1836 to 1860: Getting Started

In August 1836, the Board of Visitors met for its annual meeting. After reviewing the proceedings of the faculty, the University accounts and the other University records, board members then reported back on matters that required their action. They expelled two students, sold surplus microscopes, imposed a dress code and warned faculty members not to suspend classes at Christmas for more than two days.

The Board also reviewed a letter from Charles Bonnycastle, the professor of mathematics, proposing the Board create a department of civil engineering. Today this would be considered a request to establish a new major. On August 13, the board resolved to create such a department, the forerunner of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Promising Beginnings

In his letter, written in consultation with William Barton Rogers, who had been appointed professor of natural philosophy the year before, Bonnycastle made a compelling case. His lectures on civil engineering had been well received, giving him reason to believe that there would be demand for a more comprehensive treatment of this discipline. In addition, the young republic needed civil engineers to meet the demands of the Industrial Revolution. Canals and turnpike projects were being built around the country, and steamboat service established along the coasts and on major rivers, and all these projects required trained engineers.

A probable inducement for the Board was that the new department did not require the addition of full-time faculty. Bonnycastle would lead a class in graphical mathematics (most notably geometry), the theory of leveling and surveying, and the theory of roads, railroads, canals and bridges. Rogers would develop a course covering theoretical mechanics, hydrostatics and hydrodynamics, the laws of heat and steam, and geology and mineralogy. They would hire a teacher of drawing to conduct surveying exercises and to teach plan and topographical drawing. The three faculty members received an additional $15 a session for their work.

When the board referred collectively to these subjects as a school, it did not refer to an administrative organization. Rather it meant a course of study. Students completing the three courses would receive a certificate of completion in civil engineering in partial fulfillment of their graduation requirements.

caught up in an economic crisis

Between 1836 and 1841, 56 students enrolled in this program and, of these, 19 received certificates. There is no record of attendance after 1839, however, and in 1850 the School of Civil Engineering disappeared from the University catalog.

The reasons the program was discontinued are not hard to understand. Demand disappeared when the devastating Panic of 1837 brought economic activity across the country to a standstill. During the panic, 40 percent of the banks in the United States failed, setting the stage for five years of depression and widespread unemployment. With Bonnycastle’s untimely death in 1840 and Rogers increasing preoccupation with his geologic survey of Virginia, the program lost momentum.

timeline of events