Historical Note on Heat Engineering in the Mechanical Engineering Department at MIT


This account was written by a Mr. Mooney at MIT in the late 1940's.

The First Years: 1865-1873

Heat Engineering in some form has always been a part of the Mechanical Engineering curriculum at M.I.T. but in the early years there were no separate courses in the subject nor any staff members assigned particularly to it.

Under the first department head, William Watson, PhD, Professor of Descriptive Geometry and Mechanical Engineering, Thermodynamics was a subsidiary branch of Applied Mechanics, while Steam Engines, Air and Gas Engines, and Power and Strength of Boilers were studied as a part of the course in Construction of Machines.

Lectures were given on Combustion and Fuel, and on Warming, Ventilating and Lighting.

Toward the end of Watson's eight years as department head, the courses on boilers and engines were removed from the category of Construction of Machines to a new course called Motors which treated of heat motors and hydraulic machinery. Thermodynamics emerged as a separate subject given one term of the fourth year.

In 1873, Channing Whitaker, of the class of 1869, succeeded William Watson as head of the Mechanical Engineering course. Whitaker was apparently more interested in heat power than was his predecessor, for the time allotted to thermodynamics was promptly increased from 60 hours to 90 hours and, in addition, 50 hours were allotted specifically to Mechanism of Steam Engines, instead of including this as part of Machine Construction.

At this time, it appears that the Department was developing an intellectual independence that had not previously existed. This fact is illustrated by two quotations from the catalog.

In the catalog for 1875-76, it is stated:

Professor Rankine's demonstrations are usually given but care is taken to collect from his books and papers all he has given upon a particular subject, that the simplest, as well as fullest, discussion may be presented to the class.

In the next year's catalog, a different spirit answers:

Subjects, not textbooks, form the basis of this course of instruction: but the best textbooks and engineering publications are freely consulted and carefully studied.

The First Laboratory

A matter of great concern to Professor Whitaker was the establishment of a Mechanical Engineering Laboratory. His energetic and effective work toward this end resulted in the presentation to the Institute of the Harris Corliss Engine (still in the laboratory), together with the necessary auxiliary equipment and instruments for testing. Of this gift, President Runkle's Report for 1874 says in part, "It is difficult to conceive of a more fortunate combination of circumstances, and at the same time used to better advantage than they have been by Professor Whitaker; the interest of the students in this laboratory has been so marked, and their aid so valuable as to be entitled to special mention and commendation."

The circumstances referred to in the above quotation were that a Boston businessman, Mr. George B. Dixwell, had studied the steam engine as an avocation and desired to have made my a reliable and independent engineer certain experiments to test his conclusions in regard to the value of superheated steam in preventing cylinder condensation. This was at that time a subject of technical dispute and of great economic importance. Mr. Dixwell's presentation of the equipment to the Institute, in return for the execution of the tests, may be considered not only to mark the establishment of the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory, but also to be a forerunner of the present D.I.C. contracts. (Dixwel's tests are reported in "A Paper on Cylinder Condensation" by George Basil Dixwell, read before the Society of Arts at M.I.T. Boston, April 29 and May 13, 1875. Privately printed, Boston 1875.)

Subsequent to the completion of Mr. Dixwell's tests, many other tests were run for instructional and research purposes; the effect of the governing method upon the economy, and the effect of higher steam pressure upon the economy were among the matters investigated.

As the laboratory work developed, the boilers and engines used for heating and ventilating the building, and for driving the ore dressing machinery in the metallurgical laboratory were made available to the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory for testing.

The use of the new laboratory was not limited solely to engineering students, for during a period of several years, the course in Physics included "Tests of engines and boilers; evaporation per pound of coal; measurement of power; transmission and absorption dynamometers; coating of steam pipes; friction of belts and pulleys; strength of materials."

