who attended. They came from the eastern half of the United States and Canada. All out-of-town speakers and students were housed in Hillcrest Dormitory at $2 per night for single occupancy. Meals were $.50 each. Dr. Hans Bleich graciously volunteered to take a 7 a.m. taxi from the train station in Cambria to Hillcrest so that I could meet my 9 o'clock class instead of the train. The taxi fare was $.50.

The theme of the conference emphasized Southwell's relaxation techniques for 'solving' the partial differential equations of theoretical physics and engineering science, and Hardy Cross' moment distribution method to analyze indeterminate structural frames. Their methods solved the required partial differential and/or simultaneous equations with only arithmetic, converging quickly on the answers without the need to use prolonged iterative techniques of higher mathematics. Today iteration is no longer an obstacle because electronic computers are available. In 1950, only mechanical desk calculators were capable of such arithmetic computations. Frieden, Marchant and Monroe machines were loaned free of charge for use of the conference attendees. A display of strain gage equipment was provided by Magnaflux Corporation and by the Baldwin-Locomotive Works.

The conference included other modern engineering experimental and theoretical applications like the use of electrical resistance (SR4) strain gages and photoelasticity as well as of the application of structural vibrations, dynamics of package cushioning, etc. as Table II illustrates.

* Dr. Szebehely was on the ESM Staff from 1948 to 1952.



Hans F. Bleich Vibrational Analysis and Structural Design
Hardy Cross Analysis of Structural Strength and Stability
Greer Ellis Stress Coat Case Histories
Miklas Hetenyi Stress and Fracture Analysis
Raymond D. Mindlin The Dynamics of Package Cushioning
David B. Steinman Aerodynamic Loads on Bridges and Buildings
Sir Richard Southwell Relaxation Methods in Engineering Science
Frank G. Tatnall Bonded Electric Strain Gage Equipment

One of Dr. Mindlin's afternoon lectures in Patton Hall was interrupted by a noisy commotion on the adjoining drill field. A black bear ambled along the road, which surrounds the drill field, and then crossed it and headed for Squires Hall, followed by hundreds of shouting students. The bear managed to escape from the campus constraints only to be shot by a farmer trying to protect his livestock. The farmer was arrested on two counts: killing a bear out of season and hunting without a license. The bear had followed the path Dr. Mindlin chose as he walked from Hillcrest Dormitory to Patton Hall each day. Perhaps he was trying to get to Mindlin's lecture. Anyway, the path was named Mindlin Walk in honor of the eventful interruption.

The Conference was opened by a reception hosted by the school's president and the dean of engineering. Weekly dinner parties for visiting lecturers were hosted in my home and funded by the "Pletta Foundation."

A 1954 conference, like its predecessor in 1950, attracted national attention. Both focused on design, but the 1954 series of seminars emphasized practical applications of new design theories aimed at reducing the time-lag between research and application. Its program is listed in Table III.

* All Seminars were 5 hour presentations except for Sir Richard's course on Relaxation Methods which lasted 6 weeks.




James Michalos Three Dimensional Analysis of Curved Elastic Rings and Rigid Frames
Nathan M. Newmark Design of Structures for Blast Loading
Paul S. Symonds Plastic Design of Rigid Frames and Slabs
Alfred M. Freudenthal Thermodynamic Effects on Stress Analysis and Plastic Properties of Materials

This 1954 Conference lasted only three days because it was planned as a continuing education sequence for engineering practitioners. A total of 70 attended, many of whom stayed in dormitory rooms for $1 a night and ate meals in the college dining halls or at the Faculty Center which cost $.60 a piece. A modest $20 fee was charged for admission, but this covered honoraria for the speakers and the 48 page Conference Proceedings which was published as a VPI Engineering Experimentation Bulletin (Vol. XLIX, No. 3 - Part 1). Like so many educational conferences, this 1954 effort could never have been held had it not been for the extra funds supplied by the VPI Educational Foundation, by two Virginia consulting firms: Hayes, Seay Mattern and Mattern of Roanoke; and Lublin, McGaughy and Associates of Norfolk, and the services donated by the loyal departmental staff.

