The history of the seas undergraduate thesis

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the history of the seas undergraduate thesis

This module provides a brief history of the SEAS undergraduate thesis and places that history in the larger context of engineering education in America. It explains the rationale behind the requirement; how the thesis has evolved; and why SEAS is, in some respects, unlike any other engineering school.

When you receive your engineering degree, you will follow in footsteps of young men and women who, for more than a century, have done exactly what you will do: Present a “graduating thesis” to the faculty of the School. This well-blazed trail has deep and meaningful roots in the past, but it leads to the future — a future you will be uniquely empowered to build.

Engineering instruction before the Civil War

During the antebellum years, most American colleges and universities focused on teaching the classics, including the Greek and Latin languages and literatures. The notion that higher education ought to address more practical matters was slow to gain acceptance at most of them. An exception was the University of Virginia, whose founder, Thomas Jefferson, included engineering in his vision for the new institution.

Soon after the University opened its doors in 1825, instruction in civil engineering was included in science courses. In 1833, Professor Charles Bonnycastle offered one of the first civil engineering courses to be taught as part of the regular curriculum in any American university. Beginning in 1836, Virginia was among the first universities to offer “partial” curricula in engineering. These were one- or two-year courses of studies designed for students who were not interested in earning a bachelor of arts degree (Reynolds, 1992).

To provide the “partial” engineering programs, a School of Civil Engineering was founded in 1836. But there was little need for civil engineers in Virginia’s predominantly agrarian economy. Worse, the following year saw the beginning of a crippling depression that would last well into the 1840s. Few students attended, and even fewer received certificates — a total of 19. Although the School of Engineering remained in existence until 1861, by the 1850s the university’s catalog failed to mention this fact and the program appears to have been suspended (Bruce, 1921).

Among those observing the general disinterest in engineering was a professor of natural philosophy named William Barton Rogers (1804-1882), the famed founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Rogers joined the Virginia faculty in 1835. All the evidence indicates that it was during his Virginia years that Rogers developed the ideas that later defined MIT’s pioneering curriculum (Reynolds, 1992).

Rogers’ years at the University of Virginia were not among his happiest. He missed his family in Boston. Among the students were more than a few roughnecks, one of whom brandished a loaded pistol in front of his face. Worse, he knew that Virginia could not then support his ideas for a new, polytechnical university. From Rogers’ perspective, slavery was responsible for a long series of ills, including holding back the development of industry and creating an environment hostile to science (Angulo, 2005). In 1853, with no job awaiting him elsewhere, Rogers resigned his professorship and moved to Boston, where his brothers had long hoped to lure him. His students and colleagues observed his departure with deep regret.

Leopold J. Boeck and the rebirth of Virginia engineering, 1867-1875

The catalyst for establishing a permanent engineering curriculum at the University was the Civil War, which left the South’s infrastructure in ruins. The University led the way to renewal by developing one of the nation’s first engineering programs. In the decades to follow, Virginia’s engineering program would lead the state of Virginia, as President Alderman put it in 1916, from a “medieval agriculturalism” to “modern, democratic industrialism” (Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, 1916, p. 16).

In the 1860s and 1870s, German universities led the way in science and engineering. To jump-start the engineering curriculum, the University recruited a “singular genius” (Barringer, 1949, p. 204): a Polish immigrant named Leopold J. Boeck (1822-1896), who held a doctoral degree from a German university. Boeck had taught applied mathematics at the Sorbonne. Prior to the Civil War, he founded a pioneering technical institute in New York City (“Professor Leopold J. Boeck,” 1896). A veteran of revolutions in eastern Europe and the salons of Paris, Boeck spoke “at least six to eight languages” fluently (Culbreth, 1908, p. 443). Under Boeck’s leadership, the School of Applied Mathematics, Engineering, and Architecture first offered instruction in 1867.

Boeck’s abstract and highly theoretical approach to engineering did not sit well with some of his students, however. Although they respected him as a “man of great learning,” they nevertheless felt that he “fell short of being the useful and practical teacher” they needed (Culbreth, 1908, p. 443). By 1874, various complaints regarding Boeck — including his failure to return library books on time — had reached the Board of Visitors, which appointed a committee to look into the matter. In the following year, the committee reported that Boeck’s continued presence on the faculty was “not in the University’s best interests,” although no specific allegation was made. Boeck resigned in a huff. He moved to Philadelphia, where he taught engineering courses at the University of Pennsylvania until his death in 1896.

