A brief history of Chemical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon -Chemical Engineering - Carnegie Mellon University

A brief history of Chemical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon

by Professor Herb Toor

Chemical Practice was one of the original courses of study offered by the Carnegie Technical Schools when they opened their doors on Oct. 16, 1905. The program was offered at the time through the School of Applied Science . The first head was Joseph James who lasted in that position until 1936, a tenure that is probably unbeatable. Originally the department housed Carnegie Tech's activities in both chemical engineering and in chemistry. In 1936 the two disciplines diverged and Warren McCabe became head of the Department of Chemical Engineering with a faculty of five.

Roughly 50 years after Chemical Engineering started and almost twenty years after it separated from Chemistry there were 6 faculty members: Carl Monrad, Bob Beckmann, Bob Rothfus, Larry Canjar, Dave Archer and I. Dave and I joined at about the same time. It was a remarkably congenial group. Carl Monrad (1947-1965) had worked on the synthetic rubber program during the Second World War. He had recently succeeded the former head, Warren McCabe (1936-1947), and was a fine, old school boss. Dave was straight laced, Bob Rothfus had found religion and the rest of us enjoyed life. There was nothing here like the storied tales of faculty backbiting. The favorite was Larry Canjar, a 300 lb down-to-earth son of a Croat immigrant steelworker who went on an unplanned diet in a foxhole during the Battle of the Bulge.

In the 1950's there were about as many undergraduate students as now (40 - 60 per class) but less than a quarter of the current number of graduate students or even less (10 or 15 in total). The undergraduates came from less affluent families than now. There were few, if any, women and many of the students were children of steelworkers. Teaching loads were higher; usually two courses a semester although some taught three at least one semester. Everyone was doing research except perhaps Carl Monrad, but it was done on the cheap using industrial grants or bootlegged department funds. At the time faculty weren't expected to support graduate students who must have been supported by teaching assistantships and industrial fellowships.

It was clear by the mid-20 th century that a lot of the ideas in chemical engineering, based as they were on empiricism and correlations, rested on weak foundations. More fundamental research was needed and indeed that began both here and elsewhere. This was part of the zeitgeist after the World War II which demonstrated the value of science and engineering and was reinforced by the subsequent rise of the National Science Foundation (NSF) which funded engineering science and became the primary source of academic research funds (significantly greater than the former industrial research funds).

Bird, Stewart and Lightfoot's book Transport Phenomena published in 1960 introduced much new material into the curriculum and both broadened and deepened the move toward fundamentals. They brought these ideas to a wider audience and transformed chemical engineering, but it was the NSF which facilitated the transformation of chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, and in the US at large. Increased student numbers and increased research funding as well as additional funding from government, industry and private foundations provided the resources needed to carry out the transformation.

After I became department head (1965 - 1970) we bought a house adjacent to the Schenley Park golf course and I frequently walked to the campus with Herb Simon whose path and time often coincided with mine. I found him a fascinating walking companion; full of interesting ideas and questions, and only long after we met did I find out that my fellow hiker was by then the famous Herb Simon who intimidated many people. Of course, by then I had been talking and arguing with him too long to be intimidated.

One day Herb said something like, "you engineers do a poor job of teaching design and my book, The Sciences of the Artificial will show you how to improve things." I agreed about the problem; design, which is about synthesis, never fitted well into the increasingly analytical, engineering curriculum and it was not thought to be sufficiently scientifically rigorous or researchable to be taken seriously. It was not taught happily by most faculty.

If Herb Simon's ideas could be put into practice it would make design respectable. Design would become intellectually respectable, something that could be a lodestar for academic engineers. This insight offered us the rare opportunity to be first in a new area. While I was still head, Herb Simon gave a seminar on the subject in Chemical Engineering but nothing much happened. Shortly before that CIT had missed out in a contest for Sloan Foundation funds to improve engineering design education. But funding wasn't the problem, ideas were. I thought that we now might have them - but others need convincing and focusing was required.

