Mechanical Engineering

Mortimer Sayre

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

Professor Mortimer Sayre instructing a student


Though the official program did not begin until the early 1950s, mechanical engineering has a much longer history at Union. Students took classes on steam engines and other mechanical engineering topics as far back as the 1860s. By the early 1880s, engineering drawing was renamed Mechanical Engineering and taught by Professor Ira N. Hollis (1856-1930). As its own discipline, mechanical engineering first appeared in 1903 when Charles Steinmetz incorporated topics of machinery in his electrical engineering course. In 1904, Harold W. Mansfield (1880-1961) joined the department with the title of Instructor in Mechanical Engineering and his teaching included lectures on turbines, hydraulics and steam engine theory. Mortimer Sayre, who joined the faculty in 1914, would later champion the establishment of a separate Mechanical Engineering Department. In the late 1920s, a trustee committee considered the proposal but the economic realities of the Great Depression put a stop to the idea. In 1929, John Nicholas Vedder (1873-1936) was moved from the Electrical Engineering Department to a newly established Department of Mechanics and Thermodynamics. However, the department did not survive his death.

Mechanical Engineering Professors

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

Professors gather to discuss a joint project


In 1941, President Dixon Ryan Fox (1887-1945) asked trustee chairman Walter C. Baker (1868-1955) to head a committee to evaluate engineering at Union. A report was produced which endorsed the idea of replacing civil engineering with mechanical. After an initial surge in student enrollment supported by the GI Bill, the late 1940s saw administrative concerns over the future of the College. As in other times when enrollment was down and funding stretched, a new engineering program provided an opportunity the College sorely needed. Despite pushback from the Civil Engineering Department, administration moved forward with a budget proposal based off of Sayre’s draft for the creation of a new Mechanical Engineering Department in 1951. The proposal received the blessings of the Engineers Council for Professional Development (ECPD) and engineers at GE. After the faculty-administration committee approved the decision, classes began in 1952.

Mechanical Engineering Lab

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

Students hone their craft in the lab


The feasibility of the program was secured through a grant from ALCO and a substantial gift from the GE Education Fund, a large portion of which was used for the purchase of equipment and for construction. Classrooms and faculty offices were placed within the General Engineering Building until the construction of the Science and Engineering Center in 1971. The initial faculty for the department consisted of Professors Mortimer Sayre (serving as chair), Walter Lowen (1921-2006) and Walter Mathias. The curriculum was accredited in 1957. [1]

[1] Somers, 482-486.

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