The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Education, Technical

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EDUCATION, Technical. Technical education is a very modern form of educational enterprise which is concerned with the training of men to make an organized practical application of a knowledge of the principles of chemistry, physics (especially mechanics, heat and electricity), mathematics, astronomy and bacteriology to the design, construction and operation of machines, structures of all kinds, and the material conveniences of life. It aims to produce men of broad understanding of the field of applied science, who have insight, organizing power and leadership, not merely surveyors, draughtsmen or superintendents. Viewed in this light it is an important new phase of professional education (see Education, Professional), always mindful of the need of increased production, but distinguished from industrial education (see Education, Industrial), which is designed primarily to prepare men and women for maximum production with a minimum expenditure of time and human energy. Broadly speaking, technical education is engineering education, but the term engineering now includes a variety of divisions which would have been entirely incomprehensible to the founders of the early schools of applied science; it applies rather to the expert direction of organizations which utilize the forces and materials of nature through large combinations of human units than to the actual labor of production. In addition to the usual branches of engineering — civil, electrical, mechanical, mining and architectural — there must now be included chemical, railway, marine, ceramic, sanitary, textile, agricultural, metallurgical and aeronautic engineering.

The scheme of technical education for all of these specialized engineering professions provides for firm grounding of the student in the processes of the fundamental pure sciences appropriate to the specialization, whether chemical, ceramic, textile or aeronautic. In the usual four-years technological course leading to a Bachelor's degree this is accomplished largely in the first two years, in which instruction in mathematics, chemistry, physics, surveying, etc., is given, sometimes by basing the two-years engineering curriculum upon two years of liberal arts, as in the University of Missouri. In the case of five-years engineering courses or six-years combination courses the fundamentals may occupy the first two years or the first three years as in the Columbia School of Mines, in which the three-years technological courses in mining, engineering and chemistry are based upon the three years of study in a collegiate or scientific school. After these fundamental sciences and additional instruction in English, economics, politics, etc., the curriculum of the last two or three or four years of technical courses follows divergent lines of study preparatory to the practice of specialized engineering professions, which aim to meet corresponding specialized demands arising out of the unparalleled development of mechanical, structural and industrial needs of a nation of 110,000,000, complex in its interests, rich in its resources and impatient in its development.

The first school of engineering in the United States was the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (q.v.), founded at Troy, N. Y., by Stephen van Rensselaer in 1824, as a School of Theoretical and Applied Science, to furnish “instruction in the application of science to the common purposes of life.” No further provision of the kind was made until 1847 when the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale and the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard were founded. In the same year the University of Michigan voted to establish a course in civil engineering. These four schools, concerned almost exclusively with civil engineering, were the only schools of the kind opened before the Civil War, After the passage of the Morrill act in 1862 (see Education, Agricultural) many States accepted the provision of the act and proceeded to organize new schools of agriculture and the mechanic arts, or to add these types of technical education to existing schools. Many of the State universities, like Illinois, Wisconsin and California, which now offer strong and well-equipped instruction in technical lines received very large impulse from the Morrill act. The great expansion of construction and industry after the Civil War caused the rapid multiplication of engineering schools. The four schools of 1860 increased to 17 in 1870, 41 in 1871, 70 in 1872, 85 in 1880 and 126 in 1917; the graduates numbering 100 in 1870 reached 4,300 in 1917. Besides these schools there are 43 other institutions giving more or less attention to engineering work, either in the form of “two years of engineering” or of single courses like civil engineering in connection with other curricula. Of the 126 schools of 1917, 46 were connected with land grant colleges, 44 were professional schools in universities, 20 were attached to colleges and 16 were independent. Midway between the group of technical schools and industrial schools are to be found certain excellent institutions giving more or less technical or engineering education to men and women, for example, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Lewis Institute in Chicago and the Cogswell Polytechnic Institute in San Francisco.

Following the period of rapid multiplication of technical institutions from 1870 to 1890 came a period of standardization of requirements for admission and for graduation, for it was clear that technical education was not a simple problem with an easy and uniform solution, especially if the engineer was to become the professional equal of trained lawyers and doctors. The formation of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education in 1893 and the organization of the joint committee on engineering education of the national engineering societies in 1908 promoted the process of elevation and standardization of curricula. By 1917 practically all of the first class technical schools required at least four years of high school work for admission and at least four years of collegiate work for the specialized degree, whether that of B.S., in some division of engineering, as Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (B.S. in M.E.), Bachelor of Civil Engineering (B.C.E.) or Civil Engineer (C.E.). With few exceptions, e.g., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the technical schools, like other colleges, receive their students out of the great system of public secondary schools by certificate rather than by examination. Students thus received are given approximately the same work during the first year with later differentiation as discussed above. The extent of this specialization is illustrated in the curricula offered at the University of Illinois and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Degree of B.S.: in special curricula: architecture, architectural engineering, ceramic engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, mining engineering, municipal and sanitary engineering, general engineering, physics, railway civil engineering, railway electrical engineering and railway mechanical engineering.