William M. Thornton and the rise of the School of Engineering (1875-1930)

To fill Boeck’s position, the University recruited a recent graduate and distinguished pupil of the University’s most highly regarded professor, Charles S. Venable: William M. Thornton (1851-1935), then a professor of Greek at Davidson College.

Thus began a brilliant career that saw the rapid expansion of Virginia’s engineering program. Indeed, from the time of his return to Virginia in 1875, Thornton was “in a large sense the School of Engineering” (Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, 1916, p. 344). Under Thornton’s leadership, the School acquired a national reputation and strongly influenced engineering instruction throughout the nation.

William M. Thornton
Source: (Missouri Bar Association, 1913, p. 125).

Thornton fully understood the limitations of Boeck’s abstract, impractical curriculum. As soon as he could persuade the Board of Visitors to appropriate the necessary funds, Thornton supplemented the “older discipline of books, lectures, computation, and drawings” with “knowledge of a practical and positive sort.” The engineering student, Thornton believed,

must, in the chemical laboratory, learn to determine the qualities of his building materials, fuels, ores, and water supplies, and in the mechanical laboratory, their strength, heaviness, toughness, and so on; and also learn to test the qualities of steam, the performance of engines, boilers, furnaces, pumps, and dynamos. In the geological laboratory, he must find out the gross and microscopical structure of minerals and rocks; and in the physical laboratory, learn to measure the amounts, etc., of electrical, magnetic action, and the transmission of light, heat, and sound (cited in Bruce, 1922, p. 18).

The “Graduating Thesis” assignment (1904)

Recognizing Thornton’s extraordinary dedication and his many accomplishments, the University named him Dean of Engineering in 1904. One of Dean Thornton’s first actions was to require a “graduating thesis.” The University Catalogue of 1904-1905 described the new thesis requirement:

Every candidate for a degree in Engineering will be required at the beginning of his graduating year to submit to the Dean some subject for independent study suited to the student’s especial course and aims. After such subject has been approved by the Dean and the Professor in charge, the student will be expected to carry out for himself the necessary literary and laboratory researches and to present his results in the form of a Graduating Thesis. Such thesis must be typewritten on standard sheets, 8 by 10 ½ inches, bound in a proper cover, and handed in for final approval not later than May 25. All necessary computations and drawings must accompany the thesis. Serious weight will be given to this work in estimating the student’s fitness for graduation (pp. 226-227).

The idea of a graduating thesis was hardly new. Indeed, in the 1890s, nearly every engineering school in the nation required one. What is remarkable about Thornton’s thesis requirement is that it almost audaciously bucked a national trend: Everywhere, it seemed, engineering faculty were dissatisfied with the graduating thesis, and many schools had already dropped the requirement. The reason, as a faculty committee at the University of Wisconsin was later to learn, lay in a widespread misconception of the role an undergraduate thesis ought to play. What should have been an opportunity for mentoring was understood as an examination, in which the student was forced to work alone and with very little guidance.

Why did other engineering schools end their use of the undergraduate thesis?

Most engineering schools saw the graduating thesis as a test of the student’s mastery of the material: therefore, the student was to be “thrown on his own resources” to see whether he could produce “definite results,” in spite of the absence of supervision. The thesis was viewed, in short, as a “trial of strength and a measure of character” (Esty, 1902, pp. 1163-4).

Considering that students received little or no supervision, but were simply turned loose in the library, it is hardly surprising that students frequently failed to produce “definite results.” In consequence, the typical graduating thesis was, as the author of an article on the subject politely put it, “a most variable piece of work” (Norris, 1904).

For their part, students looked on the graduating thesis with “distaste and dissatisfaction,” in part because they so often failed to produce results “commensurate with the effort expended” (Karapetoff, 1917, p. 1525). Not inclined to mince words, the dean of the engineering school at Syracuse University described the typical senior thesis as “farcical” (Shepard, 1911, p. 188). Syracuse soon abandoned the requirement. By 1915, about half of the engineering schools in the nation had followed suit.

Still, support for the thesis requirement remained strong where it was properly conceptualized: specifically, as a beneficial educational experience rather than as a test of the student’s mastery. In these schools, the thesis supervisor maintained close contact with the work, ensuring that the student did not waste his time or acquire “false impressions” as the result of his work. To be sure, care was taken to avoid supervising the student too closely, to avoid the danger of making the thesis a “mere echo of the instructor’s ideas” (Van Hagan, L. F., 1915, pp. 118-9). From this point of view, what mattered was not whether the student came up with “definite results,” let alone original findings, but rather whether the educational experience had been beneficial.

