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The Birthplace of Engineering Education in Georgia

wpcoverA formal College of Engineering was established at the University of Georgia in 2012. But engineering at UGA has a surprisingly long history, stretching back to the decades before the American Civil War.

Over the next two years, a team of historians and engineers will be investigating the deep history of engineering education and research at the University of Georgia. The team will be posting articles on this website on a regular basis beginning August 2015. We welcome your feedback and input, particularly if you have any stories or artifacts you’d like to include in the project.

Brief Overview of Engineering @ UGA

The Early Years: 1837-1868

In 1837, a professor of Civil Engineering joined the faculty of the University of Georgia. From that point until the 1860s, instruction in engineering at UGA–as at most institutions of higher learning in the United States in the period–was not formalized. But in 1868, the University of Georgia graduated its first class of formally trained engineering students.

The Era of Rails and Roads: 1868-1934

From 1868 to 1934, engineering faculty and students at the University of Georgia contributed to a wide range of municipal, county, state, and federal projects. Transportation was a particularly high priority. Engineers at the University of Georgia played key roles in building an expanded railroad network that enabled a wave of industrialization in the late nineteenth century throughout the Piedmont South. By the turn of the century, several University of Georgia engineering faculty were nationally recognized figures in the Good Roads Movement, which sought to replace rutted, muddy roads with paved modern highways.

The Era of Agricultural Prominence: 1934-1998

A reorganization of the university system in Georgia in the early 1930s changed the nature of engineering education in the state, as most engineering programs were consolidated at Georgia Tech from that point forward. Agricultural engineering, however, remained prominent at the University of Georgia, the state’s flagship land-grant research university. Included among UGA’s influential engineering faculty in this period was Rudolph H. Driftmier, whose tireless efforts on behalf of engineering research and education were recognized in later years when an engineering building (built in 1966) was named in his honor.

Maturation: 1998-2012

From the late 1990s to the early 21st century, a team of faculty and university officials worked to develop a full-fledged College of Engineering. Navigating the transition from a Faculty of Engineering to a fully supported College entailed significant support from alumni, university administrators, and state officials.  Once officially launched in 2012, the College of Engineering at UGA became one of the fastest-growing public colleges of engineering in the United States, recognized for its innovative, interdisciplinary approach to research, education, and service to the state.


The A&M College, Coeducation, and Home Economics

Despite generous federal funding, the Georgia State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (the A&M college) lagged behind other similar institutions as the twentieth century began. By midcentury, UGA could claim to have one of the most successful and diverse agricultural studies programs in the nation. This transformation required a visionary leader, firm support from the administration, innovative course design, and a strong student body.

Dr. Andrew Soule, president of the A&M College from 1907 to 1933, embraced his mandate to modernize agricultural education in Georgia. Noted for his ability to turn nothing into something, Soule transformed the struggling A&M College into an exemplar of a modern research institution. Aware of the University’s mission to serve not only Athens but also all Georgians, Soule created the slogan, “Our Campus The State.”[1] His choice emphasized the College’s commitment to instruction, research, and extension.

Under his tenure, the A&M College encouraged farmers across Georgia to modernize cultivation methods.[2] Perhaps most significantly, Soule promoted crop diversification, encouraging farmers to envision a South not beholden to King Cotton, but self-sufficient and immune to the boom and bust price fluctuations of the world market. Soule recognized that monoculture, or the intensive cultivation of a single crop, made farmers vulnerable to infestation and climatic change.

President Soule embodied the spirit of the Progressive Era through a commitment to the professionalization of agricultural education. The Atlanta Journal explained Soule’s legacy: “He diffused an idea and shed abroad a hope that marked an epoch in Georgia’s history: the idea that agriculture was not a fixed task but a progressive science and art.”[3]

Soule’s reformist mindset led him to support the struggle of women to enter UGA on equal footing to men. Debates over admitting women to degree-granting programs at UGA only intensified with the conclusion of World War I. During the war, women took a leading role in food conservation efforts. Women’s leadership on the home front, coupled with the women-led coeducation campaigns that had been underway since the early 1900s, paved the way for women to officially enter public universities across the country.

