How It All Began

Werner Goldsmith's History Traces the Growth, Development of
the Department of Mechanical Engineering

by Jean Ann Smith

The Department of Mechanical Engineering celebrates its 125th anniversary in fine style with the publication of Prof. Werner Goldsmith's history, "Mechanical Engineering at Berkeley: The First 125 Years."

Goldsmith, a member of the department since 1947, is a specialist in the field of impact phenomena. For his studies of the impact effectiveness of baseball helmets, he designed his own "baseball gun" to explore the safey of plastic batting helmets against such blazing fastballers as Randy Johnson and former major leaguer Nolan Ryan.

Recipient of many honors, including membership in the National Academy of Engineers, the Berkeley Citation, a Fulbright and a Guggenheim award, Goldsmith recently became an honorary member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

"It was important to me to write this book, for it is important for any organization to have a history," he said.

Former department chair Iain Finnie asked Goldsmith to publish such a book. He worked on it for 10 months, spending 12 hours a day doing research in the archives. "But it lay fallow for 10 years until last year," said Goldsmith.

The book, concise and well-researched, documents the depart-ment's humble beginning as the College of Mechanics, created with the founding of the university in 1868.

Early on, the college caused university founders concern when no one signed up for classes in its first year of operation. Accordingly, the Board of Trustees recommended that the college be moved to San Francisco, then a more central and heavily populated area, but vigorous protest was raised at this idea. Finally, a preparatory fifth class was added to the Berkeley program and a course of technical lectures was begun.

Professor Hesse

The engineering curriculum was developed in 1875 by Prof. Friedrich Godfrey Hesse, the true father of the College of Mechanics and the Department of Mechanical Engineering into which it evolved. A Prussian immigrant, Hesse was hired by the regents in 1875 for $200 a month. No shops or laboratories were available to him, so he taught his few students solely by lecture. Most students were so poorly prepared they needed remedial instruction and, since there were so few of them, Hesse knew them both personally and professionally.

Hesse was known to make mistakes on the blackboard, and when students would point them out, he would erase the offending mark and mutter, "Ach, I vipe it all out."

Thus a tradition was born: When a student wanted to begin anew, the phrase was repeated.

The Department Takes Shape

In 1885, the university catalog referred to a Department of Mechanical Engineering for the first time. Still, the entire program, including free-hand and instrumental drawing, was not united for many years. This may have been a happy coincidence, since prospective mechanical engineers were taught instrumental drawing from none other than renowned architect Bernard Maybeck.

By 1897, the department assumed responsibility for all courses in machine drawing and descriptive geometry, with only a few courses falling under the purview of the Department of Art.

The Post-War Years

From 1910 to 1931, the college experienced slow but steady growth. However, after World War II, the return of veterans produced dramatic changes.

Thanks to an enormous amount of war research, huge gains had been made in the field and the veterans were eager to learn.

The department was not ready for the deluge of students returning to college and was ill-prepared for enrollment to jump from 400 in 1944 to 1,120 in 1947. Classes were conducted around the clock and on Saturdays.

Unless additional faculty and space resources were allotted to the department, Dean Morrough O'Brien wrote to the university administration, faculty would no longer be able to do their jobs. Relief was provided in the form of additional faculty positions, the Hesse Hall addition and a number of temporary buildings.

Modern Times

Few people realize that once upon a time, one could watch simulated waves roll up College Avenue as the department operated its Wave Tank in an abandoned swimming pool adjoining the street. Heat transfer became a strong aspect of the Mechanical Engineering curriculum, resulting in NASA using Berkeley research to protect its space shuttles upon atmospheric re-entry.

Former chancellor Chang-Lin Tien chaired the department in the 1970s, as did current Vice Chancellor for University Relations C. Daniel Mote.

In 1958, the College of Engineering was established, uniting various units, including mechanical engineering. In the 1960s, mechanical engineering acquired Etcheverry Hall and several field sites. By the 1980s, the department occupied two major campus buildings and had facilities at the Richmond Field Station. Consistently ranking in the top three (along with MIT and Harvard), the department today is world-renowned.

"Mechanical Engineering at Berkeley: The First 125 Years" may be purchased through the MEIA Office, Department of Mechanical Engineering, 5118 Etcheverry Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-1740. Students, faculty and staff may purchase the 153-page hardcover book for $18.50; the regular price is $25. Add $1.53 for domestic library-rate shipping or $3 for overseas surface mail. Make checks payable to the UC Regents.



Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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