Our History

Cover of 150th History
Read the ME History insert in the ME 150th Annual Report

The University of Michigan is home to one of the world’s top mechanical engineering programs, with a rich history and a strong, clear vision for the future. We continue to shape the field by generating new paradigms in mechanical engineering.

The ME Department at UM began in 1868 as a humble, two-room laboratory with one professor. Today it includes:

  • 72 tenured or tenure-track faculty

  • 19 research faculty and lecturers

  • 55 staff

  • More than 850 undergraduate students

  • More than 500 graduate students (including over 250 Ph.D. students)

  • 16,000 living alumni

Department Chairs

  • 1881 to 1904: Mortimer E. Cooley
  • 1904 to 1917: John R. Allen
  • 1917 to 1937: Henry C. Anderson
  • 1937 to 1940: John E. Emswiler
  • 1939: Ransom S. Hawley (Interim)
  • 1940 to 1951: Ransom S. Hawley
  • 1951 to 1955: Edward T. Vincent
  • 1955 to 1956: Wyeth Allen
  • 1956 to 1965: Gordon Van Wylen
  • 1965 to 1966: Arthur Hansen
  • 1966 to 1974: John A. Clark
  • 1974 to 1975: J. Raymond Pearson (Interim)
  • 1975 to 1978: J. Raymond Pearson
  • 1978 to 1981: David Pratt
  • 1981 to 1982: Richard E. Sonntag (Interim)
  • 1983 to 1992: Richard E. Sonntag
  • 1992 to 1998: Panos Y. Papalambros
  • 1995: James R. Barber (Interim)
  • 1998 to 2001: A. Galip Ulsoy
  • 2002 to 2007: Dennis N. Assanis
  • 2007 to 2008: Panos Y. Papalambros (Interim)
  • 2008 to 2018: Kon-Well Wang
  • 2018 to present: Ellen Arruda


1868-1900: Creating the Department

1900-1940: Building National Prominence

1940-1970: Entering the Modern Era

1970-2000: Leadership in High-Technology

2000-2018: Redefining Mechanical Engineering for the 21st Century

1868-1900: Creating the Department

ME was founded in 1868, when engineering professors and students numbered in the dozens and the only engineering curriculum was in civil engineering. Professors DeVolson Wood and Stillman Robinson requested that the University offer a separate specialized course to focus on the new fields of machine, power, and marine engineering. Although the regents voted in 1868 to create the program, the first of its kind in the U.S., the University lacked the resources to maintain it, and two years later it was reabsorbed into civil engineering, where it remained for the next 11 years.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) was not established until 1880. It wasn’t until Mortimer E. Cooley, a naval officer, came to Ann Arbor in 1881 that ME at Michigan gained an independent identity. Cooley, an 1878 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was one of a number of naval officers appointed by Congress to university facilities. His assignment was to establish an ME program. Over the next three decades, his leadership laid the foundation for a thriving department.

In the beginning, the ME curriculum consisted of Workshop Appliances and Processes; Pattern Making, Moulding and Founding; Mechanical Laboratory Work (Shop Practice in Forging); Machinery and Prime Movers (Water Wheels and Steam Engines); Machine Design; Thermodynamics; Original Design; Estimates, Specifications, and Contracts; and Naval Architecture.

The first mechanical laboratory was built under Cooley in 1882. At the time, engineering classes were held in the South Wing of University Hall, but there was no laboratory building. To remedy the situation, Cooley used an appropriation of $2,500 from the Michigan legislature to construct and equip a two-story laboratory building. Plans for the building were put together by ME faculty member J. B. Davis. According to and earlier history, “it was a two-story structure of frame construction with bricks placed edgewise between the studding. The ground floor was divided into two rooms, the foundry on the east end and the forge shop, brass furnace, and engine room on the west. The foundry also included two flasks, other necessary foundry tools, and molding sand. It is important to note that the shop contained the first steam equipment in the ME Laboratory, a forge, anvil, tools, a brass furnace, and a four-horsepower vertical fire-box and steam engine. The second floor was also divided into two rooms, one of which was occupied by the pattern shop and the other by the machine shop. The equipment in these rooms consisted of a wood-turning lathe built by Cooley and members of his class, and an iron lathe, salvaged from the basement of University Hall and repaired by the students. The building was heated by an old-fashioned stove on the second floor. In cold weather, ice was melted in a pail of water on top of the stove in order to increase humidity.”

In his first report to the regents, Cooley described the original course taught in the new laboratory: “Six students were permitted to take the first laboratory course held in the building. They were engaged for a large share of the time in overhauling and erecting machinery in the shop. The remainder of the time was devoted to grinding and putting in order the cutting tools, in performing some of the simpler operations at the workbench, in preparing work for the iron lathe, in wood-turning, forging, brazing, and soldering, and in running the engine.”

In his memoir, The Scientific Blacksmith (1947), 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 wagonload 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. I asked the differences between the various kinds of metal, and every last one of them knew the chemical differences and the process of manufacture, but not one of them could identify one piece of metal from another. That incident thoroughly convinced me of the need from practical work to acquaint engineers with the characteristics of the materials they would be using after graduation.”

Cooley was soon dissatisfied with the four-room laboratory. In 1883, he convinced the University to donate to the Department the carpenter shop that had been used in the construction of the University library. It was dismantled and attached to the Mechanical Laboratory. In 1885, construction of a new laboratory building was authorized by the regents, and the original lab, just four years old, was torn down to make room for it. Additional space was acquired for the Department in 1891 when the dental building was given to the engineering program for cl