Soule proved the most enthusiastic proponent of coeducation at UGA. Building on the effort of reformers, Soule’s proposal to admit women to UGA on equal status with men passed in 1919. Mary Creswell received a Bachelor’s of Science in Home Economics that spring, making her the first woman to receive an undergraduate degree. Creswell—along with other women students of her generation—exemplified the pains women took to have their ideas taken seriously. Over the next several decades, Creswell contributed to the development and growth of the Home Economics division (later Consumer Sciences department) at UGA.

Mary Creswell shared Soule’s commitment to the notion that scientific education could dramatically improve rural life. Noted for ‘prying’ her way into UGA before women formally gained admittance, Creswell helped to make coeducation a reality. Even without an official degree, Creswell assisted Soule and other women educators and activists in improving the lives of rural families through extension work. Fiercely passionate about preserving rural tradition, Creswell promoted ‘Home Demonstration’ as a tool to educate rural women about modern housekeeping. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized Creswell’s efforts in 1913, appointing her to a supervisory position within the Federal Extension Office.[4] Soule offered Creswell the role of Dean of the newly formed Home Economics division in 1918—a position she enthusiastically accepted despite the pay decrease.[5]

Helping farm families adapt to an industrializing world–the purpose of Home Demonstration work–remained Creswell’s top priority throughout her career. Committed to fashioning housewives who could manage the modern home and family, UGA students travelled across Georgia demonstrating new home science techniques. Creswell idealized the farm family, claiming that a rural upbringing created the best type of citizen–industrious, thrifty, cooperative, dedicated, and humble.[6] Nevertheless, she approached her work with rural women and students from a scientific perspective, emphasizing observation, experimentation, and efficiency.

Creswell may have experienced the Roaring Twenties far removed from the ostentation and materialism often associated with the decade. However, she was not immune to the anxiety and allure of the era–new luxuries, greater freedoms, and unceasing innovation. F. Scott Fitzgerald captured such ambivalence in The Great Gatsby. As the narrator explained, “I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” Creswell’s approach to Home Economics highlighted such tensions. While she embraced modern psychology, food science, and home technology, Creswell feared that modernization could undermine the rural family’s very existence. She viewed scientific management and technology, if applied within a strict social structure such as the rural home, as the cure for the South’s ails. Home Demonstration work helped to bring the University into rural homes, while giving women students a platform to learn and explore.

Home Demonstration work began across the United States in the 1910s to combat the effects of the boll weevil. Creswell labeled the response to the infestation, which decimated the South’s cotton crop by the 1920s, a revolution. Women’s roles in the home, especially on the farm, changed rapidly as the notorious beetle spread from Texas eastward into the Deep South. Farmers could no longer depend on their annual cotton yields to support their families. Creswell helped to establish gardening and canning clubs as a means to improve food security throughout the South.

This ‘into the kitchen through the garden’ approach allowed educators and extension workers to help adapt the rural home to modern life. Women learned to make and buy time-saving equipment, use natural resources efficiently and improve sanitation.[7] By the 1940s, the Home Demonstration movement had inspired thousands of women to attend college and help their communities. Creswell received much of the credit for her contribution to this effort in the state of Georgia.

Andrew Soule and Mary Creswell represented the pinnacle of the A&M College’s success. Upon his departure from the University in 1933, Soule wrote his staff and fellow faculty to continue his efforts. “It is one which I feel you will gladly assume for the sake of so great and worthy a cause as rural civilization,” Soule implored.[8] Throughout the first decades of the 1900s, many viewed the city–crowded, dirty, and bustling–in direct opposition to the simplicity, openness, and beauty of the countryside. Although the stillness of time has often characterized depictions of rural life, Andrew Soule and Mary Creswell knew the South must move forward. Another generation of leaders in the agricultural engineering department would take up their work after World War II.

[1] “Dr. Andrew Soule,” Atlanta Journal, Apr. 18, 1934.

[2] A Quarter Century of Progress, Vol. 20, Bul. 420, (Jan. 1932): 2-3.

[3] “Dr. Andrew M. Soule,” Atlanta Journal, Apr. 18, 1934.