Herb and I went to NSF very early in the game looking for money for design and Herb gave a short talk to people in the Engineering Directorate. They responded, "very interesting, but unfortunately it doesn't fit into any of our programs so we can't help." Being early with ideas was as bad as being late, at least at NSF. But they weren't and aren't unique.

Fortunately, thanks to Steve Au and Jim Romauldi, we had recently hired Steve Fenves as head of Civil Engineering. I think Steve was my first department head hire as Dean - and was a very lucky choice in light of our later moves in the design field. I asked Steve, one of the earliest people in computer aided design and an easy convert, if not already a believer, to chair a committee to decide whether and how Herb Simon's ideas could be implemented across CIT. I was already a convert, even if not an expert. I had no doubts; it just looked like a winner, and it indeed was! After what seemed like a long time, Steve came to me frustrated about getting committee agreement on a report and suggested that we set up a Design Research Center without a written report, thereby reflecting the majority opinion, and mine, that it looked too good not to try. So, in 1974 I did!

Later someone said, "one Herb had the ideas, the other Herb kicked ass". The ideas were definitely Herb Simon's, but I don't think much kicking was required; only nagging and perhaps a little bribery. (Angel Jordan, who I nagged to hire Steve Director soon became a strong supporter of the cause, but still thinks that it took some kicking). I remember establishing design research in CIT as a relatively easy sale; no big turf wars, lots of intellectually respectable research so successful participants would be promoted; useful, cheap, fundable and a chance to be the leaders in a likely hot new area. It was a perfect fit in Carnegie Mellon which was rapidly developing into "Computer U". What more could anyone ask for?

As a department head, Steve Fenves was reluctant to head the new center. Fortunately, however, in 1973 Gary Powers a young assistant professor in Chemical Engineering at MIT had written to Herb Simon about his own work in design which fitted nicely into Herb's. Herb had suggested that we hire Gary away from MIT, if we could. I then told Tom Fort (1973 - 1979), department head of Chemical Engineering at the time, that I'd give him Gary free if he got him. Tom managed to hire Gary so he was already here by the time that we were looking for a director for the Design Research Center . Steve recommended him, and Gary became the first center director and the Design Research Center took off with an annual budget of $54,000, initially from the CIT Ford funds.

When it became clear to that we had a winner in the Design Research Center , I asked Gary who was the best guy in Chemical Engineering in the field. He mentioned Art Westerberg so, I asked Tom to recruit Art which he did. I gave Tom credit for being a great recruiter, which he was, but as Art later told me, we got him here to a large extent because of the Barbara Westerberg's attraction to the Pittsburgh Symphony. I probably increased Tom's budget to get Art, but that was certainly a fine investment.

Then it was decided that we needed someone in Electrical Engineering and Art suggested Steve Director who had been at Florida when he was there. After some nagging Angel Jordan, then head of Electrical Engineering managed to bring him here; another good investment. A further payoff from Art was Ignacio Grossmann fresh from Imperial College , completing a stellar group of Chemical Engineers. Eventually, however, people from all CIT departments other than perhaps Metallurgy and Materials Science became involved in the design effort.

Among the new faculty who were recruited in the 1960's was Howard Brenner who joined the department in 1966 with a reputation in fundamental fluid mechanics. He not only brought his reputation and expertise to the department, but his presence helped signal the direction in which the department was moving, attracting additional faculty with similar mindsets. Tom Fort made good use of Howard's presence by recruiting valuable new faculty. It was during that time that the Colloids, Polymers and Surface program started with Fennell Evans as the director while Ed Cussler, a fertile source of new ideas, initiated the New Alternatives Program.

In the early 1960's a project course was set up in Chemical Engineering to look at environmental issues. This was run by Mike Massey, a chemical engineering graduate student who eventually joined the faculty as an instructor. This course produced the first decent Emissions Inventory for Allegheny County and became the model for future Engineering and Public Policy project courses that led to the formation of the EPP department in CIT.