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Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Inventions: Thayer School of Engineering

Inventor: Sylvanus Thayer, Dartmouth 1807

When Sylvanus Thayer established an engineering school at Dartmouth, he created the kind of institution he wished he could have attended. As a young man, he wanted a technical education that would prepare him to be an engineer, but at the time no such institution existed in this country. He pursued the next-best thing: a college that offered advanced mathematics as well as a classical education. In 1803 he entered Dartmouth. Though named valedictorian of the class of 1807, Thayer left before the graduation ceremony to become a cadet at the five-year-old United States Military Academy. Graduating in one year, he entered the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1815 Thayer began a two-year stint studying at the French West Point, École Polytechnique. In 1817 President Monroe appointed him Superintendent of West Point to bring order out of the academy’s chaos. Thayer established standards and developed a rigorous curriculum centered on engineering. He also insisted that America’s military engineers be educated in the sciences and the humanities. Between 1817 and 1833 he turned West Point into the world’s finest military academy and the country’s first college of engineering. Carried by West Point graduates to other colleges and universities, Thayer’s curriculum became the springboard for technological instruction throughout the country.

Photograph by John Sherman.

In 1867, Thayer brought engineering to Dartmouth. He not only offered $70,000—an enormous sum at the time—to create an engineering school, he also detailed the curriculum: technical studies built on a strong liberal arts foundation. One hundred fifty years later, his Thayer School of Engineering continues the educational model he invented.

(Adapted from Who Was Sylvanus Thayer by Nardi Reeder Campion, Dartmouth Engineer, Fall 2004)

Categories: Inventions

Tags: curriculum, history

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