Thornton’s graduating thesis falls into the latter category. It was a mentored, supervised, and designed to provide a beneficial educational experience. But in many respects it was unlike comparable projects at other schools, to an extent that can best be grasped by understanding Thornton’s vision of the undergraduate engineering curriculum.

An engineering curriculum modeled on schools of law

Thornton saw the thesis as one component in a broader series of activities and experiences that was designed to build students’ communication skills and, at the same time, impart an awareness and appreciation for culture. These exercises were expressly modeled on the law curriculum:

I look... to our law school, in which the students are trained in oral discussion of legal problems, in preparation of written briefs, and in the technique of public speaking; whose graduates easily and swiftly press forward to the front ranks of the legal profession and to the high seats of political life....

To emulate the law curriculum within engineering successfully, Thornton believed, the engineering faculty had to become actively engaged in mentoring the students’ writing and speaking skills. This could best be done, he believed, by engaging undergraduate engineering students in debate, discussion, and writing involving engineering materials.

Attesting to Thornton’s interest in emulating the law curriculum was the Conference Club, which was introduced at the same time as the thesis project and comprised an integral part of the thesis experience. All juniors, seniors, and faculty automatically belonged to this “club,” which met once per week. Seniors kicked off the meetings by discussing the progress they had made on their thesis projects and the problems they had encountered; other students and faculty provided commentary, suggestions, and criticism. The juniors in attendance undoubtedly learned a great deal by observing the give-and-take. Some of the student presentations would have involved teams, for Thornton expressly encouraged students to collaborate on their thesis projects if they shared a common interest.

Although other engineering schools were quick to imitate many of Thornton’s innovations, the “great mass” of engineering schools did not emulate Thornton’s method of teaching speaking and writing skills, as Thornton conceded in a 1916 speech to the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, which held its annual conference that year in Charlottesville (Thornton, 1916). “We are in a small minority.”

The same could be said today. Few engineering schools support an entire department of scholars who have made career commitments to the study of science, technology, and society from the viewpoints of the humanities and social sciences, as does Virginia Engineering. Devoted to teaching small classes and engaging them in debate and discussion, the STS program’s faculty are carrying out precisely the vision formulated by Thornton more than a century ago: To bring the benefits of a law school’s communication-intensive curriculum to engineering education. That these benefits have paid off for generations of Virginia Engineering students is affirmed by the School’s long-standing reputation for graduating students with outstanding communication skills.

Bringing liberal arts Instruction within the fold of the School, 1918-1927

Most engineering schools of the early 20th century sent their students off to the humanities in order to learn speaking and writing skills — and they still do today. But the results, Thornton believed, were disastrous. Thornton’s views on the role of the humanities in engineering education led him to support positions within the School of faculty specializing in the history, literature, and sociology of engineering and technology. The Science, Technology, and Society program is the living embodiment of Thornton’s vision.

In the early 20th century, the inability of engineering graduates to “write with clarity” and “speak with force,” Thornton observed, was approaching the dimensions of a scandal, resulting in “caustic comments” and “admonitions addressed to our colleges” to do something about the problem. Yet when engineering students enrolled in humanities courses, their instructors required them to emulate “those weak broths of English literature, those tenuous emulsions of political history, [and] those dry-as-dust post toasties of economics.” Until Thornton could be shown good results from these works, which were “dished out... as if they were the fruits of life,” he would continue “to doubt the nutritive value of these breakfast foods of the technological banquet” (1916, p. 20). Let the engineering faculty mentor the students in their writing and speaking skills, Thornton urged, and draw materials for debate, discussion, and emulation from the engineering literature.

Thornton knew that most humanities professors would scoff at the idea that the engineering literature could provide suitable materials for discussion, let alone emulation. Yet Thornton strongly disagreed:

There is, I am persuaded, as much cultural value in a carefully studied and conscientiously prepared report on an engineering project as in any legal brief or medical essay. The very history of engineering is full of romance, full of interest, full of inspiration.

In 1918, the University Catalogue announced a new, required course in English for engineering students, which included a unit on literature. But the literature in question was not to be the “weak broths” and “tenuous emulsions” offered in the College, but rather “prose literature about science.”

