Department History | 1917-1924

The Engineering Education Years

When the School started, of course, the Physics Department was only to provide a fundamental background in physical science considered essential for mining engineers. Over the first few decades of the school’s existence this would also include specialists in chemical and metallurgical engineering. From about 1900 until 1930 the physics courses centered on the five introductory physics courses, B1 to B5, and the two engineering mechanics courses, C1 and C2.

Lab with five researchers
Physical Sciences Lab in Hubbell Hall around 1911. Image courtesy of MTU Archives and CCHI. 

During this time James Fisher Jr. and Fred McNair both indicated their area of specialty to be “engineering education.” McNair even served a term as president of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education.

E. D. Grant was hired just before Nathan Osborne left and took over the position of assistant professor vacated by Fisher. While assistant professor, Elmer Grant earned a PhD from the University of Chicago in 1916, becoming our faculty’s first member to hold an earned PhD. At the same time he was promoted to be our department’s first associate professor. Shortly before the US involvement in World War I, Associate Professor Grant made extensive tours through Wisconsin, Northern Illinois and Indiana, and Southern Michigan to present a lecture “illustrated with lantern slides” on Mining in the Copper Country. Many of these presentations were at High Schools and he made sure to ask for a list of the graduating seniors. He had a lecture almost every night, with some in the day time, for three or more weeks straight.

During much of the US involvement in World War I, McNair was at the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C. While he made frequent trips back to Houghton, much of the running of the college was done through written correspondence with Fisher. After the war, McNair took an additional leave of absence to help perfect methods to fire large naval guns at sea.

While the US involvement in the World War had a large short-term impact on the University, as one would expect, it also appears to have precipitated a turn-over in the junior Physics faculty. In 1920 Grant accepted a professorship at Earlham College, a Quaker institution in Richmond, Indiana. At the same time Rood, who had taken over the assistant professorship in the department when Grant was promoted, went to Albion College. Both Grant and Rood had been with the department for almost 20 years. Instructor Albert Sobey had previously left at the beginning of World War I to take on some intelligence activities.

In 1924 during one of his travels, McNair was tragically killed in a train wreck near Buda, Illinois (a bit North of Peoria, Il), leaving Fisher, now 51 years old, as the only Mathematics and Physics faculty member to have served prior to 1920.

Leo F. Duggan
Leo F. Duggan 

During the ‘20’s the college grew and new hires included Leo Duggan, Robert Seeber, John Harrington, Fay Partlo, William Longacre, Thomas Sermon, and C. George "Toby" Stipe, each of whom served for at least the next 25 years with several serving for more than 40 years. Duggan became registrar very soon after he was hired and served in that capacity for the next 30 years. At that time the registrar was the second most important administrative position in the college.1 After a couple years, Seeber moved to Mechanical Engineering where he had a long and successful career.2 Harrington and Partlo would later become the Heads of separate Math and Physics departments respectively when Fisher retired in the mid 1940’s. Shortly thereafter, Partlo took over as Dean of the College. Sermon and Longacre then served as Physics Department Heads, with Sermon also serving as registrar for many years.

It is interesting to note that, excluding the short-time instructors, all of the faculty in the 1920’s had at least one degree from the Michigan College of Mines. The majority of those faculty were hired with only a BS degree and would earn a MS degree while on the job. None of them would ever obtain an earned PhD. These home-grown faculty hired in the 1920’s, under the direction of a senior Professor Fisher, served as the core of the physics and math faculty for several decades to come, and had a strong presence in the department until the early 1960’s.

  1. The first Michigan Tech Vice President was Ed Williams, appointed in 1962. In the early 2000’s, there were a half dozen Vice Presidents.
  2. Seeber served as Department Head of Mechanical Engineering from 1926 to 1948. Seeber’s son, Robert Rex Seeber, Jr., would be instrumental in the design and construction of IBM’s first large scale computers. The Seeber Computational Laboratory, the beginnings of electronic computation at MTU, was established in Hubbell Hall in 1958, one year after the senior Seeber’s death.