In 1876, the catalog states "The Mechanical Engineering Laboratory is fitted with Steam Boilers, Superheaters, Engine, Calorimeter, Indicators, Pressure Gauges, Thermometers, and all the usual apparatus for producing and using steam, and for testing its nature and action. Within a few months a substantially and accurately constructed mercury column had been erected in the laboratory. It is convenient for use, and is accompanied by delicate and manageable apparatus, by the aid of which, instruments indicating pressure or temperature can be tested with rare precision." The calorimeter referred to was actually an insulated condenser to permit measurements of the heat rejected in the engine condenser. In 1877 tests were made on the Harris Corliss engine, in the presence of a board of engineers of the United States Navy, to demonstrate the effect of super-heated steam upon the economy of the engine. The report of the board noted with evident respect that all the instruments had been calibrated by the very accurate methods of the Institute of Technology. These tests were probably the first instance of the Institute's active cooperation with the Navy in the field of heat engineering, a service which has increased in scope and magnitude through the succeeding years.

Emergence of Heat Engineering as a Major Field of Instruction

Further gradual development in heat engineering through Professor Whitaker's tenure resulted in a class schedule in the early eighties, which included, in the third year, Combustion of Fuel, Steam Generators and Engines, Elements of Thermodynamics, and two terms of Steam Engineering Laboratory; and in the fourth year, Thermodynamics of Steam and other Engines, and two terms of Laboratory. The laboratory work was concentrated into five weeks per term, six hours per week. The catalog states that the first part of the laboratory work was simple experiments to show the use of instruments, and the later work was largely original research.

In 1883, when Whitaker retired, Gaetano Lanza, the head of the department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, became also the head of the Mechanical Engineering Department.

Two new instructors were appointed to assist Lanza; C.H.Fisher in the Mechanical Engineering Department to teach heat, and Cecil H. Peabody as instructor in Applied Mechanics. Two years later, Fisher was forced by illness to resign, and Peabody, then Assistant Professor of Applied Mechanics, was transferred to the Department of Mechanical Engineering and made Assistant Professor of Steam Engineering. This was the first time a faculty member was designated specifically as a professor of heat engineering, but that is not the only reason for considering Peabody's appointment the mark of an epoch. Peabody produced in less than two years the text and data compilations needed to free the heat engineering instruction in thermodynamics which endured with little change for over fifty years, until a modern successor again produced a text and data compilation to serve as stepping stones to further progress in heat engineering.

In Peabody's first year in the Mechanical Engineering Department, options in Marine Engineering, Locomotive Engineering and Mill Engineering were established. The catalogs for a number of years thereafter indicate no major changes in the courses taught in heat engineering, but a gradual development is always in evidence. At this time, it was customary to bring in practicing engineers, often alumni of the department, to give special lectures on new developments. Subjects related to heat engineering included, for example, Locomotive Design, and Feed-Water Heaters.

Heat Engineering was, by 1890, well established as a major field of instruction. From this point on, it is convenient to consider separately several lines of development.

Instruction in Basic Heat Engineering

From the establishment of Peabody's methods in 1885 until after the retirement of Professor Lanza in 1911, the catalog shows little change in the schedules for basic heat engineering subjects, although several new subjects were introduced. The fundamental Thermodynamics was given for one term of the third year and Steam Engineering was given for two terms of the third year.

In 1912, after Professor Miller took charge of the department, a schedule was established which was essentially the same as that followed today: two terms of heat engineering in the third year and one term in the fourth year, the first of the three terms being devoted to the principles of thermodynamics, and the other two primarily to applications. The attention devoted to various applications has changed in accordance with the economic and academic tides which influence opinions upon such maters. The approach to the fundamental principles, however, remained essentially that of Peabody until 1940 when Professor J.H. Keenan introduced an approach based primarily upon the work of Poincare and of Gibbs. Keenan's approach emphasizes precise definitions and rigorous logic.

