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Engineering Legacy: Chemical engineering celebrates 110 years

Three men talking in a group.

Chemical engineering alumnus Marty Rapp (pictured left), who has been assisting the Chemical Engineering Department with its 110th anniversary commemorations, talks with now-Professor Emeritus Truman Storvick (center) on Rapp’s graduation day in December 1981. Also pictured is CHE alum Pete Weigel, who graduated in 1982.

In the fall of 2013, the University of Missouri’s Chemical Engineering Department celebrates its 110th anniversary. At the request of Department Chairman Baolin Deng, chemical engineering Professor Emeritus Truman Storvick wrote a comprehensive history of the profession and it’s presence on the MU campus. The following brief history uses portions of Storvick’s document, as well as other sources to paint a picture of the department’s progress over the last century-plus at MU.

“It was 1870 when the General Assembly approved the formation of a College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts,” wrote chemical engineering Professor Emeritus Truman Storvick. “This action was consistent with the General Assembly wording in the legislation accepting Morrill Land Grant in 1863. In 1877, the School of Engineering was identified as separate from Agriculture but the School of Engineering remained in the College of Agriculture.”

The College of Engineering moved into its own building in 1893 but remained under the College of Agriculture administration. The Department of Chemical Engineering was established in 1903 with classes originally conducted by the staff of the Chemistry Department, Professor Herman Schlundt, chairman. In 1906 the College of Engineering was separated from the College of Agriculture.

“The history of chemical engineering education at the University of Missouri follows the development of chemical engineering practice as it has evolved over time,” Storvick continued. “Chemical engineering tended to be an intellectual orphan when compared to the other engineering disciplines. Managing the chemical changes required to produce a desired chemical product — fuels from petroleum, margarine from soy beans, polymer packaging  — is the chemical engineer’s task. The public generally understand roads, bridges, dams — civil engineering —  machines, diesel engines, railroad locomotives — mechanical engineering — electric power distribution lines, telephones, radios, etc — electrical engineering. It took awhile for chemical engineering to stake out its intellectual territory.

“Chemical manufacturing that became the domain of chemical engineering started with batch processes. The history of the German dye industry is an example,” Storvick wrote. “Today batch processing is still used to produce pharmaceuticals. One of the oldest batch processes converts grain or fruit to beverage alcohol. Today in the hills of Kentucky or West Virginia you can buy ‘corn,’ a clear liquid sold in pint or quart mason jars with no tax stamp attached.

“As we moved into the mid to late 1800s, demands for large quantities of selected chemicals demonstrated the inefficiency of batch processing. Ammonia that provided fixed nitrogen for fertilizer is an example. Fritz Haber, a German physical chemist was able to produce a few drops of liquid ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen on his laboratory bench. Carl Bosch, an industrial chemist developed the high-pressure equipment to continuously produce ammonia. Each won a Noble Prize for their work on the ammonia process. Modifications of this technology are used today. The fixed nitrogen in ammonia produced fertilizer by the ton and certainly was important for the production of explosives for German War efforts.”

In his 1941 book Engineering at the University of Missouri 1850-1940, Mendell P. Wienbach, an MU professor of electrical and computer engineering, wrote of chemical engineering, “This department was established in 1903 and originally conducted by the staff of the department of chemistry, headed by the late Herman Schlundt. The department had a slow growth but picked up rather rapidly in the years following the World War.”

In a letter from Engineering Dean E. J. McCaustland to University President A. Ross Hill, dated Oct. 21, 1920, McCaustland referenced an earlier letter, dated Nov. 25, 1918, in which he had written, “I desire to call attention to the great need of the School Engineering for a building suitable for its purposes. The Division is now scattered and housed in four different parts of the campus, the Agricultural Engineering and Chemical Engineering Departments at some distance from the Engineering Building and the Civil Engineering Department house in Switzler.”

In the same letter, McCaustland made a budget request for “the coming biennium,” in which he wrote, “Dr. Schlundt as representing the Department of Chemical Engineering, believes that we should make a beginning in some definite appropriation for Chemical Engineering laboratories. At the present time there is nothing of this sort nor is there, as I see it, a possibility of starting this work with our present restricted space for laboratories. If, however, a new power plant should be constructed, the old power house would lend itself admirably to the remodeling scheme for a laboratory of the chemical industries.” (Courtesy of University of Missouri Archives: C:9/1/2 Box 1)

According to Weinbach, in1910, engineering students’ degrees went from being generic bachelor’s degrees in engineering “to the respective professional degrees of CE, ME, EE and ChE.”

From 1938 to1949, Harry Curtis professor of chemical engineering, also served as engineering dean. Prior to coming to MU, he served as chief chemical engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for five years.

“Dr. F. Ellis Johnson, a chemical engineer was appointed dean of engineering in 1935,” wrote Storvick. “He served until the spring of 1938 when he resigned to take the position of dean at the University of Wisconsin. In October 1938, Dr. Harry Curtis was appointed dean of the College of Engineering and professor of chemical engineering. Curtis brought experience as chief chemical engineer of the TVA. He had served on the faculties of Colorado, Northwestern and Yale Universities. He was a member of the editorial board of McGraw-Hill, Inc., a major book publisher of chemical engineering technology. This appointment gave the university a shot of national visibility.”

In 1940, Weinbach wrote, “[Chemical engineering] is now one of the most active departments in the college, having four well-trained men who devote their entire time to teaching and research. The present curriculum is well planned to furnish a broad fundamental training in manufacturing processes of chemical products. The laboratory covering over 8,700 square feet of floor space, is well equipped with apparatus and measuring instruments for experimental studies by student and for research work.”

Weinbach went on to note, “Seventeen courses of graduate and undergraduate studies are offered by the department of chemical engineering in which, in addition to Dean Harry A. Curtis, we have James R. Lorah, associate professor, and Ralph H. Luebbers and David J. Porter, assistant professors. The studies in this department cover the design of equipment and the utilization of the fundamental processes used for mass production of chemical products.”

Huber O. Croft, a former College of Engineering dean, wrote a second history of the college. Published in 1968, A Brief History of the College of Engineering covers the history of the college from 1940-1967, noting some of the following key events:1947 — Student chapter of AIChE was formed

  • 1949 — Harry Curtis resigned to become vice chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority by appointment from President Franklin D.  Roosevelt.
  • 1955 — Frank Oldham, chemical engineering chairman, died.
  • 1956 — Gerhard Beyer became the chemical engineering chairman.
  • 1957 — Chemical engineering portions of labs completed.
  • “In 1958,” Storvick wrote, “the General Assembly approved $1.25 million to build a nuclear reactor at the University campus.
  • 1960 — Dean H. O. Croft recruited A. H. Emmons to be director of the nuclear reactor project and placed him in the Chemical Engineering Department as he got the project underway.
  • “Dr. Emmons proceeded quickly to design a nuclear reactor that would provide a source of neutrons for multiples tasks. Neutron beams would be available for neutron scattering to study the structure of solids, sample radiation to produce radioisotopes for medical diagnosis and treatment, neutron activation to determine composition of material samples, etc. The design generated interest to win federal and private funding of $3.5 million for the reactor and supporting laboratories,” wrote Storvick.
  • 1964 — George W. Preckshot joined the department as chairman.
  • 1988 — Hirotsugu K. Yasuda joined the department as chairman.
  • 1990 — Dabir Viswanath was named department chairman.
  • 1997 — Sunggyu “KB” Lee was named department chairman.
  • 2005 — Jinglu Tan joined the department as interim chairman.
  • 2007 — John Gahl joined the department as interim chairman.
  • 2009 — Baolin Deng joined the department as chairman.