A mechanical drawing class in the Sibley School, ca. 1890s

150 Years of Mechanical Engineering on the Hill: Fascinating Facts

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By Joe Wilensky

Classes in mechanical engineering go back to the University’s founding, as the “mechanic arts” were an integral part of Ezra Cornell’s vision. And for much of the current academic year, the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering has been celebrating 150 years of teaching and research in the field.

While Sibley students once spent their time grinding ball bearings and improving milling machines, today they work on everything from biomedical devices and cancer research to robotics, fusion reactors, and space exploration.

The Sibley machine shops, ca. 1885
The Sibley machine shops, circa 1885. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

The anniversary festivities culminate on April 25 with a daylong celebration, featuring a panel on the future of space exploration, facility tours, discussions, and appearances by noted alumni—including “Science Guy” Bill Nye ’77, who will deliver a keynote address.

In honor of mechanical engineering's sesquicentennial, Cornellians offers 14 fascinating facts about the Sibley School and its alumni:

Engineering education was baked into Cornell’s charter!

Professor Thurston teaches a class in the 1890s
Professor Robert Thurston teaching in the 1890s. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Ezra’s vision for the University (as well as the stipulations of the U.S. Morrill Land Grant Act) had engineering and agriculture as core subjects.

Section Four of the 1865 charter defines the University’s goals, in part, “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, including military tactics, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

It was an early pipeline for U.S. engineers!

The Sibley School featured on the cover of an 1885 issue of Scientific American.

Within a decade of the school’s existence, it was churning out nearly 20% of the nation’s newly minted engineers.

Students were studying engineering and mechanics on the Hill from the very first semester of classes in 1868, though a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering wasn’t offered until a few years later. Four students earned one in 1874, and the school quickly became a national leader.

In 1885, the school was even featured in a Scientific American cover story, which described its robust program of study and noteworthy facilities.

The school pioneered outdoor electric lighting!

Electrical engineering was a Sibley department until 1921, when it became its own school.

In the late 1870s, a student and a prof built an electric dynamo room that powered two arc lights—installed atop McGraw Hall and Sage Chapel—which became the nation’s first outdoor electric lighting system.

AAP now occupies the school’s first home!

West Sibley Hall in the late 1800s, before East Sibley and the Sibley Dome were added
West Sibley Hall in the late 1800s, before East Sibley and the dome were added. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

The College of Architecture, Art, and Planning isn’t Sibley Hall’s original resident. In 1870, Hiram Sibley—one of Ezra’s business partners and a founding investor in the Western Union Telegraph Co.—donated funds to construct a new home for the mechanic arts.

That building (today known as West Sibley) stood alone for nearly a quarter of a century; East Sibley was built as its twin in 1894, and in 1902 a dome was constructed, connecting the two.

The first female student enrolled in 1884!

Kate Gleason matriculated into the Class of 1888, though she didn’t complete her degree, returning to Rochester to help run the family business. Still, she eventually became the first woman elected to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (as well as the first female president of a U.S. national bank).

Kate Gleason
“Sibley Kate.” (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Later in life, she was sometimes called the “First Lady of Gearing” and the “Marie Curie of Machine Tools”—but at Cornell, she was known as “Sibley Kate.”

A current prof served as NASA’s chief technologist!

Astronautical engineering professor Mason Peck held the post from 2011–13, advising the agency’s head administrator on all matters of tech-related strategy, intellectual property, and commercialization.

On the Hill, Peck founded the Space Systems Design Studio and co-hosts a podcast, Spaceflight Mechanics, with mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Elaine Petro.

It’s home to a renowned collection of mechanical models!

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A Reuleaux model showing a ratchet mechanism
A ratchet mechanism. (Cornell Engineering)

In 1880, Hiram Sibley gave $8,000 to purchase 250 kinematic teaching models designed by a Berlin-based professor.

The Cornell Reuleaux Collection of Kinematic Models offers a glimpse of the 19th-century fascination with machines, providing elegant demonstrations of engineering concepts. Today, many are on display along the second-floor hallways in Upson Hall, and are viewable online.

