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Sibley School History

25-Engineering-crop-smaller2Cornell University was founded in 1865 and opened in 1868, with the discipline of Engineering a part of Cornell from the beginning. The choices then were either Mechanic Arts, which was basically machine training, or Civil Engineering. Lack of equipment was a major hardship during the first several years. It has been said the trustees were reluctant to purchase equipment, a much greater expense than the textbooks used in most other courses. Relief came to the school in 1870 when Hiram Sibley, a wealthy businessman from Rochester, New York and one of the original trustees of Cornell University, provided funding to erect a building and otherwise support the program.

The building, Sibley Hall, housed the newly established Sibley College of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanic Arts. Hiram Sibley continued to donate gifts (in the neighborhood of $180,000) to develop and expand the program, and after his death in 1888, contributions to the college were continued by his son, Hiram W. Sibley. An 1874 portrait of Hiram Sibley, painted in Rome in 1874, is displayed in the lounge of the Sibley School as a tribute to the original benefactor of mechanical engineering.

The Sibley College of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanic Arts offered students a four-year curriculum leading to a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. The facilities in Sibley Hall included lecture rooms, drawing rooms and college museums. There were also workshops consisting of a wood working shop, machine shop, blacksmith shop, a foundry, an extensive mechanical laboratory, and the “dynamo room”, where all experimental work in the testing of dynamo-electric machinery was performed. Many of these shops and facilities were featured in the October 17, 1885 issue of “Scientific American”, including the museum room in which the Reuleaux mechanisms, were displayed. This extraordinary collection, purchased in 1882 by Andrew Dickson White (with $8,000 from Hiram Sibley) was named an “ASME Mechanical Engineering Heritage Collection” at a dedication ceremony in December 2004. The models are on display in the Baum Atrium of Duffield Hall and the 1st and 2nd floors of Upson. Duffield Hall is the most recently finished building on campus, competed in 2004 and connected to Upson Hall’s north wing on the 1st and 2nd floors.

By 1885 engineering education was rapidly evolving with advancements in technology. Andrew White decided it was time the College had dedicated leadership and appointed Robert H. Thurston as the first Director of the Sibley College. In the 18 years of his directorship Thurston reorganized mechanical engineering, increased the program from 63 to 885 degree candidates, and took over electrical engineering from physics, making it a separate department in 1889 -- the first electrical engineering department in the country. Thurston’s successful directorship continued until his unexpected death in 1903. His successor was Albert (“Uncle Pete”) Smith.

In 1919 the Sibley College merged with the College of Civil Engineering to create a College of Engineering. Until that time electrical engineering, industrial engineering, and materials engineering were all departments within mechanical engineering and mechanic arts. The College of Engineering moved to the south end of campus in the 1940s. With the division of departments into separate areas within engineering, Sibley College was renamed the Sibley School of Mechanical Engineering and moved to its current location in Upson Hall.

A College reorganization in 1972 led to the merger of the Sibley College of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics Arts with the Graduate School of Aeronautical Engineering, forming the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. The former Graduate School of Aeronautical Engineering, founded and directed by William R. Sears, was already adjacent to Upson Hall in Grumman Hall, built in 1959 with a donation from LeRoy Grumman. The two areas of concentration remain combined today, with the Bachelor’s degree awarded in Mechanical Engineering.

Today, the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering has classrooms, instructional and research laboratories, offices, and a machining lab in the first three floors of Upson and Grumman Halls, and the first two floors of Rhodes Hall. Study and research include aeroacoustics, aerodynamics, computational fluid dynamics, turbulence, vortex dynamics, multiphase and granular flows, heat and mass transfer, combustion and pollution, nonlinear dynamics, computational mechanics, materials synthesis and processing, biotechnology, mechanics of biological materials, neuromuscular systems, nano- and microscale engineering, microfluidics solid mechanics, rapid prototyping, robotics, satellite systems, sensors and actuators, and tissue engineering.

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is one of 12 major disciplines in the College of Engineering. Students choose from Applied and Engineering Physics, Biological and Environmental Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Computer Science, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Operations Research and Industrial Engineering, or Theoretical and Applied Mechanics. The study of engineering is increasingly cross-disciplinary as we continue to develop and teach new ideas along with a solid foundation in what began as mechanic arts.