History of ME

The Beginning

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's degree in mechanical engineering was awarded in 1878 to Charles S. Bushwell. During those early years, the entire college comprised only a handful of students and faculty. By 1896, 27 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 designated the first department head. Among courses taught by Flather were Railway Design and Locomotive Construction and Locomotive Road Tests. In 1909, the first master's degree was granted to Hobart D. Fray.

The 20th Century

During the early years of the profession's growth, course offering aligned closely with the manual arts and application. By 1926, 19 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 1930s, key participants in the department's future were active. Richard 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 for his habit of testing car crash safety measures on himself, 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.

Richard Jordan became the department's fourth head in 1950 and ushered in a new era. After World War II, scientists were leaving Europe. Among them was Regents Professor Ernst Eckert, who 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 phenomena and transport mechanisms. Warren Ibele, hired in 1950, also joined the heat transfer lab.

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 research centers worldwide in this field. The foresight of Professors Eckert and Jordan nurtured the expansion of the research into plasma heat transfer, arc technology, and plasma processing of materials when they recruited Emil Pfender to the faculty in 1964.

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.

There was another person who had a remarkable career in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, making all of this research possible. Mary Hessburg did not hold faculty rank, but was nevertheless held in high esteem by all who knew her. She started out as a clerk/stenographer in 1951, but eventually rose to department administrator, working 51 years until her retirement in 2002.

The design division of the 1950s was augmented by the arrival of Professor Katsushiko Ogata, who incorporated modern control concepts into its program. Interdisciplinary design education emerged in the early 1960s with Professor Darrell A. Frohrib's contributions. Shortly thereafter, Professor Arthur Erdman arrived and embarked on developing computer-based design of mechanism systems.

Industrial engineering emerged as an active divisional unit in the department in the 1950s 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, occupying the entire lower floor of the department, was led by Professor Fulton Holtby. The first Master of Science in industrial engineering was granted in 1952; its first doctorate followed in 1968.

Professor Perry Blackshear 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 processes. 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 the Center for Filtration Research and is studying energy conversion and production and use of alternative fuels.

The 1960s saw the early stages of growth of biomedical engineering, founded at the University of Minnesota by Perry Blackshear and Kenneth Keller in chemical engineering. Professor Blackshear's research in blood cell fragility has gained wide recognition; his artificial organ contributions showed the surprising complement between alternative energy sources and biomedical engineering.

The strong engineering science base laid in the 1960s across the entire department accelerated the growth of graduate degrees which has sustained to the present. The Master of Science output grew by over 60% between the 1960s and the 1980s; the PhD degrees more than doubled in the same era.

During the era of Regents Professor Richard Goldstein's role as department head (1970-1990), the faculty grew to 47 in mechanical and industrial engineering. Selecting talented faculty has produced a thriving unit of research and education. The 1970s saw the rise of thermofluid modeling (Professors Avram Bar-Cohen, Charles Scott, Terence Simon, and Paul Strykowski.

The department also developed strengths in combustion including numerical and optical diagnostic techniques (Professors John Abraham and David Hofeldt); pollution, aerosol, and building energy studies (Professors Jane Davidson, Thomas Kuehn, Virgil Marple, Peter McMurry, David Pui, and James Ramsey); heat and mass transfer in biological systems at supra- and subphysiological temperatures (Professor John Bischof); intelligent machines, sensors, and controls (Professors Max Donath, Kim Stelson, and Rajesh Rajamani); computer graphics and database management (Professors Thomas Chase and Donald Riley); numerical prediction techniques in fluid and solid systems (Professors Suhas Patankar and Kumar Tamma); manufacturing automation and machining theory.

The 21st Century

Kim Stelson successfully led a multi-university effort for an NSF-funded Engineering Research Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power, headquartered in ME. Arthur Erdman initiated the annual Design of Medical Devices Conference in 2000, which brings medical device companies, engineers, doctors and students together to further the development of new technologies, and became the founding director of the Medical Devices Center

Professor Uwe Kortshagen took over as head of department in 2008. Under his tenure, industrial and systems engineering was spun off, becoming an independent department in 2009. Kortshagen led a period of significant new hires  and of the addition and renovation of facilities, including the construction of the new Thomas E. Murphy Engine Laboratory, which opened in 2014, and an almost $50 million renovation of the "Old ME" building.

ME Moves Forward

Under the direction of Professor Jane Davidson, the Solar Energy Laboratory has developed a wide range of solar technologies for fuel and chemical processes and for space and water heating and cooling. Professor Alison Hubel has done pioneering work on the preservation of molecules in challenging environments. In 2019, Professor Susan Mantell became ME's first female head of department, leading a significant departmental strategic planning initiative.