WPI Journal

Spring 1996

A Mechanical Marvel

by Roger N. Perry, Jr. '45 and Michael W. Dorsey

As they have done for more than 50 years, students and faculty members swung open the doors of Higgins Laboratories last fall and set about the business of teaching, learning and exploring in mechanical engineering.

But the building they entered was dramatically different from the one the Institute dedicated in 1942, having undergone a dramatic restoration and redesign, and having been expanded through the construction of a 17,000-square-foot addition. In the new Higgins Labs, one can find reflections of the past, present and future of one of WPI's original academic departments. WPI was one of the first institutions in the U.S. to offer a program in mechanical engineering, and its early graduates went on to found the corporations and create the inventions that helped drive the American Industrial Revolution. Since those early days, the department has made its mark through its innovative approach to education, its groundbreaking research, and the accomplishments of its thousands of graduates. And now, with a modern, attractive and functional building, the department stands ready to face the challenges of education and research in mechanical engineering today and well into the 21st century.

When the Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science opened for business in November 1868, only a handful of disciplines were offered. Of these, the board of trustees noted, "the first in importance is mechanical engineering." Post-Civil War America was dominated by the machine and by dreams of an ever more mechanized and productive world. The new discipline of mechanical engineering was the key to turning that vision into a reality.

The third private college of science and technology in the country, WPI was also among the first to offer a course in mechanical engineering. Its mechanical engineering students and instructors became pioneers in a new model of engineering education. WPI was the first technological school to emphasize the importance of laboratory methods and the first to establish the workshop as an essential part of training in engineering.

The Washburn Shops contained a model manufacturing facility, by 1868 standards. It was there that students, working with journeymen factory hands, turned out products for sale on the open market. Profits from the shop helped to support the new school, which initially charged no tuition. At the same time, students became familiar with manufacturing processes and the expectations of the workers they would find in industry following graduation.

WPI's theory and practice philosophy became a model for many of the well known engineering schools developed in the latter part of the 19th century, including Georgia Institute of Technology and Rose-Hulman University. Although changing times have relegated commercial shops to the pages of history, the hands-on philosophy pioneered in the Washburn Shops is still the hallmark of a WPI education.

From the beginning, mechanical engineering was the most popular discipline at WPI, and its growing enrollments made space in Washburn tight. By 1894, a new a facility was under construction to relieve the overcrowding. The four-story brick building on West Street was known simply as "the ME building" for half a century, until it was named for Charles G. Stratton of the Class of 1875. Rated among the finest mechanical engineering buildings in the East, Stratton was soon joined by a new power plant, an adjacent working foundry, and a hydraulics laboratory five miles away in Holden. The Alden Hydraulics Laboratory would become world renowned for its pioneering work in fluid flow; it was spun off as an independent research consulting laboratory about a decade ago.

Guiding the fledgling department through its formative years were George Ira Alden, the first department head, and Milton Prince Higgins, superintendent of the Washburn Shops. These close friends were highly regarded in the engineering community. In the 1880s they took a leave of absence to help establish Georgia Tech, and both declined offers to remain on the faculty there. Both men left WPI in 1896 to devote full time to the Norton Emery Wheel Co., which they and others purchased in 1885.

Ralph Earle, who became WPI president in 1925, had a vision of developing the west half of the campus. In 1926, Sanford Riley Hall, the Institute's first residence hall, joined Alumni Gymnasium and Alumni Field on that nearly empty parcel of land. The Great Depression delayed the next element of Earle's plan (Alden Memorial) until 1940. With the gradual growth of the student body and continued interest in mechanical engineering, a need for a new mechanical engineering building arose. Earle lived to see plans for Higgins Laboratories approved, but died before construction could begin.

Higgins Labs was nearly complete when America was suddenly plunged into World War II. Fortunately, most critical materials, furnishings and equipment had already been delivered, enabling the building to open on schedule for the spring semester in 1942. No elaborate ceremonies marked the wartime dedication.

The department flourished in its new home. With its spacious, well-lighted drawing rooms, ample laboratory space and a roomy lecture hall, Higgins Laboratories served the department well in the post-war "GI Bill" and "Baby Boom" years. But by the time the Baby Boomers were ready to send their own children to college, the Mechanical Engineering Department had once again found itself short of room and in need of modern facilities.