[4] “Mary Ethel Creswell,” Epsilon Sigma Phi Yearbook 1936, 33.

[5] Mary Creswell, letter to her mother, 1918, Box 1, Folder 10, Mary Ethel Creswell papers, UA0014, University Archives, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, The University of Georgia Libraries.

[6] Mary Creswell, “Assets of the Rural Life,” (October 1937), Box 1, Folder 10, Mary Ethel Creswell papers, UA0014, University Archives, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, The University of Georgia Libraries.

[7] Creswell interview, Mary Ethel Creswell papers, UA0014, University Archives, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, The University of Georgia Libraries.

[8] Andrew Soule, Letter to Leila R. Mize, (20 June 1933), Box 1, Folder 7, Leila R. Mize papers, UA0020, University Archives, Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, The University of Georgia Libraries.

Early Engineering at UGA

In the decades after the Civil War, the University of Georgia expanded in new directions. The effort to build a “New South”  depended on urban and industrial growth. With a long tradition in the liberal arts, the university decided to formalize a civil and mining engineering degree to meet the mandate of the New South. G. D. Harris, William Kollock, John J. Nevitt, P. H. Harris, A. J. Orr, and John F. Kollock graduated with a degree in engineering in 1868, becoming the first official graduating class of engineering students in Georgia. [1]

Although the University of Georgia had offered engineering courses since 1835, the end of the Civil War spurred the modernization of scientific education in the South. A civil engineering degree was especially desirable in this era as southern states raced to rebuild infrastructure and end the economic depression. Young men with mighty ambitions turned to railroad engineering as a means to secure fame and, if not fortune, a sure route to middle-class comfort.

Railroads captured the imagination of many in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days appeared in the United States in 1874. The novel spoke to the younger generations, expanding their global consciousness and romanticizing the engineering profession. At one point, the voyage appears doomed when the passenger train encounters a dilapidated bridge. Luckily, a “true Yankee” engineer saves the day, ordering the conductor to increase the speed of the train in order to gain enough momentum to pass over the gully. Around the World in Eighty Days imbued rail technology with a magical component. At the same time, the novel’s popularity revealed a growing reverence for the engineering professionals who made long distance travel a possibility. [2]

The University of Georgia produced a series of successful railroad engineers in the closing decades of the 1800s. However, none exceeded the fame and success of Samuel Spencer (1847-1906). Spencer’s passion for engineering formed while he was at the University of Georgia, taking courses with Professor Leon Henri Charbonnier. Graduating in the year prior to the formalization of an engineering degree at UGA, Spencer was forced to finish his degree at the University of Virginia.

Spencer started his career in the Savannah & Memphis Railroad Company. He quickly rose through the ranks, managing railroads up and down the east coast. Without a doubt his legacy was the rapid expansion of the Southern Railway, which expanded from 4,391 miles to 7515 miles under his administration.

Spencer’s legacy in the South cannot be denied. Upon his death, his associate John Pierpont Morgan emphasized Spencer’s exemplary leadership. Employees of the Southern Railway Company raised funs to memorialize their former boss with a statue outside the Atlanta office. Spencer personified the spirit of the New South: “Born in the old order he grew up and was a leader in the new.”[3] His success reflected a well-known trope in the era, that of the railroad magnate. However, Spencer entered the railroad industry with core ideas, skills, and knowledge, which afforded him success in an industry where many others failed.

Engineering proved a dangerous profession in this era, and advancement did not come without a cost. Jim M. Edwards (Class of 1869), said to be the greatest railroad engineer to ever graduate from Georgia, met an untimely death when he was thrown from a train. [4] Robert Lee Johnson (Class of 1887) died suddenly in a collapse at an excavation site in Columbus, Georgia, where he was working. [5] Engineering was a high-risk, high-reward occupation throughout the nineteenth century.

