Aerospace and Mechanical Sciences, The Department of

Aerospace and Mechanical Sciences, The Department of, which was formed in 1963 by a merger of the departments of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, traces its roots back to the early 1920s when Arthur M. Greene, Jr., came to Princeton to establish a Department of Mechanical Engineering and to serve as dean of the newly created School of Engineering.

Classes were held in the old School of Science, with a makeshift laboratory in a boiler house across Washington Road, until the John C. Green Engineering Building was constructed in 1928. Starting with only two young assistants in mechanical engineering, Dean Greene taught over half the courses in the department in addition to performing his administrative duties. Louis F. Rahm and Alfred E. Sorenson joined the slowly expanding department in 1926, Lewis F. Moody as professor of fluid mechanics and machine design arrived in 1930.

During the Depression, graduating seniors, unable to obtain employment, returned for graduate study, spurring the development of both the engine and hydraulics laboratories. By 1941, when Dean Greene retired and was succeeded as dean and chairman by Kenneth H. Condit, the Department of Mechanical Engineering was both well staffed and equipped, permitting it to acquit itself well during the hectic war years when year-round teaching of military and civilian students was the order of the day.

In the summer of 1941, when the United States was developing the technological and industrial base that would give it world leadership in the design and manufacture of aircraft, Dean Condit invited Daniel C. Sayre to conduct a three-month study of the ``possibility and desirability'' of introducing courses relating to aeronautical engineering into the curriculum of the Mechanical Engineering Department.

Although recognizing the limited nature of this original intent, the energetic and irrepressible Sayre made such a strong case for the creation of a separate Department of Aeronautical Engineering that his suggestions were adopted, and in early 1942 he found himself both Princeton's first professor of aeronautical engineering and the new department's entire faculty.

With keen competition for available talent in the rapidly expanding aeronautical field, building a departmental staff was not easy, but Sayre succeeded in enlisting Alexander A. Nikolsky, who had helped Sikorsky develop the helicopter, and Harry Ashworth, a skilled machinist and instrument expert. These three, aided by a few graduate assistants, and equipped with a small wind tunnel on a balcony of what is now Aaron Burr Hall, were the entire department until the end of the war. Then began a steady increase in faculty and a meteoric rise in achievement that culminated in the department's recognition as a leader in the field by the mid-1950s.

The first of the new faculty to arrive was Courtland D. Perkins, fresh from Wright Field. Later, between various leaves of absence to serve as chief scientist to the Air Force and as assistant secretary of the air force for research and development, Perkins pioneered in-flight test analysis of aircraft stability and control. His research interests led to the creation of the Flight Dynamics Laboratory, a unique facility for an academic institution, in which theory is tested in actual flight.

Rapidly outgrowing its balcony, the department moved to a series of buildings near Lake Carnegie and to installations behind Palmer Stadium that had housed wartime research in physics. The plan of development aimed at maintaining a strong undergraduate program, but concentrated on graduate training and research. A Master's program was begun with the inception of the department in 1942, a doctoral program in 1949.

Experimental as well as analytical research supported these graduate programs. The strange constructions with which Nikolsky's students probed the idiosyncrasies of helicopters caused interested comment. The racket of supersonic wind tunnels and rocket firings brought outraged protests. It was clear that new quarters were needed.

Already contending with the cancer that would take his life five years later, Sayre spearheaded the effort that led to the acquisition in 1951 of the property formerly occupied by the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and to its development as the James Forrestal Campus. The University at last had a place to house research that, in Sayre's words, ``makes loud noises or bad smells,'' and the department moved to these new quarters with alacrity. It was here that Charles Conrad, third man to walk the moon, completed his undergraduate studies in 1953.

Recognition of the stature the depar~tment had achieved came with Harry F. Guggenheim's selection of Princeton as the site for one of two jet propulsion research centers. (The other was at the California Institute of Technology.) In 1954 Luigi Crocco of the University of Rome was appointed first Goddard Professor of Jet Propulsion. His work in combustion theory along with Martin Summerfield's studies of solid propellants had a profound effect upon rocket engine development during the next decade.

In 1951 Sayre relinquished the chairmanship to Perkins in order to give full time to the direction of the Forrestal Campus. Under Perkins, research activities expanded until there were active programs in the entire~ aerospace field, ranging from low speed flight to hypersonic reentry.

In 1963, in recognition of overlapping interests, coupled with declining enrollments in mechanical engineering, the two departments merged to form the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Sciences under Perkins's leadership. Activities of the new department reached an all-time high in 1967 with a research budget of almost $3.25 million and with an enrollment of 140 graduate and 125 undergraduate students.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were difficult years. With increasing national anguish over war in Vietnam came campus unrest and a wave of revulsion at the ills produced by the misuse of technology. Since the department was deeply involved in a technology closely linked in the public mind with weaponry, it inevitably suffered decreasing enrollments and had to face critical investigations to determine the appropriateness of its research on a campus greatly concerned with the needs of humanity.

That the research was demonstrated to be of high caliber and in no way unsuited to the University was not sufficient for the departmental faculty. With characteristic vigor they turned their talents toward solutions of societal problems. Research narrowly aimed at aircraft systems broadened its focus to include all modes of transportation. Combustion investigations moved from studies of rocket motors to problems of noise, of air pollution, and even of the dangers of smoking. Gas dynamicists turned to problems of energy conversion and control, while the aerodynamicists, not to be outdone, started work on high efficiency windmills for power generation.

By 1974, as Perkins retired as chairman, the changes had had effect. Enrollments were recovering, research budgets were expanding, and the department, under the new leadership of Seymour M. Bogdonoff, was facing the future with confidence.

David C. Hazen


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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