Spring 1998

People of the Century

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

All manner of public works, from roads to aqueducts to dams, have been designed and constructed by WPI alumni.

A s more and more Americans purchased automobiles, the need arose for a network of roads for them to travel on. The construction of roads and highways was just one facet of an era of public works that followed WPI's founding, a time when the nation sought to tame the North American continent. It was also a period that saw the country awaken to the need for a new field of engineering to bring potable water to cities and towns and safely dispose of their wastes.

Building and maintaining roads was the preoccupation of Erwin O. Hathaway, Class of 1889. Hathaway was one of the first federal highway engineers. He joined the federal Office of Public Roads in 1913 as a senior highway engineer and worked in North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. William H. Rhodes '10 also worked for the Office of Public Roads, but left to become an engineer for the newly formed State Highway Department in Louisiana, where he organized the nation's first state highway maintenance department.

Just as roads were needed to take drivers where they wanted to go, new distribution systems were needed to deliver clean water to thirsty cities. Alfred D. Flinn, Class of 1893, earned a national reputation as the man behind one of the greatest water supply projects of all time. As deputy chief engineer for the Board of Water Supply for the City of New York, he directed the construction of the Catskill Aqueduct, shown here, a monumental project that became the primary water supply for the city. Stretching from the Catskill Mountains in upper New York to Manhattan, a distance of 120 miles (nearly three times the length of the Panama Canal), the aqueduct passes through mountains and under rivers, delivering 500 million gallons of water a day.

After the project was completed, Flinn became secretary of the newly formed United Engineering Society, which represented the major engineering associations. In 1922 he was named chairman of the Division of Engineering at the National Research Council and director of the new Engineering Foundation. He received an honorary degree during the 500th anniversary celebration of the University of Louvain in Belgium in 1927 and the following year represented American engineers at the dedication of the rebuilt Louvain Library (the original had been destroyed during World War I). The library contained a number of memorials to the American engineers who helped rebuild it. One of its entrance pillars was inscribed "Worcester Polytechnic Institute."

Sanitation was just as important as potable water to growing urban areas. Among its pioneers was Harrison P. Eddy, Class of 1891, best known as co-founder of the internationally recognized engineering firm Metcalf & Eddy. WPI civil engineering professor Leonard P. Kinnicutt, himself a well-known figure in sanitation, kindled Eddy's interest in the field. Eddy did his senior thesis on the Worcester sewage treatment plant, which Kinnicutt designed, and supervised the plant and the city sewage system before joining with Leonard Metcalf to create a consulting practice. Eddy became senior partner when Metcalf died in 1926 and was involved in problems relating to sewerage, water supply and drainage in cities all over the country. With Metcalf, he wrote American Sewerage Practice, a mainstay in the field for decades. For a time, he was president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which in 1928 awarded him the Rudolph Hering Medal for his contributions to sanitary engineering.

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:52:53 EDT 1999