At first, Thornton had trouble finding faculty capable of teaching the new course. Faculty trained in English simply were not interested in works about the history of technology, biographies of engineers, and studies of the role of technology in society. Moreover, Thornton had been hiring instructors on a part-time, temporary basis, which gave them little incentive to develop a career interest in the engineering literature. By the mid-1930s, Thornton had decided that the problem could not be solved unless the School hired permanent, full-time faculty from the humanities and social sciences, providing them with the incentive to focus their work on engineering and its literature.

Origin of the Science, Technology, and Society Program

In 1936, Joseph L. Vaughan (1905-1999), a graduate of Virginia’s English department, accepted a position within the School in order to implement Thornton’s vision for an engineering-oriented liberal arts curriculum within the School. Vaughan was hired as a full voting member of the School’s faculty and became the head of a humanities and social science faculty within engineering.

Beloved by his students, Vaughan touched the lives of whole generations of Virginia engineering students. Among the many students of Joe’s who went on to great distinction was Thomas Parke Hughes (1923-2014), who received a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1946. Hughes’ story may surprise you, because it shows that the fields in which most STS Department faculty specialize — science & technology studies and the history of technology — are themselves partly the product of Thornton’s vision.

Hughes took Thornton’s views concerning the romance, interest, and inspiration of literature on the lives of the great engineers quite seriously — so much so, in fact, that he decided to enroll in the University of Virginia’s history program, from which he received a Ph.D. in 1953.

Appointed to a faculty position in the University of Pennsylvania’s history and sociology of science and technology program, Hughes won an international reputation for his work on inventors such as Edison and Sperry. He was among the co-founders of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) in 1959. But he also played a very important role in the formation of a new research area called science & technology studies (S&TS). In 1986, he co-edited a book that is today regarded as perhaps the single most important foundational work in the early years of S&TS, The Social Construction of Technological Systems (MIT, 1986).

Hughes’ acclaimed works should put to rest any remaining doubts concerning Thornton’s views concerning the literature on engineering. In 1990, his retelling of 20th century American history from the perspective of a technology studies scholar, American Genesis (MIT, 1989), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reviewers called the work “masterful” and “stimulating.” Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Adam Wishart called Hughes’ latest book, The Human-Built World (Chicago, 2004), an “incisively rendered and engaging history of humanity’s relationship to technology.... A timely and urgent book.”

Tom has retired from active teaching, but his intellectual legacy lives on within the STS Department, thanks to the interest he took in our program and the presence among us of one of his Ph.D. students, Professor W. Bernard Carlson, who currently serves as chair of the Department of Engineering and Society.

The “Conference Club” today

Law students are quite garrulous in discussion classes, and for good reason: Unless they can express themselves clearly, their chances for success and contribution are very limited. The same could be said of U.S. engineering graduates.

So take full advantage of the living descendent of Thornton’s Conference Club: your STS 4500 and 4600 sections. These classes are kept as small as possible to promote lively discussion. Make the most of the year.


Angulo, A. J. (2005). William Barton Rogers and the Southern Sieve: Revisiting Science, Slavery, and Higher Learning in the Old South. History of Education Quarterly, 45(1), 18-37.

Barringer, P. B. (1949). The Natural Bent: The Memoirs of Dr. Paul B. Barringer. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Bruce, P. A. (1921). History of the University of Virginia, 1819-1919. The Lengthened Shadow of One Man. New York: MacMillan.

Culbreth, D. (1908). The University of Virginia: Memories of Her Student Life and Professors. New York: Neale Publishing Co.

Esty, W. (1902). Electrical engineering courses at college and the education of the electrical engineer. Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 19, 1155-1164.

Karapetoff , V. (1917). Suggestions for electrical research in engineering colleges. Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 35, 895-903.

Norris, H. H. (1904). The engineering thesis. Sibley Journal of Engineering, 18, 199-201.

Reynolds, T. S. (1992). The education of engineers in American before the Morrill Act of 1862. History of Education Quarterly, 32(4), 459-482.

Shepard, G. (1911). Notes on the German technical Unversities. In Talbot, A.N., Munroe, H. S., & Norris, H. H. (Eds.), Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, Proceedings of the Eighteenth Annual Meeting (Madison, WI, June 23-25, 1910), 167-201.

Thornton, W. (1916). Address of welcome. Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, June 19-22, 1916(Vol. 24). Pittsburgh, PA: Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education.

University of Virginia. (1896). “Professor Leopold J. Boeck.” Alumni Bulletin, 3(1), 17-18

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