History Of Engineering Education Essay

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In standard accounts, the history of American engineering education began with the establishment of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1802. This was the first institution to offer formal instruction in civil and military engineering in North America. Through the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, engineering education became increasingly widespread and professional, as this entry describes.

Early Education

If the ruins left by ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations are considered, then informal means of engineering education existed in the Americas long before colonists crossed the Atlantic. The pyramids at Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza provide evidence of early forms of engineering education in at least two ways. First, the ruins by their very structure imply a pattern of scientific organization and a familiarity with basic mathematical sciences. Central to pyramid construction were applications of principles derived from geometry and physics. Second, the structures suggest a pattern of social organization necessary for transmitting scientific or practical knowledge. A means of passing this knowledge from one group (i.e., organizers) to another (i.e., managers and laborers) required an informal process of teaching and learning engineering concepts.

Formal institutions of higher learning first appeared in the “new world” in Latin America during the sixteenth century and then in North America during the seventeenth century, but these institutions largely ignored the practical and engineering sciences. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, North American colonial colleges followed the classical curriculum that required studies in Latin, Greek, rhetoric, logic, and other language-related areas, with slight attention to mathematics and science. The science courses offered to students were often dated and not aligned with practical interests.

Systematic attention to engineering education, as at West Point, began to appear in the early to midnineteenth century within a dynamic social and cultural milieu. Developments in American society after the Revolutionary War and into the antebellum period included wars with England and Mexico, a fundamental transformation in the economy from agrarianism to industrialization, patterns of migration from rural to urban areas, and westward expansion. Wars with European and Latin American forces prompted calls for greater attention to military engineering. The founding of military academies soon followed with the establishment of the Virginia Military Institute (1839), the Citadel (1843), and the U.S. Naval Academy (1845).

Change Produces Needs

The transformation of the economy, meanwhile, resulted in a dramatic shift from agriculture to industry. At the start of the nineteenth century, there were only a handful of American factories; by 1850, there were over 140,000 producing more than a billion dollarsworth of goods. The technical and technological needs of factory operation created a demand for graduates of engineering education. Rapid industrialization facilitated the process of rapid urbanization. In 1800, there were fifteen Americans in rural life to every one city dweller. By 1850, the ratio was approximately five to one.

With an increased concentration of labor in urban centers came the establishment of mechanic institutes. These organizations, such as the Franklin Institute (1824) in Philadelphia, developed curricula centered on practical and useful knowledge. Westward migration increased the need for those knowledgeable in the practical sciences. Large-scale land surveys funded by local, state, and federal governments as well as the construction of rail lines often required trained engineers and contributed to the expansion of formal engineering instruction.

Antebellum social, cultural, and educational developments are particularly important to note for historiographical reasons. Traditional, and now defunct, interpretations about higher education before the Civil War have suggested that these institutions failed to respond to the needs of society and that little, if any, attention was placed on practical or scientific studies. Recent scholarship has emphasized that many technical schools, polytechnic institutes, mechanic institutes, practical lyceums, military academies, and other institutions came into existence during this period, along with curricular reform at traditional colleges that expanded opportunities for practical and engineering studies.

Approach To Education

The conceptual foundation of many well-established American engineering institutions—such as West Point, Rensselaer in 1824 and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1861—relied to a large extent on French models of polytechnic instruction. West Point’s first superintendent, Sylvanus Thayer, visited the École Polytechnique in Paris and borrowed heavily from its curricula upon his return. Rensselaer’s Amos Eaton practiced a laboratory model of instruction that also mirrored the French system. And MIT’s conceptual founder, William Barton Rogers, was highly influenced by the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures.

Common to the Parisian schools was an emphasis on the practical and mathematical sciences and their application to field work. Differences between French institutions largely had to do with the focus of student preparation. Graduates from the École Centrale prepared for such fields as agriculture, architecture, railroad engineering, textile manufacturing, public works, industrial chemistry, general civil engineering, machine manufacturing, metallurgy and mining, and commerce. The École Centrale was established in response to the largely mathematical, theoretical, and military training of the École Polytechnique; as a civilian, rather than military, program, it balanced theoretical training in geology, physics, and chemistry with practical laboratory exercises and the workshop. A majority of students in these laboratories and workshops came from the business, industrial, and labor classes.

During the mid to late nineteenth century, U.S. government support for engineering education fueled the expansion of existing institutions and the founding of new ones. The Morrill Act of 1862 is often noted as the first federally funded program for American higher education. Senator Justin Morrill had as a goal for the act the establishment of college-level agricultural and mechanical programs of study. The funding came from an allotment of western lands to, at first, Northeastern states, since the act was passed during the Civil War. Southern states later received an allotment for similar purposes shortly after the war and in a federal land-grant act of 1890.

Although popular as a result of developments during the antebellum period and as evidenced by the land-grant acts, engineering schools produced a culture clash within the profession. The cultural rift occurred between those who learned their skills and knowledge through experience (i.e., shop culture) and those who learned the same through formal instruction (i.e., school culture). Thus, shop culture tended to distrust “book learning” and valued the practical experiences gained through work, whether in shops developing machinery, in open fields surveying lands, or deep within the earth mining for natural resources. School culture tended to find incomplete the learning acquired through work experience and valued the knowledge gained through formal science and engineering courses. By the turn of the twentieth century, the culture clash began to fade as the engineering community underwent a process of professionalization and engineering programs became more common.


  1. Calvert, M. A. (1967). The mechanical engineer in America, 1830–1910. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. Day, C. R. (1987). Education for the industrial world: The Ecole d’Arts et Métiers and the rise of French industrial engineering. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  3. Pfammatter, U. (2000). The making of the modern architect and engineer: The origins and development of a scientific and industrially oriented education. Boston: Birkhauser.
  4. Reynolds, T. S. (1992). The education of engineers in America before the Morrill Act of 1862. History of Education Quarterly, 32, 459–482.

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