Since the founding of the State Agriculture and Mechanical College of Texas in 1876, the mechanical arts have been an essential part of the curriculum. In 1880, the Department of Engineering, Mechanics and Drawing first appeared, and was led by Franklin Van Winkle. Total enrollment at A&M was 127 students. To meet the strong trend toward industrial and vocational work, the college developed a new curriculum in 1881-82 that placed more emphasis on practical training.
In 1886-87, separate departments were created for mechanical engineering and for civil engineering and drawing. The Department of Mechanical Engineering now included R.H. Whitlock; assistant F.E. Giesecke, a young graduate of Texas A&M who was not yet 17; and shop foreman A. Hablers.
In the years preceding World War I, the college enrollment grew steadily from 467 to 1,190 in 1911. Texas A&M faculty volunteered to meet the war effort by educating soldiers. The Department of Mechanical Engineering responded to the needs of the nation by training blacksmiths, automobile mechanics, machinists, draftsmen, general mechanics, and pipe fitters for the war. Following World War I, the department’s enrollment increased again. By 1927, the number of students had grown from 79 in 1917 to 264. The department adapted to the challenges of rapid technological advancement by offering students courses and laboratories to prepare them to be skilled engineers. From 1920-27, power, industrial and railway, or transportation engineering were three options offered to students.
C.W. Crawford was appointed department head in 1929, having served on the faculty since 1919. Under his direction, the three group options were eliminated from the curriculum and individual subjects related to new technology areas, such as aerodynamics, air-conditioning, and physical metallurgy, were offered as electives. By 1933, the Department of Mechanical Engineering had 254 students, the largest enrollment in the School of Engineering. In 1936-37, the department was fully accredited by the Engineering Council for Professional Development, later renamed the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. Every six years since, the department has continued to be accredited.
By 1940, Texas A&M enrollment had climbed to 6,842, while the School of Engineering enrolled 3,225 of these students, and over 1,100 students were in Mechanical Engineering. World War II found Texas A&M’s Department of Mechanical Engineering faculty again responding to the need for soldiers to be trained, even teaching at military bases throughout the state, in addition to conducting classes on campus. After the war, enrollment continued to grow rapidly in engineering, and more men were graduated between 1946 and 1952 than in the 70 years since the school opened.
Very little research was conducted in the department before 1930 except for master’s degree theses, but research gradually increased after the introduction of the Ph.D. program in 1948. Industries and government agencies began to sponsor research within the department. Fellowships and graduate assistantships likewise encouraged growth in graduate studies. In 1953, the first Ph.D. degree in mechanical engineering was awarded to L.P. Thompson who was already a mechanical engineering faculty member, and who later became dean of engineering at Arizona State University. In 1957, Clifford Simmang became department head.
Between 1956 and 1976, undergraduate enrollment in the department grew from 500 to over 900, and graduate enrollment increased from 30 to 70. In addition, funded research steadily increased, with more than half of the faculty in 1978 employed part time on research projects through the Texas Engineering Experiment Station. In 1971, the department moved into the Zachry Engineering Center.
When Simmang retired in 1977, department enrollment had climbed to 1,100. He brought to a conclusion an illustrious chapter in the history of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Under the new leadership of G.R. Hopkins, the department developed an expanded vision of its mission, built on the foundation of an excellent undergraduate program. This vision continues to evolve, with emphasis on developing the existing M.S. and Ph.D programs to the same quality and reputation that the undergraduate program has enjoyed for over a century, dramatically increasing the department’s research activities to the point where they have a significant impact on industry in the state and nation, and providing opportunities for lifelong learning for engineers through symposia and short courses. As the department grew in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so did its need for new facilities. In 1986, it moved into its current home in the James J. Cain Engineering and Physics Building.
The department’s mission has dramatically increased the quality of various activities and the impact of the mechanical engineering program. The graduate enrollment has grown to over 300 in the last 20 years. The department has achieved national and international leadership in several research areas. Its lifelong learning activities have developed international reputations through successful industrial short courses and several annual symposia, all sponsored by the department.
The department’s expanded vision has greatly enhanced its historical priority, which is to provide truly excellent education to its students. Approximately 65% of its total departmental expenditures are from monies generated through research contracts and lifelong learning activities. The department now has a much bigger and more diverse faculty that combines teaching with research and outreach. This operational change has made it possible to deliver an even higher quality education, since the research and industrial outreach activities for faculty members enrich their teaching.
Through the years, companies in a wide range of industries have sought mechanical engineering graduates from Texas A&M. The department’s former students have become prominent engineers, managers and board chairpersons. They also have become professors, department heads, deans and provosts at colleges and universities. Since 1886, the Department of Mechanical Engineering has made a tremendous impact on the state and nation by graduating quality engineers and conducting vital research. Now and in the future, the department will continue producing high caliber engineers who can meet the challenges of the mechanical engineering profession.