Development in Breadth and Depth

From the beginning instruction was given in applications of Heat Engineering including Steam, Air and Gas Engines; Boilers; Combustion and Fuel; and Warming Ventilating and Lighting. Except for lighting, all these subjects persist to the present day, but the emphasis has varied with the times. For many years the subjects related to steam power were preeminent but there was a constant development of new fields and sometimes an unjustifiably large number of subjects in a new field would appear for a time in the catalog followed by a recession to some reasonable number.

In 1885, options in Marine engineering and in Locomotive Construction were established. Heating and Ventilation became a distinct subject in the catalog at this time and by 1890, an instructor of Heating and Ventilation (S.H. Woodbridge) was designated. In 1899, an option in Heating and Ventilation was established.

In 1908 the first graduate schedule was offered in the department. It was a skeleton schedule containing only one subject (other than the possibility of thesis) in the heat field, Advanced Steam and Gas Engineering, given by Professor Miller. This subject is described as study and reading in fields selected by the instructor to suit the research program of the student.

In the following year, a graduate subject on Internal Combustion Engines was given by Professor J.C. Riley for Course XIII-A, and Professor Peabody offered a fourth year subject on Steam Turbines in the Mechanical Engineering Department.

In 1910, the fourth year subject, Power Plant Design, was started by Professor Miller; he continued to teach it until his retirement in 1933. In 1912, Refrigeration was offered as a fourth year elective subject by C.W. Berry.

In 1913, subsequent to Professor Miller's appointment as department head, there was a major revision of schedules, which included the establishment of a fourth year course of special lectures usually given by practicing engineers; some of these lectures were always in the heat field and prominent engineers were frequently included among the lecturers. (e.g., I.E. Moultrop, C.T. Main, E.H. Peabody)

In 1914, a graduate subject in explosion motors was given by Professor Riley for the aeronautical engineering course which had been established under J.C. Hunsaker. In the same year, Professor Miller started a new subject for the architects, Steam and Mechanical Appliances for Buildings.

The first appearance of Heat Transmissions as an individual subject was in 1917 when Professor Berry offered it as a fourth year elective. By 1920, he was offering two graduate subjects, Advanced Heat Transmission and Advanced Refrigeration, the latter a Chemical Engineering elective.

The heat section served during the war years by training Army Ordnance and Air Corps personnel in internal combustion engine operation and maintenance, and by training operating engineers for the merchant marine. Individuals n the staff also contributed consulting services to the armed forces.

During the two years, 1919 to 1921, there were no options offered in Mechanical Engineering but many electives were available. After 1921, the general course with numerous electives still appeared, but the options came back in full force. The general course included electives in Internal Combustion Engines, Steam Turbines, Heat Transmission and Refrigeration. The special options were Automotive, Engine Design, Textile Engineering, and Ordnance ROTC. A special graduate schedule for naval officers studying torpedo design, which was established at this time, included subjects relating to thermodynamics of gas mixtures, combustion, and turbines given by Professor Berry. The course for the Navy's torpedo engineers has been given as required since that time.

By 1924, a fourth year option was established in Refrigeration. Numerous subjects relating to "aero" engines were offered and the first complete schedule for graduate study (excepting those for Army or Navy officers) was offered in the field of Automotive Engineering.

In 1925, the Automotive Engineering option in the fourth year was by far, the largest, having twice as many students as the general course; the graduate automotive program had five students, a very large number for those days. The department administration had recognized several years earlier the need for establishing better instructional and research facilities in the field of automotive engineering and had urged that experienced men to be obtained to take charge of this field. However this new development was not originally established in the Mechanical Engineering Department.

In 1926, C.F. Taylor was appointed Associate Professor in the Aeronautical Department and began the building up of what is now the Automotive Engineering Division. Since he has given a history of this development in another place, no further reference will be made here to automotive engineering.