Urban development proved immensely important to the post-Civil War South. Many engineering graduates pursued a career in architecture. John J. Nevitt (1848-1918), a member of the first graduating class, had a successful career in building design. While at Georgia, he excelled in bridge construction theory.[6] Nevitt spent much of his career designing private residences for Georgia elites. Throughout the state, Nevitt became known as the “church architect” for his work on Episcopal churches in Athens, Mt. Airy, and Savannah.[7] In 1894, the U.S. Treasury Department appointed Nevitt architect of construction in Savannah, putting him in charge of designing a new post office.

Alumni of the engineering department impacted the University of Georgia, the city of Athens, and the entire state of Georgia in enduring ways. David C. Barrow and Charles M. Strahan are memorable figures in the history of the University. Barrow graduated from with a degree in Civil Engineering in 1874. He served as professor of engineering, Dean of College of Liberal Arts, and in 1905, the Board of Trustees appointed him chancellor of the University System. Strahan received a civil and mining engineering degree from the University in 1883. His designs transformed the built environment of the Athens campus. Strahan oversaw the construction of many new facilities, including the iconic Academic Building on North Campus.

Strahan and Barrow helped to usher in a new era at the University of Georgia. Their initiatives helped to bring both the University and the Engineering Department to a new level of prominence.

[1] F. N. Boney, A Pictorial History of the University of Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia, 1984), 69.

[2] Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1876), 237-242.

[3] In Memoriam, Samuel Spencer (Atlanta: Southern Railway Company, 1910), 29.

[4] “Commission Orders Full Report of Wreck on Southern at Hiram,” The Atlanta Georgian, Jan. 8, 1908, 1.

[5] Thomas Walter Reed, History of the University of Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1949), 1261.

[6] “John J. Nevitt,” University of Georgia Centennial Alumni Catalog, Vol. 7: 597-600.

[7] The Industries of Savannah, Savannah, Ga: J.M. Elstner & Co., 1886: 48.

Rudolph Driftmier–The Iowa/Kansas Years

Rudolph Henry Driftmier was born March 10, 1898 in southwestern Iowa. His parents, John Frederick Driftmier and Mary Handorf, were also born in Iowa and had German fathers who both married mothers from Indiana. The family owned a small farm in Nodaway Township in Page County before moving into the small city of Clarinda. After graduating from Clarinda High School, “Rudie” attended Grinnell College in Iowa before transferring to Iowa State College in Ames. There he began studying agricultural engineering but his education was interrupted by the entry of the United States into the First World War.

Driftmier enlisted in the Army in June 1918 and served six months as part of the American Expeditionary Force in France. He was honorably discharged on March 20, 1919 and returned to Iowa, where he continued to pursue his degree at Iowa State while serving as an Assistant County Engineer in Page County. Driftmier’s life changed dramatically in 1920. He left his job in his home county, graduated with his Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Engineering, and married Helen Spry on June 30th in Clarinda. The young couple then moved to nearby Manhattan, Kansas—the “Little Apple” and home of Kansas State Agricultural College.

At Kansas State, Driftmier was a busy and active man with simultaneous roles as student, teacher, husband, father, and community citizen. While in Manhattan, Driftmier completed two degrees—a Master of Science in 1926 and an Agricultural Engineer degree in 1929. He had three children in Kansas—John Frederick in 1922, Betty Jo in 1924, and Helen Marie in 1928. Additionally, Driftmier served on the Manhattan City Planning Commission, all while simultaneously serving on the faculty at Kansas State. As a professor, he taught classes on farm power and machinery, water supply and proper sanitation, and how to manage farm buildings and equipment. He also conducted research into sewage disposal and machinery on farms.

Driftmier’s busiest roles were yet ahead of him, and in 1930 he made his biggest move yet—to the University of Georgia in Athens. Obtaining a job with the State College of Agriculture, Driftmier quickly became the head of the relatively new Agricultural Engineering department.

Charles M. Strahan (1864-1947)

No other person influenced the trajectory of UGA’s engineering department between 1885 and 1940 more than Charles Morton Strahan (1864-1947). In 1883, Strahan, a native of Virginia, graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in Civil and Mining Engineering. He joined the UGA faculty in 1884, teaching chemistry and then civil engineering. He would later serve as  Dean of the Engineering Department. During his 50 years at the University, the Engineering Department gained attention across the state of Georgia and at the national level.