These two early VPI departmental conferences received sufficient national acclaim so that they were followed by a series of others that began to attract world-wide attention. The first of these in 1961 was a two-week sequence devoted to space exploration arranged by the departments of engineering mechanics, aeronautical engineering, and physics. It was supported generously by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and by the Langley Research Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). These funds were restricted almost entirely to travel expenses of the 34 speakers, including one from Australia, and the 100 invited faculty participants from American and Canadian universities, and for publishing the proceedings. These two VPI Engineering Experiment Station Bulletins (Vol. LV, No. 9 & 10), included 622 pages and were divided into Physics of the Solar System and Reentry Dynamics. Over 200 participants attended including 3 from national news services, 15 from industry, 11 from NASA and NOL, etc.

The growth in size and prestige of these 1961-64 Conferences was accompanied by some increase in administrative red-tape. It was discovered that some Federal employees who were Conference speakers at the 1961 Conference were ineligible to receive the uniform $150 honoraria and they were required to return the checks. The scope of the conference was too ambitious. Four, two-hour long sessions, were scheduled Monday through Friday in both solar physics and reentry dynamics. Hour-long lectures and their hour-long discussion periods were staggered so that individuals could attend as many as eight lectures a day or visit the local slip ring manufacturing plant of the Polyscientific Corporation. Attendance, which at the opening sessions filled rooms almost to their capacity, gradually dwindled to about one-third midway of the second week. People became too saturated.

By 1961, inflation was noticeable. Dormitory rooms now cost $3.00 per night for single and $2.50 each for double occupancy, and meals had increased from a fixed $.50 each to those which varied from $.70 to $1.50. Motel rooms then cost from $5 to $7 for single rooms.

These foregoing and subsequent conferences are listed in Table IV.


Date Sponsor Title Volumes Pages
1950 GEB* Modern Developments in Design (6 weeks) -- --
1954 Industry New Developments in Engineering Design 1 48
1961 NSF-NASA Physics of the Solar System and Reentry Dynamics 1 622
1962** NSF-NASA Lunar Exploration 3 540
1963** NSF-NASA Artificial Satellites 3 600
1964** NSF-NASA The Role of Simulation in Space Technology 5 1300
1965-70 NSF Recent Developments in Continuous Media (6 weeks) -- --
1970 Humble Ed. Fdn. Engineering Mechanics and Industry Interface 1 --

*General Education Board
**Also sponsored by other departments of physics, aeronautical engineering, materials science, etc.

An Educational Grant

The 1950 and 1954 technical conferences were followed by a year-long STUDY OF ENGINEERING EDUCATION AT VPI in 1960 with a $50,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. I served as the project director and steering committee chairman and 25 staff members from 10 departments formed the study committees. They were assisted by 5 outside consultants. The study was organized to implement the recommendations of the ASEE Committee on Evaluation of Engineering Education discussed in its 1955 Report. This was soon named the "Grinter Report" after its Chairman, Dr. L. E. Grinter. I served as secretary of that ASEE Committee. The recommendations emphasized the need to modernize engineering education 1) by upgrading the scientific and mathematical foundation so as 2) to strengthen the design requirement which distinguishes engineering from most college programs, and 3) to recognize the obligations of the profession to society. These three needs became evident in World War II when western democracies had to rely to a greater extent more upon scientists than engineers to develop such technological advances as radar and nuclear fission to win that struggle more quickly.

The Grinter Report (1955) provided the criteria for the long overdue introduction of these changes. At first, these criteria were resisted, but the launching of the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957, and their ensuing adoption as ECPD accreditation requirements, accelerated their acceptance. New courses were introduced and obsolete ones were eliminated. Unfortunately, the credit hours required for the engineering baccalaureate were reduced 10% in the early 1960's during a slump in engineering enrollment so that these programs could compete for students with those in arts and sciences. Design courses were virtually eliminated. The Grinter Report did not recommend any reduction or extension in required credit hours or program length, but concentrated instead on quality and purpose. It stressed the fact that design differentiated engineering curricula from those in science.

The VPI Study recommended 39 changes in courses and 33 in curricular structure and administration. All except 11 of the latter were approved by at least a majority of the 26 committee members after many hours of deliberations -- both spirited and restrained. Portions of the recommendations were implemented even before the report was sent to the printer. The report was published as VPI Bulletin, Vol. LIV, No. 11, Sept. 1961.

Significant recommendations rejected by a majority of the committee in 1958 included one to establish a lower-division, a two-year common core for all engineering curricula. However, the committee did endorse bifurcation of the upper division so that dual curricula could be developed in departments which had enough enrollment and such a desire. One of these was to be a 4-year terminal degree oriented toward immediate employment in practical technology. The other was to be a graduate preparatory program oriented toward a broader base in scientific theory and the humanities for more extended use in engineering research, development and creative design. It might be noted that somewhat similar terminal 4-year accredited engineering technology programs expanded nationwide from zero in 1958 to 47 in 1972 in 20 institutions while engineering programs increased from 839 to 1035, as Table V shows.