In the years from 1928 to 1930, several new subjects appeared. James Holt offered graduate elective subjects in Advanced Power Plants, Advanced Heating and Ventilating, Heating and Ventilating Design and in Air Conditioning. Professor Berry offered advanced electives in Refrigeration and Refrigeration Design, and W.H. Jones offered Storage and Transportation of Foodstuffs for the Food Technology students.

The 1930's were years of great change in the Institute as a whole, in the Mechanical Engineering Department, and the Heat Division. On each of these levels the object was to bring the accomplishments into line with the needs of the time. This required the discarding of much of the applied and descriptive training in order to give more time to fundamentals. What had been only academic physics in the early days of the Institute had now become the elementary basis of the engineer's daily work.

When J.C. Hunsaker became head of the department in 1933, the descriptive courses in steam engineering, which formerly accompanied the basic thermodynamics, were eliminated. In 1934, Joseph H. Keenan came to the department and began teaching his approach to the subject of thermodynamics as a graduate subject in Advanced Thermodynamics. In the same year, Physics having turned to more remote fields, the Heat Measurements Laboratory under Gordon B. Wilkes was transferred from the Physics Department to the Mechanical Engineering Department.

In 1936, Keenan and Keyes' Thermodynamic Properties of Steam was published, making the Institute again the home of the steam tables.

In 1941, a "Heat" option was offered in Mechanical Engineering but this had to be dropped with all other options during the war.

After the war of 1941-45, a new undergraduate subject was offered in Gas Turbines, and the undergraduate heat engineering was changed to include some study of mass transfer in connection with heat transfer. The heat transfer subject had already been modified to follow the highly practical approach by dimensional analysis as developed over many years in the Chemical Engineering Department of the Institute.

In more advanced fields, new subjects in Advanced Heat Transmission, Flow of Compressible Fluids, Advanced Thermodynamics, Low Temperature Refrigeration, and Kinetic Theory were offered. In 1945, the Air Tables of Keenan and Kaye were published, and 1948, the same authors published their Gas Tables.

Laboratory Development

The first major change in the laboratory after the original work already described was the opening, in February 1890, of the new laboratory building in Temple Place.

One of the important machines installed in this building was the Allis Triple-expansion Corliss Engine, which remained until 1946, an imposing relic in the steam laboratory. This engine was arranged for operation as a simple engine, a compound engine or a triple expansion engine; the heads or the barrels of the cylinders could be steam-jacketed individually, or simultaneously; reheating cycles could be operated and various governing schemes could be used. It will be apparent that this engine served for its era as the CFR engine serves in the present day internal combustion engine laboratory; it provided a means of systematically determining the effect of changes in any of a number of important variables which in a commercial machine are fixed by the design.

Thus by the use of this engine, definite conclusions might be reached that could never be reached by comparing tests on different machines operating under different conditions in commercial installations. On this engine, the laboratory classes ran many series of tests, which provided useful engineering data previously not available, thus implementing the principle of directing the laboratory work toward original research.

During the 1890's and the early years of the present century, the laboratory grew at a rapid rate, acquiring a great variety of apparatus. Among the commercial machines installed in this period were a hot air engine, two gas engines, a 225 HP tandem compound steam engine, two DeLaval Turbine driven centrifugal pumps, a 500 KW Westinghouse Parsons Turbine, and an air compressor capable of operating at 2500 psi discharge pressure. Numerous pieces of auxiliary machinery and special test set-ups were also installed. The laboratory work included a great variety of tests ranging from acceptance tests on particular machines to investigations of the explosion of mixtures of gas and air, and determinations of the specific heats of air.

