NSPE Celebrates Beginnings of Engineering Education


July 2012

NSPE Celebrates Beginnings of Engineering Education


On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act that would create the infrastructure for modern engineering education. Called the Morrill Act after its sponsor, Vermont congressman Justin Morrill, the legislation provided each state with federal land that could be sold and used to fund public colleges focusing on agriculture, the mechanical arts, and military science. The Morrill Act marked the beginning of the land-grant college system in the U.S.

In celebration of the Morrill Act's sesquicentennial anniversary, NSPE has joined a task force of the American Association of Engineering Societies to help recognize the transformative contributions of land-grant engineering schools.

While Morrill may have secured the passage of land-grant legislation, he wasn't the first to suggest the idea to Congress. Jonathan Baldwin Turner, a Yale-educated farmer and professor, was beating the drum for equal access to education and professionalization of agriculture and the mechanical arts throughout the mid-1800s. While Americans were beginning to recognize the importance of science, science education was not widely available, nor was higher education widely available to agricultural and industrial workers. Turner developed a proposal to create a national system of "industrial universities" and lobbied the state of Illinois until the state legislature petitioned Congress to support the proposal. While Turner's work received recognition in the press, however, it did not receive congressional support.

Morrill picked up where Turner left off, making his first attempt at land-grant legislation in 1858. During the 1850s, Congress was divided less by party lines than by the Mason-Dixon Line; unsurprisingly, the South objected to Morrill's proposed expansion of federal powers. Morrill defended his bill's ability to provide broad access to higher education and support the agricultural industry. After a protracted battle, Congress passed Morrill's bill, only to have President James Buchanan veto the measure. Morrill reintroduced his bill in 1862, however. By then, the South had seceded, leaving Congress far less divided. The bill passed with ease, and President Lincoln added the Morrill Act to a list of other land-grant measures he had signed into law.

The land-grant college system created an entirely new kind of education in the U.S., one for which there were no set courses or even teachers. Modern engineering schools evolved from this new form of instruction, along the way educating engineers who have transformed the way we live. Land-grant engineering schools' alumni have invented the transistor, the integrated circuit, the computer mouse, the catalytic converter, the underpinnings of the modern Internet, GPS, and high-fidelity audio. They have performed the research that led to the development of MRI and controlled drug delivery in the human body. Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon after he began his engineering education at a land-grant university.

Other land-grant engineering alumni have served as elected or appointed officials. (One, Fidel Ramos, became president of the Philippines.) Current congressional alumni of land-grant engineering programs include Reps. David McKinley, P.E. (R-WV), Joe Barton (R-TX), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Pete Stark (D-CA).

Land-grant programs also have graduated engineers who made their way to the top of the business world, including Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, former General Electric Chairman and CEO Jack Welch, Bechtel Corp. co-owner Stephen Bechtel Jr., and Texas Instruments Chairman Tom Engibous.

The sesquicentennial anniversary of the Morrill Act will also be recognized by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. The APLU will include engineering contributions in its celebration during the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., when participating universities will showcase how they continue to reinvent agriculture, search for sustainable solutions, transform communities, and build on tradition. The University of Tennessee, for instance, plans to feature its solar-powered house, which took eighth place in the Department of Energy's 2011 Solar Decathlon.

Today, a total of 111 land-grant institutions, including historically black colleges and universities and tribal colleges, appear in every U.S. state and territory. The land-grant institutions enabled by the Morrill Act of 1862 laid the groundwork for engineering education across the country. These colleges and universities opened doors to students who previously had little access to higher education and forged a new curriculum in the applied sciences, making engineering the profession it is today.