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Laying the Foundation (1868-1904)

Michigan's Department of Mechanical Engineering traces its roots to the years immediately after the American Civil War, when the profession of engineering, still in its youth, was emerging from an emphasis on civil and military engineering. In those earliest years, when only a handful of professors were teaching civil engineering courses to a few dozen students, Professors DeVolson Wood and Stillman Robinson recognized the need for a separate program in the developing fields of machine, power, and marine engineering. In 1868, the Regents approved the professors' proposal. But the administration failed to provide sufficient funding, and after only two years, the new Mechanical Engineering program was reabsorbed into Civil Engineering, where it remained for another decade.

Cooley Takes Over

In 1881, Mechanical Engineering reemerged as an independent entity under Mortimer Cooley, an energetic and visionary young naval officer. Under Cooley's dynamic leadership, the department developed a broad curriculum encompassing machines powered by steam and water. After two years of basic math, science, and liberal arts, engineering undergraduates chose from courses that included Workshop Appliances and Processes, Pattern Making, Moulding and Founding; Mechanical Laboratory Work (Shop Practice in Forging); Machiner, Machine Construction, and Drawing; Mechanism and Machine Drawing; Machiner and Prime Movers (Water Wheels and Steam Engines); Machine Design; Thermodynamics; Original Design, Estimates, Specifications, and Contracts; and finally Naval Architecture, which would not become a separate program until a number of years later.

When Cooley began as chairman, all engineering classes were taught in the South Wing of University Hall, the campus's main classroom building, where there wasn't room for even a single engineering workshop. Cooley, determined to see his students in their own workshops and laboratories, secured a state grant of $2,500 to build and equip the university's first mechanical laboratory--a simple, two-story frame-and-brick building. The ground floor housed a foundry, forge shop, brass furnace, and an engine room. Equipment included a steam engine and a four-horsepower vertical fire-box boiler. On the second floor were a pattern shop and a machine shop, plus the stove that heated the entire building. To increase the humidity in winter, the engineers melted ice in a pail on the stove.

Years later, after a long tenure as dean of the Engineering College, Cooley wrote: "How well I remember my first class in this little shop. Six engineers were taking the course. The first lesson was at the forge. I taught them how to build a fire. Then I wanted a piece of iron to heat. At the back door there was a wagon load of scrap of different kinds of metal, and I sent the members of the class to bring me back a piece of wrought iron. Much to my surprise not one of the six could identify wrought iron, cast iron, steel, or anything else in the pile. That incident thoroughly convinced me of the need for practical work to acquaint engineers with the characteristics of the materials they would be using after graduation."

Preparing for the Next Steps

Cooley, never satisfied with the status quo, tore down the little four-room lab only four years after it was built and replaced it with a larger facility on the same site. More classroom space was also acquired in 1891, when the department took over the former dental building. To supplement training in the classroom and lab, Cooley began taking his students on regular visits to manufacturing plants as far away as Cleveland and Pittsburgh, where they observed the design and construction of bridges, factory equipment, and ships first-hand.

In Mortimer Cooley, Michigan had a visionary and energetic engineer who designed a curriculum, built a home for the department, and established strong ties with business and industry. Promoted to dean of the college in 1904, he would look out for ME's needs as it continued to grow and prosper.

Building National Prominence (1905-1940)

ME had already established a powerful presence in the university under Cooley, and in the coming decades, the department would rise to national prominence and influence. Drawing students from across the United States and throughout the world, the department grew tenfold in forty years, adding a respected program in graduate studies and embracing new tools as the field became increasingly grounded in the hard sciences and rigorous experimentation. The department's laboratories kept pace with the explosion of American industrial power, and research joined instruction as the two key functions of the department. Important new areas of instruction– such as internal combustion and industrial and automotive engineering– also began to emerge. By 1940, the undergraduate curriculum had grown to include fifty-four courses, and a student needed seventy-four semester hours of preparatory work, fifty hours of secondary and technical work, and sixteen hours of electives to obtain a bachelor's degree. In Mortimer Cooley's era as ME chairman, the department had graduated four or five students each year. By World War II, some seventy students were acquiring degrees annually.

