Mechanical Engineering at The University of British Columbia

by Dr. Eric Damer

The University of British Columbia's Department of Mechanical Engineering was one of the first departments to welcome students when the university opened in 1915, although the origins of the department were much earlier. From the earliest days, the department was intended to play a role in the province's industrial and technological evolution, but it inevitably took part in British Columbia's social development as well. The department helped to shape, and was shaped by, its local society.

Higher education came late to the "new" province of British Columbia, delayed by debate over the nature and location of the university. By the early 1900s, however, Vancouver High School had affiliated with Montreal's McGill University to prepare students for university admission. When Richard McBride swept to victory as premier in 1903, he introduced a new scheme for higher education. Circumventing public debate, McBride's government created the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning in 1906 to oversee a post-secondary college sponsored by McGill University: the McGill University College of British Columbia. The province was entering a period of rapid industrial expansion that needed skilled industrial workers, so instruction in mechanical engineering was provided when the college opened in 1907. Although "McGill BC" was small and changed location several times in Vancouver between 1906 and 1915, it provided the first few years toward a McGill degree in applied science or arts (humanities and natural science).

Some McGill BC applied science students came from leading business families, but others had less affluent origins and were eager to raise their occupational standing. Established engineers also sent their sons to the college (McGill BC prohibited women in applied science), but debate remained amongst engineers about whether the university was the proper place to learn the profession at all. As British Columbia was too young and too small to support an apprenticeship system, locals interested in becoming engineers generally supported McGill BC.

When the University of British Columbia finally opened in 1915, it assumed McGill BC's responsibilities. Lawrence Killam (of the well-known and influential Nova Scotia Killam family) had been hired as a professor at the earlier college and now became the sole member of the university's Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science. The new government that had replaced McBride's Conservatives was less enthused about higher education and, under restraint caused by the First World War, postponed plans to expand the university. Killam and his shop demonstrators were left in old, cramped classrooms, laboratories, and machine shops, and were still unable to offer a complete degree.

The war's end, however, provided a boost for the department. Like governments in Britain and other western countries, the Canadian and British Columbian governments made provisions to re-educate demobilized soldiers. Those with an academic background enrolled in UBC's degree-granting programs, while others enrolled in adult vocational programs. The Mechanical Engineering Department at UBC received funds to coordinate comprehensive courses in mechanics, hiring staff and acquiring new equipment. With this post-war boost, the department's budget in 1920 allowed for a Head and a syllabus to complete a degree in mechanical engineering.

1920 was also the year of new legislation in British Columbia that protected the title "professional engineer." The new professional association worked to ensure that only proficient and responsible engineers earned the right to the title, and the Department of Mechanical Engineering became an ally in providing an appropriate education. Members of the department joined and supported the professional association. In return, graduates of the mechanical engineering program, like graduates of UBC's other engineering programs, did not have to write the professional entrance examinations.

Little by little, the department attracted undergraduates to its degree-granting program where they learned the underlying principles of engineering practice. The university moved to Point Grey in 1925, providing mechanical engineering students with new facilities in which to study. After a few years learning basic mathematics and science, and such skills as mechanical drawing, students studied steam and internal combustion engines, heaters and refrigerators, compressed air plants, aerodynamics, and mechanical design. Some even branched into electrical engineering, creating a new division in the department. Standards were high, and many first-year students did not see graduation. Despite a challenging curriculum, the number of students successfully completing a mechanical engineering degree slowly increased during the 1920s. Following graduation, most registered as professional engineers and found suitable employment, especially in such resource industries as pulp and paper. Students even remained optimistic during the Depression, confident of employment once the economy recovered. Despite financial cutbacks, the Department of Mechanical Engineering continued to enjoy relatively good funding during the 1930s. Enrollment continued to climb during the decade, encouraged by emergency grants from the provincial government to the Faculty of Applied Science. When the Second World War shook the world, mechanical engineering students were in high demand. Undergraduates were encouraged to finish their degrees and enlist in the armed forces or enter war-related industries. Many of them did. After hostilities ceased, veterans supported by federal funds flocked to the department in the largest numbers ever. By the late 1940s, the department's role in preparing professional mechanical engineers was well established.

One missing element in the department was a program of research. A department Head had resigned in 1936 to protest the lack of adequate research facilities and funding. During the Second World War, authorities turned to the Departments of Physics, Chemistry, and Biology for scientific and technical expertise rather than Mechanical Engineering. However, the war prompted a new vision of UBC as a research university, and members of the department began small research projects. A new university administration was keen to encourage research, and the federal government was beginning to provide grants through the National Research Council. By the early 1950s, faculty members in the department were investigating aerodynamics; stress, corrosion and metal fatigue; centrifugal fans; smoke abatement; nuclear energy; wax deposition in long oil pipelines; and refrigeration, heating, and ventilation.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, mechanical engineering gained unprecedented attention in Canada as elsewhere. As Cold War fears boosted research funding from the NRC and the Defense Research Board, UBC's Department of Mechanical Engineering hired a wave of young, highly educated, research-oriented professors. During the 1960s, they were obtaining grants to investigate such diverse fields as space dynamics and controls, solid mechanics, acoustics, lubrication and wear, optical controls, alternative fuels, and bio-engineering.