Degree of B.S.: civil engineering; mechanical engineering, mining engineering and metallurgy, architecture, chemistry, electrical engineering, biology and public health, physics, general science, chemical engineering, sanitary engineering, geology, naval architecture and marine engineering, electro-chemistry and engineering administration. Further specialization is permitted within these courses in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, in mechanical engineering along the lines of engine design, locomotive engineering, mill engineering and steam turbine engineering.

A summary of the requirements for admission and the curricula for graduation, for the course leading to a degree in mechanical engineering in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Illinois will serve as an illustration of the standardized technological course in an institution of the highest class. The specifications for admission are given in terms of units (one unit is approximately one-fourth of the work of a high school year).


Institute of
by examination
by certificate
or examination
of Illinois—
by certificate
or examination
Plane geometry 1 1 1
Solid geometry ½ ½ ½
English Composition
and Literature
3 3 3
Physics 1 . . . .
Laboratory science . . 1 1
French 2 . . . .
German 2 . . . .
Foreign Language . . 2 . .
History . . 1 . .
Electives 3-4 4 . .
(five from history,
foreign languages,
and science)
. . . . 8


Institute of
University of
English English English Comp.
Foreign Languages French Language
Chemistry Chemistry Chemistry
Physics Physics Physics
Drawing Drawing Drawing
Mechanics Mechanics Mechanics
Electrical Engineering Electrical Engineering Electrical Engineering
Mechanical Engineering 
(about 20 specialized
Mechanical Engineering  Mechanical Engineering
(about 16 specialized
General Studies
(History, Economics,
Business Law)
General Studies
Non-technical electives
Metallurgy Engineering lectures
Surveying Instruction trips
Naval Architecture
Summer Shop Work

The proportions between shop work, or practice work, and theoretical work in the curriculum of technical schools, vary widely in different institutions and at different times. The most progressive have abandoned the requirement of many hours of manipulative laboratory work and the production of completed machines, and now require sufficient shop work for an understanding of the processes and tools, but without insistence upon the attainment of skill. On the other hand there is stronger and stronger emphasis upon the mastering of the fundamental subjects and theory behind the technical courses. Many strong institutions like those whose curricula are given above require also a considerable proportion of liberal, non-technical study in order to develop the man as well as the engineer, so that the student who graduates from the institution shall understand the importance of both the human and the technological factors which enter into the practice of his profession. In place of the narrow technical education of 1890 or 1900 with slender foundation in the sciences and the inclusion of large quantities of shop practice, technical schools now seek to develop at the same time an accurate working knowledge of the principles and practices of engineering subjects and personal qualities of judgment, initiative, responsibility and an understanding of men. Such a curriculum as that noted above in engineering administration requires quite as much knowledge of “human engineering” as of mechanical, or chemical engineering.

The co-operative type of technical education, sometimes known as the Cincinnati co-operative plan, is the most recent attempt to co-ordinate theory and practice under conditions approximating those of the shop and of the field. First formulated in 1899 by Hermann Schneider when instructor at Lehigh University, it had its beginning in 1906 at the University of Cincinnati which established under his direction a co-operative agreement with industrial plants, railways, etc., by which students who are admitted to the university, as are other students, work on a schedule by which, during bi-weekly periods, one-half of the class is at the university, and one-half is in the factory. During the next period of two weeks the sections change about. The co-operative course is of five years' duration, 11 months in the year. While in factory or shops students are regular employees, receive regular pay and must report satisfactory service in the shops as well as in the classrooms in order to be continued in the university. The co-operative plan has been adopted at other technical institutions, and in some cases by secondary institutions, which are advantageously located near shops and industrial plants of various kinds, with which co-operative arrangements may be made. It is claimed that this combination of scientific and theoretical study at the university with practical experience results in a better mastery of facts and of manual skill since it is secured under conditions which compel a maximum of independent thinking along with an appreciation of the social significance of the studies and the practice.

Technical education has its upward reach into graduate courses for professional degrees like Civil Engineer (C.E.), and Master of Civil Engineering (M.C.E.); organizations for research like the Engineering Experiment Station of the University of Illinois, the Federal Forest Products Laboratory located at the University of Wisconsin and ttie Mellon Institute of the University of Pittsburgh; and investigations in subjects like industrial chemistry leading to the Ph.D. in great graduate schools which are not organically parts of a technological college as at Cornell University and the University of Chicago. The steady emphasis of the stronger technical schools upon investigation and contributions to the solution of intricate new problems is one of the latest and most significant aspects of technical education in the United States and in Europe.

Bibliography. — Annual Reports of the United States Commissioner of Education (especially, 1916, chapter on “Engineering Education,” C. R. Mann); Proceedings of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education; Bulletin of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (“A Study of Engineering Education,” C. R. Mann, 1918); Bulletins of the United States Bureau of Education, especially 1916. No. 31, “The Co-operative System of Education,” C. W. Park; 1913, No. 4, “Present Standards of Higher Education in the United States,” G. E. MacLean. Catalogues of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Illinois, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of Cincinnati.

Kendric C. Babcock,
Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Illinois.