ME Under Construction

Much of the department's work was conducted in the new West Engineering Building, built in 1904 at the corner of South and East University Streets. Five labs in that landmark building eventually were devoted to ME: the General Mechanical Engineering Laboratory, with its steam engines, internal combustion engines, air compressors, and apparatus for refrigeration, heating, and ventilation; the Hydraulic Laboratory, with the first naval architecture tank ever built by an educational institution; the Physical Testing Laboratory, where materials were tested for strength; the Highway Lab, devoted to road materials; and the Automotive Laboratory, which was equipped with a full range of equipment for cars, trucks, and tractors.

Riding Automotive Growth

The automotive engineering program developed in concert with the rise of the automobile industry in nearby Detroit. The department offered its first automotive course titled "Gasoline Automobiles" in 1913, when Henry Ford's Model T was in its heyday. In 1916, Walter Lay joined the faculty with a mandate to create a laboratory and an entire slate of automotive courses. (His first lab course featured a full day's road test of a motor vehicle.) When the U.S. entered World War I, Michigan faculty members trained more than a thousand soldiers in automotive engine repair. In the years after the war, Professor Lay launched the department's tradition of research in cooperation with manufacturers in Detroit. Michigan engineers were among the first to demonstrate the advantages of streamlining in auto design. They helped to determine optimal highway grades, and balanced the cost of construction against the operational costs of cars and trucks climbing the grades. Other important studies included engine heat balance, car safety, car noise, and riding comfort.

The rise of the automobile was in fact the main force behind the revolution in industrial practices and processes maintained among all branches of manufacturing. To help lead that trend, ME faculty launched a pioneering program in industrial engineering. The first course in scientific shop management was offered in 1915. During World War I, the course was expanded to accommodate the training of Army ordnance officers, the first such training ever offered in the U.S. In the 1920s, under Professor Orlan Boston, an ME alumnus, the department developed courses that coordinated the disciplines of design, metallurgy, and production. Under Boston's leadership, the emphasis of instruction shifted from manual training to principles of modern industrial practice. Boston also led important research in the machining of metals. In 1934, he became chairman of the new Department of Metal Processing within ME, with courses that became so popular that they had to be offered twice each day.

Timoshenko: Renowned Researcher and Leader

Another key figure during this period was Professor Stephen Timoshenko, who became a world-renowned authority in applied mechanics, and introduced scientific and mathematical approaches to mechanics instruction. Timoshenko's research at Michigan formed the foundation of the theory of the elastic behavior of solid matter. Other research included the use of the energy method in problems of structural stability and buckling, and the formulation of the differential equation for lateral vibrations of beams. He was also the first to formulate the basic differential equation for the problem of torsion of structural sections, and the first to obtain the shear center of a beam.

Under Timoshenko's leadership, Michigan became the first university in the country to offer both bachelor's and doctoral programs in engineering mechanics. By 1940, the department was firmly established as one of the most prestigious mechanical engineering programs in the nation.

Entering the Modern Era (1941-1970)

World War II, the Cold War, the space race, and the advent of federally funded research brought enormous opportunities and challenges to the entire field of engineering. With major funding from the new Department of Defense, NASA, and the National Science Foundation, ME figured prominently during this new age. The faculty became increasingly involved in top-flight research. The graduate program expanded dramatically. And the undergraduate program incorporated the latest technologies and methodologies. By now, some 120 students were acquiring degrees each year.

The Post-WWII Boom

In the 1950s, the department underwent a major restructuring to reflect the changing face of mechanical technology. The industrial engineering program within the department had become so large that for a time the department was renamed Industrial and Operations Engineering; after two years, industrial engineering split off to become a separate entity.

Research in the postwar period enlarged the boundaries of traditional areas of inquiry and pioneered innovative new fields. In traditional lines, one key researcher was Professor Edward Vincent, who investigated heat transfer in gas turbine rotor disks; his book Gas Turbines brought him international recognition. Under contract with the War Production Board during World War II, the production engineering group undertook important research on surface roughness measurement and the machinability of exotic materials. Interdisciplinary research led to the development of assistive devices for the disabled as well as the first environmental impact studies on power plant emissions.

