Inventions that will help save the world (if we let them)

Ups and downs of engineering at Yale

In engineering, Yale has both a proud history and a checkered past.

The history is full of early highlights. In 1775, David Bushnell, a senior at Yale College, invented the first submarine, a one-man, pedal-powered submersible vessel.  In 1794, Eli Whitney, Class of 1792, received a patent on the cotton gin; he’s also known for his rifle factory, which put the concept of standardized, interchangeable parts into successful use. Yale founded its engineering program in 1852 and awarded the nation’s first PhD in engineering, in 1863. In the same era, August Jay DuBois, a professor of mechanical engineering, wrote four textbooks that became widely used. In 1932 the School of Engineering was established.

But later years saw a falling off. Yale increasingly identified itself as a school of the humanities, and the sciences were snubbed and underfunded. In 1956 the university’s undergraduate Sheffield Scientific School was effectively absorbed into Yale College. In the early 1960s, the School of Engineering was dissolved and all of its activities consolidated into a single department. Through the second half of the twentieth century, the number of engineering graduates per year sank continually. The low point may have been in the early 1990s, when the university, enduring a period of financial difficulty, seriously considered eliminating engineering altogether.

Then, in 1993, Yale got a new president—Richard Levin ’74PhD, an economist who has studied the beneficial effect of scientific research on national economies—and he took office determined to turn Yale science around. In 2000, he committed to invest more than $1 billion in facilities for science, medicine, and engineering. For engineering, the benefits of this new direction have included the Daniel L. Malone Engineering Center, completed in 2005; the reestablishment of a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (though it remains part of the larger Faculty of Arts and Sciences); and the planned expansion of the faculty, now at 50 full-time ladder faculty (assistant, associate, and full professors) and expected to grow to 60 ladder faculty in the future.

The earlier decades of neglect, however, have left Yale engineering an underdog. Fifty faculty are few compared with the likes of Stanford (216) or Cornell (236). And partly because its  engineering school is small, Yale’s overall rate of patents is also small; the university secured 31 US patents in 2012, but Stanford, for instance, made the 2011 list of the top 300 organizations granted US patents, with 153.

Nevertheless, the School of Engineering succeeds in its chosen areas, focusing on “selective excellence,” as Levin has put it, in four interdisciplinary research themes: biomolecular engineering and design; energy and sustainability; sensing, imaging, and networked systems; and surface and interfacial engineering. And on one of the most important measures of quality, Yale does very well; its average number of journal citations per faculty member every year is consistently high—showing that the research papers Yale engineering faculty produce are considered critical contributions by their peers. Yale engineering may be small, but the quality of its faculty and research is unquestioned.—C.K.

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