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 new Institute in Worcester, the third private college of science and technology in the country, was among the first to offer a course in mechanical engineering, and 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 journeyman 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 that they'd 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 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 Hall 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.
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. The two men left WPI in 1896 to devote full time to the Norton Emery Wheel Co., which they and others purchased in 1885.
George C. Gordon Library