Treatise on Hydraulics textbook used by Purdue students studying Mechanics in the early 20th century. Textbook available within Purdue Archives and Special Collections, call number 627 M55t8.

Knowledge Doesn’t Die, by Connor Vickers

Blog Entry One     //     Blog Entry Two     //     Blog Entry Three
To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

Blog Entry One, March 10th 2016
The Power of a Textbook to Connect Past and Present Purdue Students

The eighth edition of Treatise on Hydraulics by Mansfield Merriman was a textbook used by students in the 1903 to 1904 academic year. This object offers insight into this time period of Purdue as it is the source material students read in their study of the applied sciences. Study of this object provides a unique perspective into the link between the history of university in terms of academics and the history of the university in terms of the students. The opportunity to make this connection is made possible because the university library safeguarded this text through the century.

Treatise on Hydraulics textbook used by Purdue students studying Mechanics in the early 20th century. Textbook available within Purdue Archives and Special Collections, call number 627 M55t8.

Treatise on Hydraulics textbook used by Purdue students studying Mechanics in the early 20th century. Textbook available within Purdue Archives and Special Collections, call number 627 M55t8.


This copy from the Purdue Special Collections is roughly six by nine inches and 400 pages long. It was published in 1889 by John Wiley and Sons. There are several notable markings on this copy of the text. “Purdue University Library Lafayette, IND” is stamped throughout the book. Filling a blank page at the end of the book is a student’s work for three problems.

Initial Thoughts & Future Research

Study of this copy of Treatise on Hydraulics raises many questions. Did most students have their own textbooks at the time or did they rely on library copies like this one? How did students approach studying and mastering material with limited access to supplemental resources? During the time this book was being used in courses at Purdue there existed a very odd tradition. At the end of each academic year, senior mechanical engineers would hold a ceremony known as the Mechanics Burning. In which they burned authors of their books in effigy. Was there a disconnect from the perceived value of higher education and/or contempt against pompous east-coast academics?

The study of the flow of practical information from academia to students and finally to industry may also be intriguing. How did the students apply information they learned in this textbook? Study of this question will also give insight into the value of a Purdue education at the time.

A final topic of inquiry could regard the long amount of time the book was in circulation at Purdue’s library. Does the stability of courses indicate a maturation of the field or that professors prioritized research over updating their courses.

Blog Entry Two, April 25th 2016
Engineering Education at the Turn of the Century

Traditionally engineering in the United States was focused on technical skills and implementing proven designs. After college, engineers took apprenticeships on projects to pick up even more technical skills. This methodology worked during the US’s expansion because most engineering projects, such as railroads, were similar in design. Engineers designed new rail lines by implementing well-know traditional designs. There was very little innovation. New engineering problems arose with increasing urbanization and advancing industrial capacity. To align learning objectives with these new needs, teaching techniques needed to change. This change would be most effective at land grant universities due to growing class sizes. Around 1876, Cornell Robert, a Mechanical Engineering Professor at Cornell, was leading an effort to shift engineering education in America away from the shop and toward science taught in the classroom. The precedent for this approach was set by European countries, in particular Germany. Around the same time a recent graduate from Yale, by the name of Mansfield Merriman, went on a six-month trip to Germany in order to learn their teaching style.

Photo of Mansfeild Merriman from Hydraulics in the United States 1776-1976, by Hunter Rouse

On August 29, 1896 Merriman published an article entitled “Past and Present Tendencies in Engineering Education” in Scientific American. In the article Merriman justifies why “If such practical work be carried out beyond the extent necessary to illustrate principles it may be a source of danger.” This shift in engineering education methodologies toward the science slowly propagated across many institutions.

In 1889, Merriman published the first edition of Treatise on Hydraulics. The book’s scientific approach became popular in many introductory hydraulics classes. It gained popularity and was revised all the way through 1916 with its tenth edition. 53,000 copies of the tenth edition were printed compared to 30,000 of the eighth edition and 3,000 of the fourth.

The eighth edition of Treatise on Hydraulics was in use by Purdue students in the 1903 to 1904 academic year. The copy available from the Purdue Special Collections Archive can be used as an example of how engineering teaching techniques changed at the turn of the 18th century. In the book, Merriman exemplifies the switch from technical skills toward scientific logic. As an example, consider this discussion of masonry dams: “The preceding articles show that the pressure on the back of a masonry dam is normal to that at every point. … It is not the place here to enter into the discussion of the subject of the design of masonry dams.” (28) In addition Merriman also includes discussion questions to improve student comprehension:

Diagram of a Masonry Dam from Treatise on Hydraulics, 7th Edition, by Mansfeild Merriman

Prob. 22 A dam whose cross-section is a triangle has a vertical back, is 3 feet at the base, and 15 feet high. Find the height to which the water may rise behind it it in order to cause failure.

Through his textbook, Merriman passed on the influence of more effective education to the class of 1904 here at Purdue.

Blog Entry Three, May 12th 2016
The Need for Change

The Second Industrial Revolution around 1900 brought the largest economic growth rate the US has ever experienced and created a massive demand for more engineers.[1] Large land grant institutions were set to address this demand and help grow the middle class with their founding mission:

To teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.[2]

vickers three

Automobile production and automobile manufacturers from 1858 to 2005

In addition to handling the large increase in attendance, professors had to change their teaching style to address industry needs. No longer could engineering be effectively taught by mentors or technical means because industry required solutions to novel problems. For instance, in 1900, there were 8000 automobiles in the United States, and by 1920 there were 8.5 million.[3]

The growing popularity of automobiles created economic pressure to improve the efficiency of engines and petroleum refining. There were no mentors to learn from or established ways to follow. Instead, the best engineering education was to educate students in scientific principles that could be used to solve novel problems. As Mansfield Merriman, the author of the textbook I’ve been studying all semester, states:

The aim of all education, and of engineering education in particular, should be to render the student conscious of his mental power and sure of applying it with scientific accuracy so as to secure economy of construction. Fundamental principles are hence more important than the details of the trade, and all exercises in design should be arranged so the student may think for himself rather than blindly copy the best practice of the best engineers.[4]

These conditions ultimately led to a change in engineering education, the effects of which can still be felt today.

By studying textbooks this semester, I have observed historic changes in education’s focus and methods. This research has lead me to appreciate the nuance of how society, the economy, and research effects higher education.


[1] Vatter, Harold G., Walker, John F, Alperovitz, Gar The Onset and Persistence of Secular Stagnation in the U.S. Economy: 1910-1990.

[2] Morrill Act of 1862 (7 U.S.C. § 304)

[3] Neil McElwee, Susan Beates, and David Weber Drake Well Museum Oil History Timeline

[4] Mansfield Merriman, “Past and Present Tendencies in Engineering Education.” Scientific American, August 29, 1896 page 259


To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

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