As research increased in the department, so too did graduate education. Undergraduates learned of new careers in research and design that required advanced education. Graduate students in mechanical engineering took advanced courses and were typically hired as research assistants by professors to complete requirements for a Master of Applied Science degree. Graduate education increased slowly during the 1950s, but jumped rapidly in the following decade as faculty research increased. The department offered a doctorate in 1965, with the first PhD awarded in 1968.

Despite this shift to research and graduate studies, the department retained a commitment to undergraduate education for aspiring professional engineers, and enrollment continued to rise. However, the curriculum since the war had put increasing emphasis on mathematics and engineering science. By the 1960s, the department offered two curricular emphases, "engineering practice" and "research and development." Some local engineers questioned whether the new emphasis on research and theory was in the best interest of the engineering profession. In response, department members helped to re- define the professional engineer as a research-based designer and planner who could lead a new class of engineering technician. The British Columbia Institute of Technology opened in 1964 to prepare engineering technicians, freeing the Department of Mechanical Engineering to pursue its research-oriented curriculum. To ensure the department's relevance to the profession, professors helped to create a national accreditation body to enforce standards of engineering education. The department became accredited in 1965, and has remained so since.

Several social changes began to influence the department in the 1960s. As British Columbia society relaxed its discriminatory attitudes and practices toward ethnic minorities, more and more students of non-European descent entered the department. Women also increasingly entered the department; the first graduated in 1967 and later completed a doctorate. The student movement of the late 1960s also affected Mechanical Engineering, leaving traditionally high-spirited students a little more sensitive to contemporary social attitudes and behaviours.

The early 1970s was a prosperous period for the department. Generous federal transfer payments meant adequate funding for professorial appointments, and class sizes remained small despite growing undergraduate enrollment. The department occupied new buildings in 1972 and again in 1976, a welcome relief from the crowded old buildings that had been home since 1925. Research grants to support faculty interests were plentiful, supporting high quality research and a burgeoning graduate program. Students also found a new way to combine their education with extra-curricular social activities, participating in local, national, and international student engineering competitions, often winning top prizes.

Yet the period of prosperity would not last. Federal funding schemes changed in the late 1970s, with predictable results. Research grants shrunk and graduate enrollment dipped as potential students opted for more lucrative careers elsewhere. Department researchers scrambled to secure funding from other sources, including the provincial government and private organizations. Student enrollment continued to increase but faculty hiring had stabilized, leading to larger undergraduate class sizes. The public sector restraint that swept British Columbia during the early 1980s left the department seeking creative new ways to secure funding for teaching and research staff.

The department succeeded in finding these new ways. It became an integral part of UBC's new Centre for Integrated Computer Systems Research, contributing in the areas of robotics, controls, and automation. The Centre was itself supported by targeted government funds and private investment. Members of the department obtained basic and strategic research grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, a national funding body that was increasingly supported by corporate donations. Contracts from various levels of government and industry also went to department researchers in increasing numbers. The department even attracted privately endowed chairs and, by the late 1990s, federal research chairs in targeted research areas. All this new funding helped to off-set decreases in the operating budget, allowing for a rebuilt graduate program and new, desperately needed teaching staff.

Undergraduate students still learned basic mathematics and science, but were now introduced to a new high-tech world. Computers and electro-mechanical engineering gained particular prominence, and students could specialize in such areas as naval architecture, robotics, automation, and later thermofluids, bio-engineering, and environmental engineering. In 1985, what had been a five year program (a preliminary year of science and four years of engineering) became four in order to compete with other four-year university programs. Co-op programs interweaving study terms with employment terms began in the early 1980s, and ten years later had become popular options for Mechanical Engineering students. Students continued to find good employment after graduation, and increasingly in urban, high-tech industries.

The UBC Department of Mechanical Engineering left the twentieth century as a well- regarded engineering department. Compared to other university departments that were stricken with tight budgets and large teaching loads, Mechanical Engineering had done well. But this success was not simply a result of technological change. It was also due to the mutually beneficial relationships that existed between the department and its students, the professional association, industry at home and abroad, and different levels of government. The department had done well over the years not only in teaching and research, but in maintaining the social networks that would ensure its success.

[The department actually became the Department of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering in 1922, and lasted as such until 1951. This synopsis covers only mechanical engineering, a distinct program.]

Contributed by Dr. Eric Damer, UBC, May 2002

Adapted from Eric Damer, Discovery by Design: The Origins and History of the Department of Mechanical Engineering of The University of British Columbia, Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2002.