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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Celebrates 175 Years of Civil Engineering

October 14, 2010

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Celebrates 175 Years of Civil Engineering

In 1835, Rensselaer Issued the First Civil Engineering Degree in the United States

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute today (Oct. 14, 2010) celebrated its place in history as the first university in the United States to issue a degree in civil engineering.

On Oct. 14, 1835, scientist and educator Amos Eaton posted a notice informing students and fellow faculty at the fledgling Rensselaer Institute about the awarding of a new degree: civil engineering. Today, 175 years later, Rensselaer is known around the world for its civil engineering heritage and the many great successes of civil engineering graduates, faculty, and students.

“The civil engineering graduates of Rensselaer are famous for the construction of the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the bridges that knit together New York City,” said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. “In addition, almost from the beginning, our alumni and alumnae have made global contributions, building essential infrastructure in Latin America and Asia, including work on the Panama Canal and railroads in Japan. Their achievements over the past 175 years inspire us to take on the most difficult global challenges in the decades ahead.”

“In addition to having the oldest civil engineering program in the nation, the program at Rensselaer is among those that have had the greatest impact on the profession of civil engineering and the society in which we live today,” said David Rosowsky, dean of the School of Engineering at Rensselaer, and a civil engineer. “The 175th anniversary of the first civil engineering degree awarded at Rensselaer is a chance to celebrate and reflect upon our past successes, and take stock of what our world-class, leading-edge civil engineering faculty and students are doing today.”

Along with building the Brooklyn Bridge (Washington Roebling, Class of 1857), Ferris wheel (George Ferris, Class of 1881), Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Tiger Stadium (Frank Osborn, Class of 1880; Kenneth Osborn, Class of 1908), Verrazano-Narrows Bridge  (Milton Brumer, Class of  1923), and many other major structures in the United States, Rensselaer civil engineering graduates played a key role in building the Panama Canal, the railroads in Japan (Seijiro Hirai, Class of 1878), the railroads of Chile and Peru (Anthony Walton White Evans, Class of 1836), the major highways and Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia (Dato’ Ramli Mohamad, Class of 1982), and many critical national infrastructures around the world.

To help celebrate 175 years of civil engineering at Rensselaer, President Jackson at 10 a.m. on Friday, Oct.15, will participate in a colloquy titled “The Civil Engineering Revival: Challenges, Grand Challenges, and Champions,” with G. Wayne Clough, 12th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and president emeritus of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Following the colloquy, there will be a special presentation by Kathy J. Caldwell, national president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The colloquy will be held in the concert hall of the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center (EMPAC).

“I congratulate Rensselaer for 175 years of service to the engineering profession and the nation, and I am honored to participate in this colloquy with my distinguished colleague, Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson,” Clough said. “Rensselaer is asking the right questions at the right time.”

“We are pleased to recognize the work Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has done leading the way in developing civil engineering in the United States,” Caldwell said. “For more than 40 years, ASCE has recognized civil engineering achievements that have played a unique role in the development of this country, and the world.”

At 2:30 p.m. on Friday, in EMPAC Goodman Studio 1, esteemed civil engineer and historian David P. Billington will deliver the keynote address “Building the United States 1835-2010: Bridges, Dams, and Civil Engineering Education.” Billington, the Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor of Engineering, Emeritus, in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Princeton University, will explore the history of civil engineering in the United States and Switzerland, and focus on the works of several major civil engineers who were Rensselaer graduates.

“There is a wealth of civil engineering history at Rensselaer, as well as a rich history of distinguished civil engineering graduates from Rensselaer,” Billington said. “It is critical for current and future civil engineers to look back and learn from the great bridge builders and structural engineers of the past two centuries. The high quality of civil engineering exhibited by many Rensselaer alumni, such as Roebling, Waddell, Brumer, Rothman, Peck, and a small group of others – especially from Switzerland – is absolutely relevant today, and absolutely critical to the ethos of the profession of civil engineering.”

Today, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rensselaer is growing, as more students choose to major in the subject. Students, graduates, and faculty are problem solvers, leading efforts to tackle many of the largest challenges facing humanity, including water, energy, air pollution, aging infrastructure, transportation, design for natural hazards, and the next generation of sustainable building materials.

Current civil engineering faculty at Rensselaer played a key role in the recovery and the reconstruction effort after major disasters, including the levee failure in New Orleans, and humanitarian logistics in the wake of the January 2010 Haiti earthquake. Other faculty members are researching new ways to implement real-time diagnostic monitoring of major infrastructure, reduce traffic in Manhattan, optimize emergency response to disasters, characterize microbial life in Antarctica, among many other important projects.

“Part of the unique Rensselaer culture is that our faculty and students look for important challenges, face them directly, and don’t shy away from looking for solutions to big, critical problems,” said Tarek Abdoun, Class of 1997, professor and acting department head of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rensselaer. “Looking at the portfolio of our faculty and their research, it is clear that Rensselaer is at the forefront of civil engineering today, and the pioneering culture of Rensselaer is stronger than ever.”

For more information and a complete schedule of Civil Engineering 175 events, visit:

See Amos Eaton’s 1835 Notice of the Civil Engineering Degree at:

Contact: Michael Mullaney
Phone: (518) 276-6161


For general inquiries:

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, over 30 research centers, more than 140 academic programs including 25 new programs, and a dynamic community made up of over 6,800 students and 104,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include upwards of 155 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration. To learn more, please visit