Technology Programs Engineering Programs
Year B.S. Schools B.S. Schools M.S. Schools
1958 0 0 839 154 0 0
1967 2 1 935 185 0 0
1972 47 20 1035 222 52 22
1981 244 84 1212 250 90 32

Tall Tales and Anecdotes

No organization could survive almost half a century of sustained growth in any academic discipline without the generation of a series of anecdotes. Students like to tell the story of Dr. Frederick's exceptional strength, as witnessed by one of their classmates whose attention had wandered in a materials testing experiment. Dr. Frederick, then just a young instructor, had reassembled a necked-down tensile specimen to measure its non-uniform elongation. Just as the cadet's attention was refocused on this demonstration he noticed that Frederick had literally pulled the a bar in two. Frederick never did have any trouble with discipline thereafter.

Students also tell a tale about one of Professor Sword's assistants who happened to be a Chinese graduate student. One of his classmates asked him who his mathematics professor was. He replied, "Professor Sword." Actually it was Professor Campbell. The question was repeated, but the student's answer remained the same. Then, one of his Chinese classmates explained the dilemma by saying, "All Americans look alike to him."

Some tales become embellished as they are repeated over the years. One describes how intent I was when, during a 5 o'clock graduate winter quarter class, the lights went out. 'Tis said I went right on lecturing and writing equations on the board, for all students continued to hear the chalk pecking on the blackboard.

A tale that is not embellished is one that happened to Rufus Witt (M.S. 1949), and his classmates who were enrolled in my class in Theory of Plasticity at 9 a.m. TThS (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays). I believed in elegance, as well as in the pursuit of excellence, and used to insist that all graduate students attend the magnificent formal student dances so as to learn how to wear tuxedos comfortably, and how professionals were expected to behave in a civilized society. At one dance during the Friday midnight intermission Witt's classmates asked me if I intended to hold the 8 a.m. class next morning as usual. I was surprised and said, "of course." When they wanted to know why, I told them that they would soon forget what they learned in any one lecture, but one thing they had to learn was to get to work on time and sober after any night of frolicking and to learn to dance so that they could impress their future boss' wife, achieve early promotions, accumulate wealth and endow their alma mater. "May we come dressed as we are in our Tuxedos?" they asked. "Of course" I replied. "And may we bring our dates, too?" "Of course." And they did, that is all but Rufus' date. She didn't come, but he did! And he never married her. That was the only time I ever lectured to a class all attired in formal clothes and accompanied by their ladies in their evening gowns. I obliged all with a fifty minute lecture at 9 a.m. that wintry Saturday morning.

Perhaps that was why, at a dinner honoring Mrs. Pletta and me for our seventy years of service to VPI when I passed the gavel to Dr. Frederick, my daughter, Ann, described me as "a tough old bird with class -- but with a gentle and generous disposition." After all, hadn't I always given an A to every student who deserved it?

There were other incidents of "the good old days" that will long be remembered. One concerned Professor Szebehely, that young brilliant Hungarian scholar whose English, at the time he was on the VPI faculty, was not yet perfect. He had trouble pronouncing parallelepiped, but solved the problem whenever he had to use the word by pointing a finger at either of two native American graduate students* and having them say it for him. He also wondered what these knots where that everyone talked about during his visit to the David Taylor Model Basin.

Graduate students of that era also remember the enthusiasm they exhibited for softball games played during the summer when the 1950 "Relaxation" Conference was held. Sir Richard's young female assistant always played too.

Perhaps, though, the anecdote with the most scholarly implications involved Dr. O'Shaughnessy. Early graduates well remember the philosophical and political arguments he had with Professor William H. (Bosco) Rasche, head of the Department of Graphics and Mechanism. These encounters took place in the Post Office next to the Lyric Theater as they waited for the evening mail to be distributed to their boxes, or in the theater lobby next door. Rasche went to the movie every evening even though the picture might have a three day run; O'Shaughnessy frequented the movie only intermittently but the Post Office regularly. They frequently argued about whether a ball thrown straight up actually "stopped" before coming down. On another occasion O'Shaugnessy was discussing Einstein's THEORY OF RELATIVITY with an eminent Jesuit scholar of astronomy at his VPI Seminar. He said that Einstein had found space to be curved. "It is?" O'Shaughnessy asked, "Which way?"

