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Engineering legacy: MU Engineering flourishes under first dean

Black and white photo of a man.

Thomas Jefferson Lowry graduated from MU in 1870 and served as the first MU Engineering dean from 1877-1893. Photo courtesy of University Archives, University of Missouri at Columbia C:9/00/1

In its 10th year, the University of Missouri became the first educational institution west of the Mississippi River to offer an engineering course. In 1849, acting MU President William Wilson Hudson taught “Surveying, Levelling [sic] and Classical Topography,” — and also served as chair of astronomy and natural history.

At the curator’s meeting in July 1856, engineering received a boost on campus when Hudson was named chair of civil engineering. Coursework consisted primarily of land surveying and topographical drawing, and because engineering was a little too “practical” for the classical interpretation of higher education — instruction occurred under the highbrow title of “mechanical philosophy” — Hudson’s position was short-lived.

MU Curators eventually established departments of civil and military engineering in 1868 offering a degree in civil engineering with a fully developed curriculum. In 1870, the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts included a department known as the School of Engineering.

Little additional progress was realized in engineering’s status on campus and as late as 1876, no engineering-specific faculty were on university’s roster, with civil engineering classes being taught by faculty from other areas.

In the 1877-1878 academic year, engineering officially stood on its own when MU alumnus Thomas Jefferson Lowry was named Engineering Dean. An 1870 graduate, Lowry was serving as an officer with the U.S. Coast Survey prior to being offered the position. According to a story that appeared in The New York Times in 1891, when Lowry was told the salary for his new position was inadequate, he replied, “That’s all right, gentlemen; my heart is in the cause, my soul is in the work of building but the exact arts in this my Alma Mater, in this my native State. Pay only my board. I will teach here one year, will inaugurate engineering, and give it an impetus irresistible.”

The article went on to describe Dean Lowry as “a little nervous individual, as homely as he is brainy,” adding, “A fringe of red whiskers … form an appropriate setting for blue eyes that sparkle whether the owner is talking politics or elucidating intricate engineering problems.”

Under Lowry’s leadership, prominent engineers were invited to speak to students at the college, giving them ideas and information about the “practice” of engineering. The first was Capt. James B. Eads of St. Louis bridge fame.

A physics faculty member who joined the college in 1880, Benjamin E. Thomas, introduced electrical applications into the curriculum, and in the spring of 1882, Thomas Edison donated a dynamo and some incandescent lamps to the College of Engineering, resulting in a demonstration of electric lighting to university curators in 1883.

The number of students taking physics more than doubled the following year and in 1885, MU established a Department of Electrical Engineering, only three years after the first of its kind was initiated at MIT, though it was still led by physics faculty.

Twenty years after it was initiated, little organization had occurred in the department of mechanic arts, housed within the College of Agriculture, primarily because there was no clear definition of what should be offered. But that changed in 1891, at the urging of the newly-elected president of the university, Richard Jesse. MU curators appointed C.W. Marx, a mechanical engineer who knew his way around a shop, the superintendent of the newly created School of Mechanic Arts and installed the new program in the basement of the main university building.

Students studied classics on the upper floors and took measurements, hammered and sawed away in the basement — until fire destroyed almost everything but the building’s columns on Jan. 9, 1891.

The following year, six new buildings, including engineering and mechanic arts buildings, rose up from the ashes and at the suggestion of Marx, and a Department of Mechanical Engineering was established with a full-time chairman.

Just as civil, electrical and mechanical engineering joined forces to form the College of Engineering in the fall of 1893, Dean Lowry retired, followed by the decision to place the new college back under the purview of the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, where it remained for the next 10 years. There are those who maintain that had Lowry stayed, this shift in identity may not have occurred.

From 1877 until his retirement in 1893, Lowry was true to his word, “inaugurating engineering, and giving it an impetus irresistible.” His tireless efforts laid the groundwork for engineering’s presence on the MU campus.