The need of the Mechanical Engineering Department can be stated very simply. It has the largest enrollment and greatest space requirements of all departments. Yet, for years its major activities have been crowded into an inadequate and ill-arranged laboratory." That was how Wallace Montague '12, chairman of the ways and means committee charged with carrying out President Earle's expansion plans, described the rationale for a new mechanical engineering building in 1940. It is also an apt summary of the problems the department faced five decades later.

Adequate for a mechanical engineering program of the 1940s, Higgins Laboratories was unable to fill the needs of the much larger and technically advanced program of the 1990s. Undergraduate enrollment in mechanical engineering had quadrupled over that period, and the faculty had grown threefold. The department's graduate program had increased by leaps and bounds, a reflection of a major increase in sponsored research (the department's $3.5 million in external funding places it among the top 20 departments in the nation). This growth left Higgins severely overcrowded. In fact, a 1989 study ranked WPI's ME Department last among 14 similar institutions in space per faculty member, a common basis for comparison.

Corollary: The Name Continues

The need for more space hampered the growth of many vital research areas, including applied and stochastic mechanics, biomechanics, biomaterials and rehabilitation, computational mechanics, materials science, structural control and earthquake engineering, thermo-fluid and thermal processes, and vibrations and controls. With the creation a quarter century ago of the WPI Plan (the Institute's innovative, project-based undergraduate curriculum), student projects - more than 60 percent of which are now sponsored by corporations - became a vital element in the department's educational efforts. However, there was no dedicated space in Higgins for student project work, and students found themselves laboring in closets, in garages, and on a loading dock. The department's plans to implement a completely new undergraduate mechanical engineering curriculum, one designed to prepare students for the demands and opportunities of the profession well into the 21st century, were stymied by a lack of modern classrooms and teaching labs.

Higgins was also showing its age. Its exterior needed refurbishment and the interior was becoming threadbare, making a poor impression on prospective students and faculty members. The building's electrical service and heating, ventilation and cooling system had also become inadequate for the growing demands of a modern research program, and some of the building's structures and systems (including the lack of an elevator) were not up to current building codes.

To remedy these problems, a major renovation and expansion was planned, to start in the spring of 1994. The project would include the top-to-bottom refurbishment and reorganization of the interior spaces of the 85,000-square-foot building, the construction of nearly 20,000 square feet of new space in an addition and through the use of part of the attic, and the complete upgrading of the building's utilities. The result would be an entirely new Higgins Laboratories.

A project as large and as complex as the $8.5 million renovation of Higgins Laboratories must be planned to the last detail before the first shovel of earth is turned. Planning for the Higgins restoration and expansion was carried out by a large group of interested parties, including the faculty of the ME Department, the Mechanical Engineering Advisory Committee, the WPI Plant Services Office, the Physical Facilities Committee of the Board of Trustees, and the architects and engineers of Cutler Associates, the Worcester firm that would complete the design, engineering and construction.

Over the course of more than a year, the current and future plans and dreams of the department and its faculty (with their concomitant space requirements), the physical constraints of the building and building site, and the financial resources available to complete the project were carefully weighed, as plans for the project were drafted and redrafted.

In the spring of 1994, construction equipment arrived to begin excavating for the new addition, which would be carefully fitted into the west side of the H-shaped building. In this space would rise a four-story, 17,000-square-foot structure designed to symbolically bridge the past and future of mechanical engineering at WPI by combining the stately brick facade of the original building with dramatic three-story windows and a modern, glass enclosed entryway.

The addition would give Higgins a new entrance on the Quadrangle and provide considerable interior space for laboratories. Its subbasement would house all of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing support systems for the renovated building, freeing up space that had once contained transformers and other electrical and mechanical equipment. Additional space was gained by using a portion of the original building's attic for graduate student offices and laboratories.

The completion of the addition was the critical first step in the renovation of Higgins Laboratories, for unlike a typical refurbishment project, this one would proceed while the building remained in full operation. The next step was to move some of the occupants of Higgins into the addition and to renovate the space thus emptied. As space in Higgins was refurbished, other occupants were moved in to fill it, opening up still more space for renovation. The work continued in this manner, culminating with the refurbishment of several common spaces, including the first-floor lecture hall and the Heald Discovery Classroom on the second floor.

