by Diane Kukich
From wooden shops that were consumed by fire in 1898 to the modern Spencer Lab, completed in 1983, ME has had several homes on the UD campus over the past 125 years.
Although courses were actually taught in the “mechanic arts” as early as the 1850s, ME did not achieve departmental status until 1891, when a department of mechanical and electrical engineering was established at what was then the male-only Delaware College. In 1892, during the tenure of Mr. F. A. Weihe, the first professor in the four-year program, a one-story 30′ x 50′ frame workshop was built to house all of the equipment available at the time—three engine lathes, a small planer, a milling machine, and a drill press, operated by an 8-horsepower gasoline engine.
The department moved into a real home in 1898, when Mechanical Hall was built to house the entire Engineering School. By 1919, the new facility had been outgrown, so three one-story wooden buildings were erected to house civil and electrical engineering, while ME remained, appropriately enough, in Mechanical Hall. By the late 1920s, with the post–War wooden structures falling into disrepair, the Delaware General Assembly appropriated funds to build a new facility dedicated to engineering. With additional support from benefactor Pierre S. du Pont, Evans Hall was completed and dedicated in 1930. Named after George Gillespie Evans and his son Charles Black Evans (both long-time members of the institution’s Board of Trustees), the building housed all of the engineering programs except chemical engineering, which was located in Wolf Hall. (Mechanical Hall then became a dormitory for varsity athletes and was renamed the Training House.)
While Evans was under construction, a new dean of engineering, Robert L. Spencer, was appointed. He served as dean until shortly before his death in 1945 and is credited with contributing substantially to the development of the physical facilities needed to support engineering science and technology at the University of Delaware. According to a 1945 issue of the University of Delaware News, “Money provided to equip the building [Evans] was inadequate. Teachers and students had to make and install what they could. Dean Spencer himself built all the classroom desks and bulletin boards in the new building.”
It is thus fitting that ME’s next home was named after him: the Robert L. Spencer Laboratory was completed and dedicated in 1983. Completion of the new facility not only provided a new, permanent home for ME but also enabled Evans Hall to be renovated for the Department of Electrical Engineering. The dedication program for Spencer Lab lists “specialized laboratories for a wide range of teaching and research functions”—from computer-aided design, electron microscopy, and composite materials processing to heat transfer, fluid mechanics, and impact physics. The department had come a long way from “the old shop engine and boiler [that] comprised practically the whole experimental setup,” as described by Professor Merrill Van Giesen Smith in the Delaware College Review in 1912.
Yet despite tremendous growth in engineering programs at UD and radical changes in technology over the past 125 years, it is sometimes true, as the cliché alleges, that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In his 1912 article, Smith wrote about the need to reduce the cost of manufacturing and develop new processes and equipment—issues that are still at the forefront of engineering today.