* J. B. Fades (M.S. 1949, Ph.D. 1959) and the late Robert Truitt (Ph.D. 1954).

Continued Growth and Objectives

The appendices and tables listed so far have indicated a most rewarding growth. Although enrollment may have reached a quantifiable optimum, other a data suggest a continuing enhancement in quality. The achievements of the hundreds of graduates, the first of whom are now reaching retirement years, the continued scheduling of yearly conferences, and the growth in scholarly achievement of the faculty had earned the department a justifiable reputation for excellence.

Technically, the departmental educational efforts had been exceptional. Yet, they shared a weakness all other collegiate programs have; i.e., none offer any instruction for their graduates in societal leadership. All universities acknowledge their responsibility to 1) transmit existing knowledge, 2) to search for new knowledge, and 3) to provide an education broad enough to allow graduates to understand the cultural heritage of civilization. What they all fail to do is to motivate those graduates who understand science and engineering best to assume leadership positions in our ever increasing technological civilization. Such graduates will have to become much more actively involved in guiding technology by helping to determine long-term societal goals in the future than they have so far if freedom is to endure. Universities should, therefore, add a fourth obligation -- to educate leaders for civilian life who can preserve the best of our cultural heritage while accommodating the technological changes yet to come.

Several sections of these memoirs have described the sustained objectives of the department and accomplishments of the young staff who laid the foundation for the reputation it earned up to 1972. That departmental reputation continued to expand enough thereafter, as these staff members became recognized authorities, to attract many more prestigious faculty members under its post 1972 leadership.

The departments standing might be compared to "a mighty oak that from a small acorn grew" because everyone helped to nurture it enthusiastically.


Academic Staff Courses Enrollment Degrees
Year Faculty GTA GRA UGr. Grad. B.S. M.S. Ph.D. B.S. M.S. Ph.D.
1932 3 1 - 9 5 - - - - - -
3 3 1 - 9 5 - - - - - -
4 3 1 - 9 4 - - - - - -
5 3 1 - 10 4 - - - - - -
6 3 0 - 10 4 - - - - - -
7 3 1 - 12 4 - - - - - -
8 4 0 - 12 7 - - - - - -
9 4 0 - 12 7 - - - - - -
1940 4 1 - 12 7 - - - - - -
1 5 1 - 12 7 - - - - - -
2 4 1 - 14 7 - - - - - -
3 4 2 - 14 6 - - - - - -
4 4 2 - 14 5 - - - - - -
5 4 0 - 6 5 - - - - - -
6 3 2 - 6 9 - * - - * -
7 5 4 - 6 9 - 8 - - 0 -
8 10 3 - 6 7 - 13 - - 2 -
9 10 2 - 9 10 - 15 - - 8 -
Year Faculty GTA GRA UGr. Grad. B.S. M.S. Ph.D. B.S. M.S. Ph.D.
1950 10 1 - 8 10 - 20 - - 8 -
1 9 0 - 9 17 - 15 * - 8 *
2 8 5 - 9 18 - 10 10 - 5 0
3 7 3 - 9 19 - 14 14 - 5 0
4 10 4 - 9 21 - 17 17 - 8 1
5 10 6 - 9 22 - 16 11 - 8 0
6 12 3 - 9 23 * 15 15 * 6 0
7 10 7 - 11 23 1 17 14 0 5 0
8 16 6 - 11 24 12 29 8 3 9 3
9 17 6 - 12 24 11 16 7 2 8 2
1960 17 6 - 12 25 22 18 9 5 6 1
1 16 7 - 12 25 39 22 12 13 7 3
2 19 7 - 13 25 27 21 13 8 6 3
3 19 5 - 13 26 42 28 20 16 17 3
4 20 3 4 13 26 57 36 30 15 11 5
5 21 4.0 1.3 14 29 57 53 35 19 17 7
6 20 3.6 2.8 14 29 55 44 31 13 15 8
7 21 5.1 1.8 15 33 56 31 49 14 16 16
8 21 3.8 0.7 22 35 56 28 34 13 11 13
9 21 4.2 0.8 26 40 40 18 26 23 7 10
___Year Faculty GTA GRA UGr. Grad. B.S. M.S. Ph.D. B.S. M.S. Ph.D.
1970 24 4.3 4.0 27 45 28 14 24 15 4 10
1 20 ? ? 23 41 38 21 24 14 4 9
2 21 ? ? 25 45 44 18 32 13 10 4