University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota: Department of Mechanical Engineering

History of Mechanical Engineering

As early as 1872, Mechanical Engineering was offered as a separate course of study within the College of Mechanic Arts, which at that time had separated from the College of Agriculture. The first Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering degree was awarded in June, 1878, to Charles S. Bushwell. During those early years, the entire college comprised only a handful of students and faculty. By 1896 twenty-seven students were studying in the field, and by 1901 Mechanical Engineering had a building of its own. The department was formed in 1889, when Professor John L. Flather was disignated Department Head. Among courses taught by Flather were Railway Design and Locomotive Construction and Locomotive Road Tests. in 1909 the first Masters Degree was granted to Hobart D. Fray.

John Flatherearly studentsme building 1901

During the early years of the profession's growth, course offering aligned closely with the manual arts and application. By 1926, nineteen faculty taught 77 courses. A graduate program was beginning to emerge, but engineering courses emphasizing scientific principles were few; devices ruled the curriculum. By the 1930's, key participants in the department's future were active. Richard C. Jordan was completing his doctorate - the department's first - under Professor DuPriest, second department head; Professor Frank Rowley, third department head, was conducting research on housing and indoor climate control; James J. Ryan, was active in machine design education and research, including dynamical systems. Professor Ryan, often called "Crash" Ryan, became renowned as an automobile crash safety advocate and researcher, and as the inventor of the retractable seat belt. Enrollment grew to over 400 students.

early classroomFrank RowleyJames Crash Ryan

Richard Jordan became the department's fourth head in 1950, and with him Mechanical Engineering entered a new era. After World War II scientists were leaving Europe. Among them Regents Professor Ernst Eckert joined the department in 1951 and founded the Heat and Mass Transfer Laboratory. Dr. Eckert's early work broke new ground in heat transfer. He focused on the unearthing of underlying phenomenon and transport mechanisms. Warren Ibele, hired in 1950, also joined the Heat Transfer Lab.

Richard JordanErnst EckertWarren Ibele

Regents' Professor Richard Goldstein joined the faculty in 1961 and Professor Ephraim Sparrow joined in 1959. Each made major contributions to the engineering science of heat transfer and made the department one of the top reseach centers on the world in this field. The foresight of Professors Eckert and Jordan nurtured the expansion of the research into plasma heat tansfer, arc technology, and plasma processing of materials when they recruited Emil Pfender to the faculty in 1964.

Richard GoldsteinEphraim SparrowEmil Pfender

In addition to the areas of thermodynamics and heat transfer, machine design and internal combustion engines, the emergence of Professor Kenneth Whiby's research in particle size counting for the milling industry, Professor Clarence Lund's involvement in building environmental studies, and Regents' Professor Benjamin Liu's early work in solar energy, set the stage for the Environmental Engineering Division. This division merged the activities of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and solar energy with particle and eventually, aerosol studies, producing one of the major success stories of the department.




Kenneth WhitbyBenjamin Liu


There was another person who had a remarkable career in the Mechanical Engineering Department. She did not hold faculty rank, did not invent anything or teach any classes, but was nevertheless held in high esteem by all. Her name was Mary Hessburg. She started out as a clerk/steno in 1951, eventually rose to Department Administrator, working 51 years until her retirement in 2002.


The Design division of the 1950's was augmented by the arrival of Professor Katsushiko Ogata, who incorporated modern control concepts into its program. Interdisciplinary design education emerged in the early 1960's with Professor Darrell A. Frohrib's contributions. Shortly thereafter, Professor Arthur Erdman arrived and embarked on developing computer-based design of mechanism systems. Today he heads the Medical Devices Center and hosts the Design of Medical Devices Conference which brings Medical Device Companies, engineers, doctors and students together to further the development of new technologies.

Ogatafrohribart erdman

Mary Hessburg


Industrial engineering emerged as an active divisional unit in the department in the 1950's under the leadership of Professor Gayle W. McElrath. Statistical concepts were wedded to industrial operation and manufacturing. Statistical design, optimization, and system modeling were augmented by the addition of Professor Sant Ram Arora to the division's faculty. At that time, the large foundry and machine shop, embodying the entire lower floor of the deparment, was led by Professor Fulton Holtby. The first Master of Science Degree in Industrial Engineering was granted in 1952; its first Doctorate followed in 1968.


Professor Perry Blackshear Jr. arrived in 1957 and Professor Edward Fletcher in 1959. Their strong expertise in thermodynamics and the chemistry of combustion identified new dimensions of research for the power and propulsion team. Professor Fletcher extended his interests to high-temperature solar thermal proccesses. His solar furnace graced the department's roof for the next 20 years. The arrival of Professor David Kittelson melded engine combustion research with environmental studies with his focus on the formation of pollutants by the combustion process. Today, Kittelson heads a Center for Filtration Research and is studying energy conversion and production and use of alternative fuels.

Perry BlackshearEd Fletcher with solar furnacedavid kittelson


History of ME continues - The 1960s through 2000

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