Early Engineering Education at Union

Union College

Image from the Picture file (SCA-1026), Courtesy of Special Collections, Schaffer Library, Union College.

A view of Union College, taken between 1877 and 1883


Union was the first liberal arts college to offer engineering in the United States. Throughout its history, the discipline of engineering has been an important influence on shaping the College’s reputation as a partner in modern science and technology.

According to a manuscript written by Professor Mortimer F. Sayre (1885-1973), the first evidence of engineering in the curriculum appeared in 1802. Several scientific subjects were taught, including a required course on Surveying, Mensuration, and Navigation. In 1810, Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler (1770-1843) became a member of the faculty. A gifted surveyor and mathematician, he helped steer the curriculum in a more scientific direction. By 1824, around 40 percent of the required subjects beyond freshman year were scientific or mathematical in nature. In 1828, Union offered a formalized version of the Scientific Course which included classes on calculus, mechanics, electricity and other topics recognized today as engineering.[1]


Ezra Ames, Portrait of Eliphalet Nott, 1820, courtesy of the Union College Permanent Collection.

President Eliphalet Nott


President Eliphalet Nott (1773-1866) was the main mover behind engineering at Union College. Nott was the Preisdent at both Rensselaer Institute (now RPI) and Union College. After witnessing the enormous potential that it brought to the Institute, he resigned in 1845 to focus solely on his presidency at Union College. One of his first actions was to hire William Gillespie (1816-1868) to begin teaching Civil Engineering.

[1] "Early Engineering at Union College," undated, Mortimer F. Sayre papers (SCA-0135), Box 1, Folder 12.

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