The Space Race

Under the chairmanship of Professor Gordon Van Wylen, the department became a key player in space technology. Pursuing support for cryogenic research, Van Wylen was the first engineer to obtain funding from the Army Ballistic Missile Center, one of NASA's precursors. Other government-funded work in this period included Professor Frederick Hammitt's research on cavitation in liquid metal used in breeder reactors; Edward Lady's doctoral research on boiling at low heat flux; and Professor Lester Colwell's pioneering work on the numerical control of machines. Space research accelerated as NASA raced throughout the 1960s to beat the Soviets to the moon. Military research explored areas ranging from the biomechanics of cockpit design to detonation combustion.

As research expanded, so did the graduate program. In the department's first seventy years, it conferred only twenty-one Ph.D. degrees. From 1940 to 1970, that number soared to 151, and the department began to require that new faculty members hold a Ph.D.

The Campus Expands– and Moves

By the early fifties, it was clear that facilities built in Mortimer Cooley's day no longer served the department's burgeoning needs. One ME chairman after another spoke of the need for more space, which helped lay the groundwork for the construction of an entirely new campus devoted to engineering and the arts on a sprawling tract of university property north of the Huron River. The shift from Central Campus to North Campus, which would take more than twenty years, began in the mid-fifties with the building of the new W.E. Lay Automotive Laboratory and the G.G. Brown Building, which became home to new facilities in thermodynamics, heat transfer, and fluid mechanics.

Computers: The Latest Wonder of the World

Also in the fifties, faculty and students were introduced to a new technology that would eventually revolutionize teaching and research in engineering– the computer. Faculty members participating in a Ford Foundation initiative on the use of computers in engineering education incorporated key-punch computer problems into their instruction. In 1953, the Michigan Digital Automatic Computer (MIDAC) was designed and built at the Willow Run Research Center. One of only twenty high-speed electronic digital computers in the U.S., MIDAC was estimated to be some 20,000 times faster than a professional mathematician using a desk calculator. In 1959, the Regents authorized the establishment of the U-M Computing Center, home to the ground-breaking Michigan Terminal System (MTS), one of the world's earliest time-sharing computing systems.

Leadership in High Technology (1971-present)

Since its inception, ME programs have been geared to preparing students to compete in an increasingly rich field of productive enterprise. Just as steam engineering gave way to automotive and industrial engineering, a marvelous new array of specialties routinely joined the traditional fields of ME– from advanced lasers and robotics to microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).

The department's commitment to basic and applied research has only deepened in recent decades. Total research expenditures climbed from some $500,000 annually in the early 1970s to a projected $21.7 million in 2000-01, a figure that represents not only the uncovering of new knowledge but also an expanded set of learning experiences for the many students taking part in on-going research activities.

Diverse Research in Expanded Facilities

During this era, the department's research and instructional activities moved entirely to new labs, classrooms, and offices on North Campus after some eighty years in the East and West Engineering Buildings on Central Campus. Thanks largely to increased support for research, the department developed advanced laboratories equipped with state-of-the-art computing and experimental equipment for research in astonishingly diverse areas, including automotive/combustion; biomechanics; computational mechanics; cavitation and multiphase flow; transport, reaction, and phase change in porous media; variable gravity heat transfer; optical and mechanical coordinate measuring machines in manufacturing; precision machining; tribology; welding; machine tool sensing and control; mobile robotics; ceramic composites; and the tiny realm of microelectromechanical devices.

Other important new facilities were also added, including the Solar Energy Lab, established in 1973 under Professor John A. Clark; and the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation (OSAT), which was launched in 1978 under the leadership of Professor David Cole. OSAT became the only ongoing university-based group in the U.S. to so thoroughly study the automobile industry by researching topics ranging from industry competitiveness and labor relations to forecasts of technical and market trends.