The renovation was completed on schedule in the fall of 1995. The product was a building that retained the character of the original structure (albeit with new energy-conserving windows, upgraded utilities, new heating and cooling system, and a service elevator), while meeting the needs of the Mechanical Engineering Department today and well into the 21st century. Accomplishing the latter task required extensive reorganization of existing facilities and the creation of new spaces.

This reorganization included the clustering of all faculty offices by area of interest into three suites on the first and second floors, and the relocation of the main department offices to the southwest corner of the building. In addition, several research areas received expanded facilities. The Center for Holographic Studies and Laser Technology, for example, now conducts research and education in areas ranging from fundamental studies of laser light interaction with materials to sophisticated applications in micromechanics and mechatronics in 10 new state-of-the-art, climate-controlled laboratories. Its activities are internationally recognized in this field.

A suite of bioengineering laboratories, for work in biomechanics, biomaterials and rehabilitation engineering, was created on the first floor, supporting faculty and graduate student research and student projects in these fields. The Richard A. Lufkin Fluid Dynamics and Thermal Processes Laboratories, on the basement level and third floor, include facilities (such as a water tunnel and a wind tunnel) for work in thermo-fluids, hydrodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer and microgravity studies. A remodeled and expanded lab on the lower level will support work in vibrations and controls.

Some of the most exciting spaces in the new Higgins Laboratories were created specifically for education. They include the remodeled lecture hall on the first floor, rebuilt as a multimedia classroom complete with video projection facilities. The Heald Discovery Classroom on the second level is a showcase of modern educational technology. A computer network makes it possible for students to take part in interactive class lessons. A large video screen is equipped with telecommunications and video link capabilities. When it is not being used for classes, the room is available to students who wish to explore self-paced computer learning modules.

Adjacent to the Discovery Classroom is the W.M. Keck Design Center, the heart of a new approach to teaching engineering (an approach WPI is exploring as the lead institution in a five-university consortium funded by an $8.7 million grant from the federal Technology Reinvestment Program). The center's components are the Computer Laboratory, where students use personal computers and computer-aided design software to learn the techniques of modern design; the Computer Simulation Laboratory, a general purpose microcomputer lab for work in modern dynamic and geometric simulation techniques; and the Higgins Design Studio, where students can use high-end workstations and video link facilities to design and remotely manufacture prototype products - discussing their work in real time with remote sponsors and watching their designs produced on remote rapid prototyping facilities. In the Design Center, students apply what they learn in the classroom by making real products, just as students did generations ago in the Washburn Shops.

Two new rooms answer the department's need for dedicated space for student project work. On the third floor is a laboratory for work on smaller projects that do not require extensive space or specialized support facilities. Occupying more than 2,000 square feet on the lower level of the building is a general-purpose lab for work on larger Major Qualifying Projects. Room is available for assembling, testing and storing large machines and devices. The lab has ready access to the department's machine shop, with its team of technicians and instructors.

Corollary: A New Home for Fire Protection, Too

Nearly 130 years ago, WPI's first Mechanical Engineering Department head and the first superintendent of the Washburn Shops pioneered a novel approach to engineering education, one that balanced the formulas and theories students learned in the classroom with the grit and elbow grease of real manufacturing. The model George Alden and Milton Higgins established has served WPI well ever since, and continues today in the innovative WPI Plan.

Now WPI's Mechanical Engineering Department stands at the brink of a new century. Like all engineering educators, the mechanical engineering faculty must look ahead to the challenges and opportunities the new millennium will bring. According to Mohammad Noori, who has been head of the Mechanical Engineering Department since 1991, they include

With the renovation and improvement of Higgins Laboratories, the Mechanical Engineering Department now has the modern, well-equipped and flexible facility it needs to pursue these goals and to build on the foundation of excellence it has established over the past 130 years. With a larger and improved facility, it can expand its program of research. With a host of state-of-the-art educational facilities, it has the tools to create an innovative curriculum that will prepare its graduates to be the leaders of the 21st century and serve as a model for colleges and universities across the country. But most of all, the Mechanical Engineering Department can launch a new era in its history in a building befitting its proud heritage and its exciting future.

Corollary: A Campus To Be Proud Of

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:50:22 EDT 1999