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Reading Between the Lines

The History of Woodbury & Company (2006) and Liberal Education in 21st Century Engineering (2004) are just two of 20 books published by WPI Studies in Science, Technology, and Culture series.
Below, Transformations offers a glimpse into these two titles.

The History of Woodbury & Company

Introduction by James P. Hanlan and Kent P. Ljungquist, edited by Rodney Gormé Obien

In 2002, WPI received an extraordinary donation from the family of John C. Woodbury, an 1876 graduate of the Worcester County Free Institute for Industrial Science (now WPI). Along with a wealth of engravings, records, and artifacts dating back more than a century, was a typewritten manuscript titled “Notes on the History of Woodbury & Company Inc.”

At the turn of the century, Woodbury was the largest commercial engraver in central New England. In its heyday, the company produced everything from fine stationery to first-day covers for commemorative postage stamps (top right) to greeting cards for the White House.

The original manuscript, written by Harold D. Woodbury (son of the founder) will be edited by professors James P. Hanlan (history) and Kent P. Ljungquist (English), and university archivist and curator of special collections Rodney Gormé Obien. The three will contribute a scholarly introduction that will underscore Woodbury’s contributions to print technology and its significance in Worcester’s industrial history. Illustrations will feature a bygone art: “bird’s-eye” views of vintage industrial buildings, hand-etched, and rendered in astonishing detail by the photogravure process Woodbury developed to satisfy the era’s high standards for quality letterhead (above right).

“It’s a WPI story, with four generations of Woodburys who went here,” says Obien. “It’s more than a company history; it’s a history of the printing industry after 1870, which is an under-documented area of study.” To survey related sources of information and inspire further research, WPI received a Massachusetts Documentary Heritage Grant, concluding in a symposium to share the findings.

“The scope of the Woodbury collection is just amazing,” Obien says. “The written narrative and the company artifacts have great value for graphic artists, historians, and students of American studies, labor history, and economics. It took foresight for the family to save these things and to donate them to us. A lot of companies would have just put it in the Dumpster.”

The original manuscript will be brought up to date with an addendum by retired president Kimball R. Woodbury ’44, who will address the challenges posed to specialty printing companies by the advent of the information technology era.

Liberal Education in 21st Century Engineering

Edited by David F. Ollis, Kathryn A. Neeley, and Heinz C. Luegenbiehl

Since the 1950s, when author C. P. Snow spoke of the gap between the “two cultures” of the sciences and the humanities, there has been ongoing debate over their proper place in the engineering curriculum. In 2000, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) issued revised requirements. This volume of essays examines the historical rationale for these “eleven commandments” (often referred to as EC 2000) and explores the challenges and opportunities of this new era in education.

Former WPI president Edward Alton Parrish recaps a half-century of engineering education in the book’s first chapter. He documents how guidelines for humanities courses grew from a single page of recommendations into almost 20 pages of detailed requirements, which critics called a rigid “bean-counting” or “cookie-cutter approach” that stifled innovation. Parrish, an ABET fellow, had the honor of making the actual motion to approve the EC 2000 criteria.

Associate Provost Lance Schachterle takes up the meaning of “liberal education” in the next chapter. He traces the term back to its Latin root, liber, meaning freedom. In medieval times, a liberal education offered freedom from the servitude of manual labor. In the same sense, Schachterle reminds us that the word “engineer” is linguistically related to ingenuity—problem solving with the head—rather than the manual and mechanical work of fixing engines with the hands. He writes that true liberation will require both “the tools and disciplines requisite for a technological culture” and “the self-reflection and judgment nurtured by study of the collective human achievements.”

From Samuel Florman’s 1968 classic “The Civilized Engineer,” to explorations of contemporary issues of communication, ethics, and aesthetics, Liberal Engineering offers a variety of voices to guide faculty, administrators, and institutions through this revolutionary period in engineering education.

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Last modified: Dec 22, 2005, 11:09 EST
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