Increasing Sophistication and Breakthrough Studies

A standout development of the recent era has been the department's increasing sophistication in technology transfer. An example is the career of Milton Chace, first a doctoral student in ME in the 1960s, then a faculty member in the seventies and eighties. As a graduate student, Chace saw that problems in mechanism design could be clarified through the use of classical vector calculus. He found that the prediction and simulation of motion of planar mechanisms could be based on the solution of simple vector loop equations, and he extended those methods to three-dimensional mechanisms, which could often be represented by a limited set of four-sided spatial vector loops, which he termed "vector tetrahedrons." Next Chace discovered that these equations could be structured for solution by digital computer, and after two years at IBM, he returned to Michigan as a professor in ME, where he and his research colleagues developed a two-dimensional program called DRAM (Dynamic Response of Articulated Machinery). DRAM featured a computer language that enabled automated development of the correct differential equation set for whatever problem the user modeled, increasing its utility enormously by eliminating the error rate per problem that user-developed equations ordinarily generate. In 1977, Chace and two colleagues– Mike Korybalski and John Angell– formed a company they called Mechanical Dynamics, Inc. (MDI) to provide software for mechanical dynamic system analysis to Fortune 500 companies. Chace left ME in 1983 to concentrate on MDI, which grew to become the world's largest developer and supplier of mechanical systems simulation software, with clients in more than 30 nations.

Another thrust in ME research was the important work carried out under Professor Charles Vest, who became dean of the Engineering College, provost of the University, and eventually president of MIT. Vest's early work on holographic measurement of temperature fields in natural convection led to his experiments in computed tomography. In the early 1970s, Vest and his students began to consider the experimental information generated by multiple beams traversing fluids in many directions. They quickly realized that, given enough viewing directions, three-dimensional measurements of the density of fluids could be obtained mathematically from interferometric measurements. The mathematical procedure for obtaining these measurements is similar to the procedures used to obtain medical images from CAT and MRI scanners. Vest's work led to a powerful imaging method that could also be used to validate predictions in combustion, aerodynamics, and heat transfer.

Departmental Changes in Curriculum, Faculty, and Research

The pace of administrative change also quickened during this era. In 1979, ME merged with the department of Applied Mechanics, only to split again in 2000. In 1983, the department, with the rest of the College of Engineering, joined the personal computer revolution with the founding of the Computer-Aided Engineering Network (CAEN), which grew to become one of the largest integrated, multi-vendor workstation networks in all of academe.

Under department chair Panos Papalambros, a comprehensive review of the curriculum, beginning in 1992-93, led to several significant improvements. The department's strong core in engineering science was augmented by an increased emphasis on hands-on experience, creative problem solving, communication, and teamwork. New lab requirements were implemented, as was a sophomore-level class providing every student an opportunity to actually make something, beginning with a computer-aided design and ending with a finished product in a machine shop.

Even as the curriculum was being rewritten, the department was undertaking perhaps its greatest expansion ever in faculty and research. From 1990 to 1995, twenty new professors were hired, all of them among the most promising young engineering scholars in the world, and many with experience in such crossover disciplines as astrophysics, chemical engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, and precision manufacturing. Several received the prestigious Early CAREER Development Award from the National Science Foundation. This period also saw an enormous spike in the department's funded research, from $3.6 million in 1988 to $9.3 million in 1994.

In keeping with the goal of being the world's undisputed leader in automotive engineering and manufacturing, one of every four of those new faculty members were recruited for their strengths in automotive dynamics and control systems, design, manufacturing processes, machining systems, and thermal fluid applications related to materials processing. The department's depth in automotive expertise led to the establishment of several new centers: the Automotive Research Center (ARC), funded by the U.S. Army; the Center for Dimensional Control and the Engineering Research Center in Reconfigurable Machining Systems, both supported by the National Science Foundation and corporate sponsors; and the Center for Laser Materials Processing, funded in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. These enhanced capabilities made it natural for the department to offer a master's degree in Automotive Engineering, as well as master's and doctoral degrees in Manufacturing Engineering.

Reaching the Apex

In the late nineties, faculty energies and talents continued to blossom in the form of new research efforts and facilities. These included the Integrated Manufacturing Systems Laboratory in the Herbert H. Dow Building; the General Motors Collaborative Research Laboratory, which was spearheaded by Professor Papalambros; the Combustion and Synthesis Kinetics and Diagnostics Laboratory, led by Professors Arvind Atreya and Volker Sick; and the Center for Laser Aided Intelligent Manufacturing (CLAIM), headed by Professors Jyoti Mazumder, Noboru Kikuchi, and Debasish Dutta.

For all its efforts, the ME department of the 1990s was consistently ranked among the five most prestigious mechanical engineering programs in the United States by U.S. News and World Report.