1896 to 1945: Building for the Future

After the fire, Thornton resigned as chairman of the faculty and devoted himself to reestablishing the engineering program. By the 1897–98 academic session, the Engineering Department was ready to move into the Mechanical Laboratory on the Lawn and into the newly built Boiler House, south of Cabell Hall. The Mechanical Laboratory, later renamed Cocke Hall, was designed to accommodate 50 engineering students. Initially, there were only 14, but enrollment quickly recovered. By 1903–04, it had reached 61.

The department faculty also began to grow. At the time of the Rotunda fire, Thornton had been shouldering the teaching load in applied mathematics himself with just one assistant instructor, while Professor Francis H. Smith, who succeeded Rogers to the chair of natural philosophy in 1853, taught electrical theory. In June 1903, the Board authorized the appointment of an adjunct professor of applied mathematics to teach electrical practice.

More change was in the offing. Shortly after Edwin A. Alderman became the University’s first president, he reorganized the University and appointed administrative deans to each department. He appointed Thornton first dean of the Department of Engineering. He also found funding to add chairs in both civil and mechanical engineering.

timeline of events

Innovation in engineering education

In 1922, Thornton pushed through a curriculum change that would define and differentiate engineering at U.Va. He recognized that by taking advantage of the resources of the larger University, his department could produce engineers who would be distinguished by their breadth as well as their depth of knowledge.

"Thornton pushed through a curriculum change that would define and differentiate engineering at U.Va."

He introduced a five-year engineering program that delayed specialization until the last year. During their first four years, students would earn a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering. They would supplement mathematics, science and technical courses with those in English literature, history, government, commercial law, economics or modern languages. Students would then spend their last year conducting original research or taking elective courses leading to a degree in civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical or mining engineering.

In 1936, the department reinforced its emphasis on what Thornton called “liberal culture” by creating an English department headed by Assistant Professor Joseph L. Vaughan.

the move to thornton hall

For years, it had been clear that the Engineering Department had outgrown the old Mechanical Laboratory on the Lawn. Enrollment was consistently over 200 and the department now had 12 full-time faculty members. With the department’s 100th anniversary approaching, the University resolved to build a new facility to accommodate 300 students on the edge of the Grounds. It was named Thornton Hall, in honor of William Mynn Thornton, who died two weeks after it opened in 1935.

Thornton Hall was a state-of-the-art facility for its time. It included a wind tunnel, universal testing machines for materials analysis, a two-stage steam turbine generator as well as a diesel engine generator, a hydraulics laboratory and laboratories for communication and electronics, photometry, and electrical measurement. In addition, it had a combined library and reading room on the second floor — eventually referred to by students as the “Stacks” — containing 7,500 volumes.

timeline of events