Historical Highlights: Swanson School of Engineering

Issue Date: 
December 10, 2007

In its early years, beginning more than 160 years ago, Pitt’s engineering school played an integral role in bolstering the industry that built Pittsburgh, trained American soldiers, and was a font for technology—from the radio to the airplane—that changed the world.

Today’s John A. Swanson School of Engineering builds on that historic tradition through a wide range of research, from breakthroughs in biomedical procedures to becoming a trailblazer in the emerging field of nanotechnology.

Below are highlights from the school’s distinguished history.

First engineering professor at Pitt, 1844
Lemuel Stephens joins the Western University of Pennsylvania (now Pitt) as its first engineering professor, teaching civil engineering and mechanical drawing. The first two engineering students graduate in 1846.

Engineering department and four-year degree established, Feb. 8, 1867
The University’s trustees create an engineering department offering a four-year engineering degree. That same year, the University hires Samuel Pierpont Langley, who will uncover the basic laws of flight and develop a single-passenger, steam-powered aircraft. In 1896, his unmanned plane flies approximately a half-mile to become the first aircraft to fly on its own power. Orville and Wilbur Wright work from Langley’s research on wing design to accomplish the first manned flight in 1903.

Engineering expands, 1880s and ’90s
The percentage of University students studying engineering increases from 30 percent to as high as 80 percent and, in 1895, the University opens the Western Pennsylvania School of Mines and Mining Engineering. In 1893, William Hunter Dammond is the first African American to graduate from the University, earning a degree in engineering (with honors). Dammond went on to become a noted engineer, professor, and inventor.

First radio broadcast, Dec. 24, 1906
Reginald A. Fessenden, chair of electrical engineering from 1893 to 1900, reportedly sends the first voice transmission across radio waves, earning him the nickname “Father of Radio.”

School of Engineering trains Americans bound for World War I, April 1917
Classes are modified to include military training and engineering instruction related to the war effort (including training sanitation engineers and automobile mechanics) after the United States enters World War I. Pitt’s Students’ Army Training Corps attracts soldiers and students (many from the reserves) from across the country, reaching a peak of 2,221 by October 1918. By the war’s end, on Nov. 11, 1918, 72 Pitt students, professors, and alumni will have died in the fighting.

Engineering expands course list to train military engineers for World War II, 1942
Engineering again joins other University programs in training military enlistees, this time for World War II. An accelerated, year-round schedule allows students to earn an engineering degree in 2.5 years. By 1944, the School of Engineering is among the military training program’s top five engineering schools (Pitt will have trained 25,000 people between early 1942 and 1944.)The school also proves to be essential in solving many engineering problems for the military.

Engineering-related subjects consolidated into one school, Sept. 30, 1965
The engineering and mining schools are merged into a single School of Engineering, allowing for better academic organization and growth. Benedum Hall is dedicated March 18, 1971, consolidating engineering students and faculty into one building.

Development of specialized engineering centers of excellence begins, April 1993
Pitt establishes the Center for Biotechnology and Bioengineering (CBB), among the first of numerous specialized labs and centers of excellence that will be established in the School of Engineering. These facilities feature expert faculty working in a variety of areas, from building materials and nanoscience, to studying how to prevent injuries from falls in elderly adult populations.

Engineering student wins Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, April 2006
Margaret Bennewitz (ENGR ’07), a University of Pittsburgh Honors College student and bioengineering major, receives the Goldwater Scholarship for her independent research in science and engineering.

School of Engineering receives unprecedented support from John A. Swanson, Dec. 5, 2007
Acclaimed inventor, business founder, and University of Pittsburgh engineering alumnus and trustee John A. Swanson is honored in recognition of the greatest generosity by an individual donor in Pitt’s 220-year history—$41.3 million to the University’s School of Engineering as part of the $2 billion Building Our Future Together Campaign. Pitt to rename the school the John A. Swanson School of Engineering.
For a more complete history of the Swanson School of Engineering, visit www.pitt.edunews/071205swanson5.html