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A History of the Mathematics Department at
Virginia Tech: 1872 - 1995

Chapter 1
The Beginning Years of the College

The Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College came into existence in 1872 under the Land Grant Act of 1862. The College replaced the Preston and Olin Institute, which was a small private school consisting of one building on five acres of land in Blacksburg. The building was on the hill at the end of Main Street overlooking the town.

Grey Carroll
Gray Carroll

The initial faculty of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College consisted of the president, Charles L. C. Minor, and seven other people, five of whom were listed as professors in the College's first catalog. The professor who taught the mathematics classes was Gray Carroll. He also taught modern language classes.

After the College opened its doors for the entering class on August 13, the students trickled in slowly. Eventually there were 132 students that first year. The first session lasted for ten months, with a two month break between December 22 and February 24.

The entering class was called the Junior Class; the second year class was the Intermediate Class; and the third year class was the Senior Class. A preparatory year was added in 1881. This distinction of classes between the Junior, Intermediate, and Senior (and Preparatory) Classes lasted until 1886, when it was reorganized into Fourth Class, Third Class, Second Class, and First Class.

Mathematics along with Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Geology, Botany, and Zoology were all part of what was called the Scientific Department. The other departments were the Literary and Technical Departments. Mathematics and the other curricular subdivisions were called courses during the early years of the College.

During these first years, all students took the same classes their first year, after which the farmers took different classes than the mechanics. The mathematics taught to the Junior Class consisted of arithmetic and algebra (through equations of the second degree). The Intermediate Class studied geometry and trigonometry (including surveying for the Agricultural students and perspective drawing for the Mechanical students). Algebra (from the equations of the second degree) and conic sections were taught to the Senior Class.

As is evident from the mathematics curriculum, the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in its early years was primarily an "industrial school." During the first 20 years, the Board of Visitors set the curriculum for the College. It was not until John M. McBryde became president in 1891 that the Board of Visitors left the curriculum to the president and the faculty.

During the nine years that Minor was president, the organization and the curriculum of the College remained much the same except for the introduction of the preparatory year for students who had poor academic backgrounds. The College enrollment increased steadily during the first few years until there were 255 students (all but 13 from Virginia) in 1875.

Second and First Academic Buildings
Second and First Academic Buildings

The First and Second Academic Buildings were built in 1876 and 1877, and the original Preston and Olin building was converted into a barracks. Mathematics was taught in both of these Academic Buildings for many years. Later the departmental office was in the First Academic Building, but classrooms and offices in both buildings were used by Mathematics until 1953 when the Department moved to Williams Hall. The two Academic Buildings were razed in 1957 to make room for the dormitories, Rasche Hall and Brodie Hall.

Military training was offered from the beginning. However, during the first nine years that Minor was president, there was no formal organization of the students into a disciplined cadet structure. Most of the students lived in town. There was little for them to do after their classes ended at 2:00 in the afternoon. This resulted in students playing many pranks on other students as well as on faculty and townspeople.

As student behavior became more and more of a problem, the faculty split into two factions: those wanting to organize the College into a military school, and those wanting to keep the military training to a minimum. President Minor and General Lane (who was in charge of military tactics) ultimately got into an argument that ended in a fist fight. Needless to say, all this conflict was bad publicity for the College, and as a result the enrollment dropped until there were only 50 students enrolled in the 1879-80 session. This caused President Minor to be replaced.

During the years from 1880 to 1882, two men accepted the presidency and then later turned it down because of conflicts with the Board of Visitors. Ultimately a faculty member had to act as president during 1881-82.

It was after this time of turmoil that Thomas N. Conrad became president in 1882. He (or the Board of Visitors) reorganized the departments into: Agriculture, Mechanical, Literary and Scientific, and Business. At about this time John E. Christian became Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy, replacing Gray Carroll as teacher of the mathematics classes.

John E. Christian
John E. Christian

Despite the change in the presidency and the mathematics faculty, there was no significant change in the mathematics curriculum. Arithmetic and elementary algebra were covered during the Preparatory year, and higher algebra and synthetic geometry were covered during the Junior year. The mathematics taken during the Intermediate and Senior years varied from one department to another. For example, the Mechanical and the Literary and Scientific Departments required trigonometry and conic sections during the Senior year, while the Agriculture Department only required trigonometry.

It was during these first years of Conrad's presidency that the College went to a more traditional session, having Fall, Winter, and Spring Terms with a two month break in the summer.

The daily routine for the students in these early years after 1882 involved a military type of life style, and included required classes in military tactics. The following daily routine was listed in the 1883-84 catalog:

The diplomas received by the students before 1883 were not degrees, but were certificates attesting that the student successfully completed the three-year course of study in Agriculture, Mechanics, or a combination of the two. The first degrees for completion of a four year course of study were Bachelor of Arts degrees given to two students in 1883.

It was during the 1883-84 year that calculus was offered for the first time. It was included in the Senior courses in civil engineering, mining engineering, and Bachelor of Arts. Also making their first appearances in the mathematics curriculum at this time were solid geometry and logic. It was also at this time that the College Library was begun in a large room known as the Bull Room.

Because of Conrad's political activities, he and all the faculty and officers of the College were removed by the Board of Visitors in 1886. General Lindsay Lunsford Lomax, a distinguished officer of the Confederacy, was elected to succeed Conrad. John Christian was among the faculty reinstated by the Board. He remained as the lone Professor of Mathematics. The Board also returned the College to the semester system at this time.

There were very few changes made during the five years that Lomax was president. The curriculum remained the same during these years. Marks were given on a 10 point basis, with 7.5 regarded as satisfactory. The marks given in mathematics were on the average somewhat lower than in other subjects. The following average marks were computed from the tables in the 1886-87 catalog. The average marks for Second Class students were: Chemistry (General) - 7.3, Natural History - 8.2, Mathematics - 6.8, Mineralogy - 7.7, Physics - 7.7, English - 8.2.

Discipline was again a problem during Lomax's tenure, and the Board of Visitors felt the need to hire a more able administrator. This resulted in the retirement of Lomax and the selection in 1891 of John M. McBryde as fifth president of the College. McBryde had a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Virginia, and had been president of South Carolina College.

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Last Modified on: Tuesday, 25-Sep-2001 08:16:03 EDT