From early on, it had its eyes on the sky!

When flight was in its infancy in the early 20th century, enthusiastic students formed the Cornell Soaring Club and built their own gliders, competing against other Ivy League schools.

A senior option in aeronautics was offered in the 1930s; after World War II, the University launched a Graduate School of Aeronautical Engineering, which merged into Sibley in 1972.

It hosted 'cadettes' during World War II!

Four members of the Curtiss Cadettes during World War II
Members of the Curtiss Cadettes program. (Cornell Engineering)

In 1942, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation—one of the main suppliers of U.S. military aircraft—was having trouble hiring engineers due to the dearth of draft-age men. So it launched Curtiss Cadettes, which enrolled 918 women in relevant classes at Cornell and six other colleges.

Solomon Cady Hollister, then dean of engineering, helped design the program for all participants, many of whom went on to work in Curtiss-Wright’s plants.

For six decades, its home had a notable hue!

In 1956, the school moved from Sibley to a new building on the rapidly developing Engineering Quad. Named for trustee and benefactor Maxwell Upson, ME 1899, it featured a midcentury design then typical of institutional buildings, though with distinctive yellow panels.

A reconstruction in 2017–18 gave it a more modern look and efficiency standards, earning it LEED Platinum certification.

One of its alumni invented air conditioning!

Willis Carrier 1901 pioneered methods to control temperature and relative humidity. He founded the Carrier Corporation, which remains a global leader in commercial refrigeration.

Syracuse’s main stadium, which for decades had a distinctive air-supported roof, was long known as the Carrier Dome.

Two alums are in the National Inventors Hall of Fame!

Thomas Midgley Jr. 1911
Thomas Midgley Jr. 1911. (Provided)

Albert Kingsbury 1887 created new designs for hydrodynamic thrust bearings, which increased the performance of compressors, propeller shafts, and turbines and was used on Navy ships during the two World Wars.

Thomas Midgley Jr. 1911 was granted more than 100 patents—but, sadly, is best known for two inventions (leaded gasoline and a class of refrigerants known as CFCs) that, while cutting edge at the time, proved to have dire environmental and health consequences and were widely banned.

Its prominent alumni include Cornell’s first astronaut!

The late G. David Low ’80 flew three space missions in 1990–93 (famously taking a pair of Ezra’s wedding socks with him on his inaugural flight), during which he circled the Earth a total of more than 540 times.

Other notable alums include aircraft manufacturer Leroy Grumman 1916; civil engineer Dorothy Allison Carlin 1924; Chih-Kung Lee, PhD ’87, Taiwan’s current minister of economic affairs; SpaceX’s Bill Riley ’99, ME ’00; and NASA chief engineer Swati Mohan ’04.

And ... its students have drafted plans for a lunar base!

Conception of a new satellite campus on the lunar surface
A conceptual image of a Big Red campus—far, far above. (Cornell Engineering)

The school’s Space Systems Design Studio has proposed a Cornell Engineering Lunar Lab—a settlement on the Moon that could be used to prototype technologies supporting a permanent human presence there, on Mars, and beyond.

Top: A mechanical drawing class in the 1890s. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Published April 12, 2024


  1. A. Tod Campbell

    Great story with such an incredible summary of the successful history. I am honored to be a less notable part of it. 😉

  2. Thomas Boak, Class of 1969

    My grandfather (1914) and father (1939) both graduated from Sibley with degrees in Mechanical Engineering. There is no mention on either diploma of “Bachelor’s Degree”. The degree was just Mechanical Engineer.

  3. Louis (Kip) Miller, Class of 1957

    Under the dome of Sibley Hall was a nice library space where my roommate and I liked to study. But one day he pointed out the large clock that went TICK, TICK… So, I could never work there again. The arrangement of rooms, like other early Cornell buildings, was quaint. Perhaps the architects that inherited Sibley have been able to fix that. During my time we moved to Upson Hall whose interior was sensible but the walls were ugly cinder block.

  4. Luis A. Chaya, Class of 1989

    So much unknown history to many of us! Great article, great summary!

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