Robert Henry Thurston: Professionalism and Engineering Education

By Nienkamp, Paul | American Educational History Journal, Annual 2016 | Go to article overview

Robert Henry Thurston: Professionalism and Engineering Education


Nienkamp, Paul, American Educational History Journal


Robert Henry Thurston provides one the most significant examples of professionalizing engineering through innovative education and promoting scientific education practices in the late nineteenth century. The son of a draftsmen and steam engine mechanic, Thurston spent his early years in Providence, Rhode Island. His family assumed he would become an apprentice in the steam engine company his father acquired in 1838. A high school science teacher encouraged him to apply to Brown University, where he began his freshmen year in 1856, at the age of sixteen. After encountering quite disappointing experiences in his mathematics and science courses while at Brown, Thurston focused his professional career on advancing and professionalizing engineering and engineering education the rest of his life.

After a short stint in the U.S. Navy as a steam-engine mechanic during the Civil War, Thurston served out his enlistment as an instructor for the Naval Academy from 1866 to 1871, and worked at the Stevens Institute of Technology from 1871 to 1885 as the chair of engineering. He spent the rest of his career, from 1885 to 1903, as the director of Cornell's Sibley College and professor of mechanical engineering. (Durand 1929) Thurston spent his entire professional career from, 1861 to 1903, writing and publishing hundreds of articles on mechanical, material, and steam engineering. He developed and implemented laboratory techniques that influenced every field of engineering and how colleges trained their students. He also published dozens of articles on how engineers should be trained and educated. At three different colleges, Thurston established advanced engineering departments and programs. He worked with fellow engineers and professors to promote specialized fields of engineering by helping to found the American Society for Mechanical Engineering (ASME), the American Institute of Mechanical Engineers (AIME), and the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education (SPEE), now called the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). Yet, Robert Thurston is little known outside the fields of mechanical engineering or focused histories of engineering education.

Thurston had a career emblematic of the nature of education in the second half of the nineteenth century. His development of scientific laboratory work that supported classroom based learning replaced basic shop-work and manual labor that most engineering students experienced prior to the 1870s. He studied advancements in European instruction and diligently adhered to the concepts of professional conduct, training, and experience based on the expectations of practicing engineers. He translated European scientific papers into English, such as the French works of Nicholas Carnot on Thermodynamics, so that his own students could replicate experiments and expand on them in the laboratories he established. He also submitted his own manuscripts for publication in journals such as Transactions of the British Institution of Civil Engineers, Bulletin de la Societe d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie, Societe des Ingenieurs, Revue de Mecanique, and Dingler's Polytechnischen Journal (Durand 1929, 245-287). Thurston's philosophy of combining theoretical science with technical laboratory experience directly influenced the national growth of scientific engineering schools and land-grant colleges after the Civil War, where new college faculty trained American engineers for American industry.

William F. Durand wrote the sole biography of Thurston in 1929. Since then, a small handful of historians have mentioned him in their broader studies of engineering in America. Monte Calvert included a very brief summary of his career and contributions to steam engineering in his 1967 examination of mechanical engineering in America from 1830-1910. Bruce Sinclair included some of his scientific work and laboratory advancements in his centennial history of the American Society for Mechanical Engineering (ASME) in 1980. …

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