Looking Back

The School of Engineering’s machine shop at the turn of the 20th century. Instructor John Ashford stands near the room’s center, and student E.F. Scott sits in an early automobile. (Image courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives)

When the School of Engineering was created in 1886 by vote of Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust, Olin Landreth, the university’s first engineering professor, was appointed dean. At the time, the school was responsible for all of the engineering functions on campus, so Landreth wore many hats. Not only was he nearly a one-man department – teaching most engineering classes and supervising the others taught by a few assistants – but he also was in charge of the maintenance of Vanderbilt’s buildings and gave input on the construction of new ones.

The highlight of Landreth’s tenure was Vanderbilt’s decision in 1888 to build a separate home for Engineering, a project made possible by a $30,000 donation from Cornelius Vanderbilt, grandson of the university’s founder. Mechanical Engineering Hall, affectionately known as the Red Castle, was the first building in the South designed specifically for engineering instruction.

Old Mechanical was a loud, busy place. Its basement housed Vanderbilt’s boiler and four steam engines used to pump water around the campus. Other floors contained foundries, machine shops, wood shops and electrical labs. In 1892, an assistant engineering professor built a system of electric lights used in the campus chapel and observatory. At the turn of the century, an instructor was hard at work designing a new automobile. Future generations would build airplanes and computers and operate a short-wave radio in the building. Today, Old Mechanical is part of the Owen Graduate School of Management and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Source: Chancellors, Commodores & Coeds: A History of Vanderbilt University by Bill Carey