Like Nebraska's wide horizon, the UNL College of Engineering's first century was a broad palette for achievements.
While much has changed in engineering over the past 100 years, one thing has not changed: engineers thrive on solving problems and improving products and processes. As the 20th century dawned in Nebraska, the challenge at hand was how to shape the university’s engineering education to help develop the state. Several early Nebraska engineers advocated for the university’s engineering program to grow beyond its 19th century roots in the Industrial College on the Lincoln campus.
In the early 20th century, electrical engineering professor O.J. Ferguson wrote: "Nebraska’s needs for power, to be applied to the daily uses and conveniences of her citizens, are not fully being met. Upon the engineering in Nebraska devolves the duty of changing these practices and conditions. Upon the University of Nebraska falls the task of supplying trained men who can ‘engineer’ these processes. … (It) must vigorously attack the knotty problems which bind our hands and tie our feet. It must break new paths for us to tread. It must open new fields for us to cultivate. It must build new industries to employ our sons and daughters.
In 1909, the University of Nebraska College of Engineering was established by the state legislature’s House Roll No. 76 (Kotouc bill). With that came an $115,000 mechanical engineering laboratory. The college’s newly appointed dean, C.R. Richards, was adamant that the facility be designed to serve specialized technical needs. Before these labs were built, most engineering classes were theoretical by necessity. The new labs (known today as Richards Hall) incorporated woodworking and machine shops, a foundry, and laboratories for heat, steam, gas, forging, drafting, and hydraulics, as well as the usual lecture rooms and offices. The college also expanded to East Campus where the 1918 building now known as Chase Hall, home of agricultural and biological systems engineering programs, is named for an early leader.
In the 1920s as dean, Ferguson continued to pursue the college’s development. He wrote: "The College of Engineering is not as well housed on Nebraska’s campus as are some of the other colleges. Nevertheless, we have some good buildings, much excellent equipment, a good sound faculty and body of students. ... Nebraska offers a nearly virgin field for the engineer.
With passing decades, Nebraska’s engineering programs grew—in numbers of enrolled students and in their achievements. Through difficult times for the nation in World War I and II, skills of Nebraska’s engineers were tested. At other times, clever engineering stunts added humor to campus life.
Engineers’ pride in the annual E-Week tradition drew attention, although the Daily Nebraskan once referred to engineers as "shop men ... calloused, grimy-handed, north side tenement dwellers. (The engineers retaliated by stealing the press and producing their own DN edition, expounding the splendors of E-Week.) E-Week legends were extended in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s with a famous feud between engineering and law students. When the words on an E-Week dirigible were changed from Engineers’ Week to Pharmacy Week, law students were suspected. Several hundred engineers approached the law school fraternity house and were hit with rotten eggs. Hosing by police and firefighters ended the incident, and students paid for campus damages.
Primarily, the UNL College of Engineering has been known for such contributions as the SAFER barrier that saves lives in NASCAR, and innovations with nanomaterials for thin films that create super-strong or more energy-efficient surfaces. Additional programs, including The Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction at Omaha’s Peter Kiewit Institute, have further enhanced the college’s reputation.
This year, Nebraska Engineering's enrollment surpassed 3,000 students. Much in engineering has evolved (from sliderules to supercomputers) but Dean David Allen heartily agrees with his early counterpart, O.J. Ferguson, who wrote: "The College of Engineering is a forward-looking institution. It sees a future of continually enlarging service."