Throughout this period, the laboratory was directly under the supervision of Edward F. Miller. Professor Miller joined the staff following his graduation in the class of 1886 and soon gained recognition as a test engineer in both heat engineering and mechanics. He was placed in charge of the steam laboratory in 1892. Much of the laboratory work under Professor Miller consisted of investigations of new types of equipment, and field tests on commercial installations; such work demanded intelligence and ingenuity of students and staff alike, and it offered also the satisfaction of obtaining a useful result. There was in those days a definite effort to train students in the art of accurate testing, and great pains were often taken to this end. For example, engine tests might be run 12 hours and boiler tests 120 hours; for such test, all procedures were in accordance with professional practice for consulting work. The elementary tests, however, took only two hours and were carried out by groups of three men with a minimum of supervision by the instructor. When Professor Miller succeeded Professor Lanza as head of the department in 1911, he retained nominal charge of the steam laboratory, and he influenced its work strongly until the day of his retirement in 1933.

Professor Lanza's last report to the president, made in 1910, lists among the most pressing needs of the department: a refrigerating plant; gas producer plant; blower and auxiliary apparatus for experiments on the lift and drift of surfaces for aeronautic purposes; and a plant for stationary testing of locomotives. Another need was for special assistants, with the grade of instructor, having duties confined to carrying on prolonged investigations and to preparing the results for publication.

The major project of the Institute at the time Professor Miller became head was the move to a new site. This move was of great importance to the laboratory because it provided the seldom-available opportunity of planning a laboratory as a whole rather than having it grow by accumulation of heterogeneous elements. The reports of the committee, which studied the problem of building and equipping the new laboratories, indicate plans for a much larger plant than ever materialized. The details of the list or proposed equipment are surprising in more than one way. An absurdly large number of pieces of apparatus is listed; for example, twenty-one steam engines, with virtually every known type of valve gear, some in duplicate, are included. On the other hand, the committee had enough foresight to list among other things, a gas turbine, and a "special type" refrigerating machine (ethyl chloride) which would not be out of place even today. A cooling tower was another item that might well be of interest today.

As the plans finally developed they provided for six laboratories as follows: Steam and Compressed Air, Refrigeration, Hydraulics, Power Measurement, Material Testing, and Gas Engines. Of these, only the first two are of interest here, as C.F. Taylor has given the history of the Gas Engine Laboratory.

In 1924, a high-pressure air laboratory was installed for the use of the Navy Torpedo Engineers.

By 1925, the importance of air conditioning was such that Professor Miller recommended an installation in the textile laboratory. In 1929, an Air Conditioning Laboratory was set up in close conjunction with the Refrigeration Laboratory.

In 1934, the Heat Measurements Laboratory, long part of the Physics Department, was transferred to Mechanical Engineering in recognition of the fact that its field of work had developed from applied science to engineering. This laboratory has supplied valuable instruction in heat measurement techniques (given to mechanical engineers even before the transfer of the laboratory) and has been an important source of data on heat transmission coefficients.

Beginning in the late 1930's, investigations were made in the field of compressible flow under Professor Keenan, but with the establishment of the Gas Turbine Laboratory, most of this work was transferred to that laboratory.

In 1944, Samuel C. Collins came to the Mechanical Engineering Department from the Department of Chemistry to establish the Low-Temperature laboratory. From this laboratory have come important developments in the techniques of gas liquefaction and low temperature refrigeration. Also the laboratory supplies the need, mentioned repeatedly in the President's reports in the 1930's, of a local source of liquid air for the use of the science laboratories.

In the late 1940's, the pressure for space in the Institute building forced the removal of much of the large steam and hydraulic laboratory equipment that had outlived its usefulness. Several steam engines were provided and a small turbine power plant designed for laboratory use was installed.

The trend in general undergraduate heat laboratory instruction has been toward a reduction in time allotted. In many cases, however, the specialized laboratory courses such as Internal Combustion Engine Laboratory or Refrigeration Laboratory take the place of the general "steam" laboratory.


Return to the top of the page.
Source: MIT Museum records on the Mechanical Engineering Department
Author: Noted as "Mr. Mooney". Evidently written in the late 1940's
Photographs: Courtesy of the MIT Museum

MIT Home Page Return to The Heat and Mass Transfer Laboratory Home Page Valid HTML 4.01 coding on this page! Bobby WorldWide Approved AAA