Worcester Polytechnic Institute

An Electric Century

How It All Began

Setting the Stage

As early as 1750, Ben Franklin, having survived flying kites into thunderstorms, put his empirical understanding of electricity into practice by inventing the lightning rod. But nearly a century would pass before electrophysicists appeared on the scene to begin to establish a scientific basis for electrical phenomena. They were rewarded by having their names, Oersted, Ampere, Faraday, Ohm, Lagrange and Laplace, forever attached to the units of measure electrical engineers know so well.

Next came the age of the inventors, men like Carl Friedrich Gauss, Ernst Weber, Samuel Morse, Sir Charles Wheatstone, E.W. Siemens, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. A new technological explosion was about to occur, an era in which the discoveries of the electrophysicists and the industrial needs identified by the inventors would be formally linked through the yet undeveloped discipline of electrical engineering.

The Birth of a Program

Chartered on May 10, 1865, the Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science opened its doors on Nov. 11, 1868, to 32 students. While programs in civil engineering and chemistry were offered, the Institute was essentially a mechanical engineering school, with heavy emphasis on shop work. In 1871, as the Institute graduated its first class, there quietly arrived on campus a 27-year-old A.B. graduate of Amherst College who was to create WPI's electrical engineering program. Alonzo Smith Kimball always had an intense interest in electrical phenomena, and as a new professor of physics, he directed his attention to the development of laboratories and courses in electricity.

After continuous effort, Professor Kimball was allowed to introduce the first graduate course in electrical engineering at WPI in 1889. His next proposal, to offer an undergraduate course in the discipline, was met with fierce faculty opposition. The opponents were led by mechanical engineering giants Professors Milton Higgins and George I. Alden, ardent supporters of the Washburn Shops and nationally prominent in their field. Kimball withdrew his proposal, but interest in the field continued to grow.

Meanwhile, some alumni and trustees were becoming concerned that the Institute was requiring too much shop work and for too long. A study comparing WPI with MIT and Cornell demonstrated that these four-year schools were devoting less time to shop than WPI, which still had a three-and-a-half-year program. With every faculty member except Professors Alden, Higgins and John Sinclair in favor, the trustees voted to extend WPI's program to four years.

Kimball saw his chance. He devised the "Kimball Plan," which consisted of two and a half years of mechanical engineering and one year of electrical engineering. At every step, Alden protested that the college was becoming "too scientific," but he was overruled by the trustees, who quickly approved the plan. The electrical engineering program started when the first four-year term began in September 1893. The program was directed by Kimball, who by then was head of the Department of Physics. Meanwhile, Kimball's health, never very good, was getting steadily worse.

Getting Started

A corner of the Boynton Hall basement became WPI's first electrical engineering laboratory. A dynamo was set up there, driven by shafting that passed through a tunnel from the Washburn Shops. Trustee chairman Stephen Salisbury II had become fascinated with electricity and became a strong supporter of the program, donating dynamos, motors and all sorts of measuring equipment to the college. He was also instrumental in the building of the magnetics laboratory (now Skull Tomb), which contained no iron in its construction. Later rendered useless for its primary purpose by the vibrations from the Boynton Street trolley line, the tiny building became an electrical engineering laboratory.

Salisbury died in 1884; his son, Stephen Salisbury III, honored his memory with a $100,000 gift, which the Institute used to construct Salisbury laboratories in 1888. The EE Department was granted limited space in the new building, which enabled it to abandon the Boynton cellar room.

The program in electrical engineering proved extremely popular and grew rapidly. Space became a critical problem, and the program needed the management of a full-time department head. In 1896, electrical engineering was established as a full department. Harold B. Smith, at the age of 27, was named its head. Professors Higgins and Alden left WPI that year to pursue their immensely profitable commercial interests, amassing fortunes in the process. Alonzo Kimball, possibly one of the greatest unsung heroes of WPI, died Dec. 2, 1897, at age 53.

The Golden Years

Harold B. Smith was young, dynamic and determined. A graduate of Cornell and already recognized for his brilliant work in the field of transformers and insulators, he served as director of the new school of electrical engineering at Purdue for two years before he came to WPI. Smith seemed to be everywhere -- teaching, recruiting students, actively consulting on transformers with Westinghouse, and diligently courting Edmund Engler, WPIs fourth president, and the Board of Trustees, impressing on them the fact that his visionary plans were limited by a terrible lack of space. Thus, when Stephen Salisbury III's legacy arrived in 1905, the trustees had no problem deciding what to do with it. Smith wanted the new electrical building to be the largest and finest in America -- and it was. It was big enough, in fact, to accommodate WPI's 1907 Commencement.

Smith's wife drowned in a swimming accident in 1910. He remarried the following year, took a two-year leave of absence, and embarked on a cruise around the world. Upon his return, he pursued the development of the department with even more energy and his reputation (and that of WPI) in high-voltage power transmission soared. A 100 kV line was constructed along Boynton Street. This was later replaced by a 500 kV line supplied by a transformer designed and built at WPI. The citizens of Worcester came to Boynton Street at night to gasp at the sparks and corona the line produced. The work of WPI involved cutting-edge research on insulators and transformer insulating oils.

Smith, based upon his industrial experience, insisted that every EE major devote half of his senior year to the study of business methods, and he developed a course in the subject. During World War I Smith worked on submarine development in New London, Conn. Meanwhile, WPI's EE graduates were permeating every corner of electrical engineering, and the EE industry responded. Westinghouse donated an elaborate high-voltage lab to WPI and paid for its complete installation, while General Electric donated an array of rotating machines.

At least half of the EE program remained in mechanical engineering, since it was generally thought at the time (by Smith and by leaders in most engineering colleges) that one could not master the concepts of electrical design until one had become quite familiar with the principles of the already established mechanical design process. That assumption would not change until World War II.

In 1927, EE Professor Clarence Pierce became the first faculty member at WPI to be granted a one-year sabbatical leave; he received a stipend of $1,000. The WPI test car (see next page) was sold that year, victim of the decline of the electric trolley lines. As a sign of the changing times, a communications lab, with Professor Hobart Newell in charge, was established through a grant from AT&T, and the Radio Corporation of America gave the department a complete radio broadcasting station.

The department was at a zenith of educational achievement and was nationally recognized for its excellence. Smith was elected president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (forerunner of IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), and for two years he traveled the country, speaking to a wide variety of engineering and business groups. Growing weary, he retired on July 1, 1931, after serving as Electrical Engineering Department head for 35 years. Theodore H. Morgan from Stanford University took over. Smith died on Feb. 9, 1932, marking the end of a golden age for WPI.

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Last modified: Tue Oct 05 09:23:43 EDT 1999