The Michigan Engineer News Center

1860 curriculum: Questions asked and answered

From humble beginnings, topics, students and faculty grow| Medium Read

Earliest coursework – as one might imagine – bore little resemblance to Michigan Engineering’s current multitude of highly sophisticated offerings.

The simple-seeming making of a common earthen road, for instance, had received scant scientific attention into the 1860s, when Michigan finally recognized the need to systematically study road construction. The first such course sought answers to the following questions:

I. At what season of the year can our earthen roads be worked most advantageously?

II. Ought the same degree of dryness of the earth be required to work the roads that the farmer desires to make his fields mellow?

III. When are covered or tiled drains preferable to open drains?

IV. Would one tiled drain along the axis or centre of a road ever be preferable to two parallel ones on each side?

V. When can the scraper be used economically in grading a road? When the wheel-barrow? When the cart?

VI. In grading a hill, is it more economical to cut at once to the depth required and to fill at once to the height required or to do by partial cuttings and fillings?

Almost all of the courses in the 1860s were taught by one man: Professor DeVolson Wood. Wood also developed and offered courses on the resistance of materials, bridge construction, hydraulic motors, and the distribution of water in cities. Courses in military engineering were made available in 1862, but due to the Civil War no Army man was available to teach it – so Wood lectured on those subjects as well.

Classes in those days were held in old University Hall dorm rooms, heated by wood stoves with water supplied with pails.

By 1872, the year he resigned, Wood reported to the University regents on the state of engineering graduates, as follows:

“…. There are, at the present time as nearly as I can ascertain … 62 civil engineers, 11 professors or teachers, 2 in business, 2 farmers, 1 editor, 1 assistant in an observatory, 1 director of an observatory at Cincinnati, and 1, business unknown … one other was killed at the Battle of Shiloh.”

Wood left with student enrollment on the rise, and engineering instruction at Michigan was placed in the hands of a teaching triumvirate that guided its progress for the next 30 years: Professors Ezra Greene, James Davis, and Charles Denison.

Today, inside the walls of the Denison Arch, in the West Engineering Building on Central Campus, four bronze tablets attest to the great service and memory of founding instructor DeVolson Wood, and the trio of his successors who brought Michigan Engineering into the next century.

Portrait of Brad Whitehouse


Brad Whitehouse
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Michigan Engineering
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The outside of the Ford Robotics building

U-Michigan, Ford open world-class robotics complex

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