Strahan was formally trained as a civil engineer, and he put his skills to good use transforming UGA’s campus. With the professionalization of new fields like library sciences came the need for new buildings. The early 1900s construction boom at UGA also stemmed from the modernizing efforts of Chancellor Walter Barnard Hill and Chancellor David Crenshaw Barrow. Strahan designed several buildings in the race to update the University of Georgia’s campus. Meigs Hall, Terrell Hall, and the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building on North Campus are the most prominent examples of Strahan’s work. [1]

As County Surveyor for Clarke County, Strahan also had the opportunity to make his mark on the Athens community. [2] During Strahan’s time at UGA, the Engineering Department gained fame in Georgia for efforts to expand the state highway system. Strahan was known as the “Father of the Good Roads in Georgia’ for his efforts to create a Georgia State Highway System. [3]

Surveying road construction, providing cost-efficient construction materials, and integrating small farms into the national economy were Strahan’s main goal during the Good Roads Movement of the 1890s onward. He embraced the logic of Progressive Era social reformers, promoting the use of convicted prisoners (many of whom were African American) as a cheap labor source that would allow the incarcerated to contribute to society. Although this policy received moral rebuke from certain sectors, the idea fit well with Progressive ideas of the era that suggested hard menial work would build strong character. In some instances, morality and the quest for modernity clashed, as it was clear to some that such “free” labor was predicated on a status of deep unfreedom for the many African American men who helped build the state’s Good Roads at no pay. Strahan sought to bring technical expertise to bear on the question of how to pull Georgia’s farmers “out of the mud” most cost-effectively, connecting Georgians to the national economy through roads paved with readily available topsoil made of recycled clay. His idea proved successful, and the use of unpaid convict labor helped transform Clarke County into a model for road construction.

While heavily invested in the development of Athens and Georgia, Strahan transformed the Good Roads movement into an academic institution. Explaining the benefits of the Extension department within the engineering division, Strahan stated:

The University of Georgia is the first, or among the first, to organize its civil engineering activities along the dual lines of training well equipped road engineers and civil engineering in its regular and special courses and at the same time placing its facilities, advice and experiences without charge at the service of the counties engaged in active road construction. [4]

Strahan was a grand thinker who, very much in the Progressive Era tradition, sought to merge academic questions with public needs, fusing  politics and education in a constructive and effective manner.

In the case of road construction, Strahan promoted a surveying method that valued efficiency over expertise. E. L Griggs, an associate professor of civil engineering at UGA, was clearly influenced by Strahan when he told the Atlanta Constitution: “It is of far greater importance that a road should have easy grades, perfect protection from water, and a good surface than [have] its curves, for example, [be] theoretically correct.” [5] Although economic and social factors sometimes influenced educational pursuits and technological innovation, the Engineering Department at UGA made a nationally recognized contribution to road development in this period.

UGA’s engineering department also became involved in battles between local citizens and large corporations. Strahan’s engineering students had long conducted annual surveying trips to put what they had learned in the classroom and laboratory into practice. The class of engineers gained public attention in 1912. Georgia’s governor commissioned Strahan and his colleague, Professor John Koch (himself a UGA graduate), to survey the Tallulah Falls region. The Tallulah Falls Conservation Association, the Georgia state government, and the Georgia Railway and Power Company engaged in a very public battle over ownership of the falls. Georgia Power wanted to develop Tallulah in to a power source. Georgians statewide reacted strongly against the commercial endeavors. Strahan and Koch both testified on behalf of Georgia Power, confirming to some degree the alliance between big businesses and educational institutions during this period. [6]

In 1911, President William Howard Taft invited Strahan and several colleagues from the American Society of Civil Engineers to visit the Panama Canal construction site. Writing in the Atlanta Constitution, Strahan extolled the project as a tremendous success. Such invitations on the part of the federal government had an obvious function. Engineers would visit the canal, return home, and lend legitimacy to the project through editorials, journal articles, and local political endeavors. Not surprisingly, Strahan viewed the Panama Canal project, which had gained criticism for exploitative working conditions, as a social good in Panama and the region. Strahan’s contribution to legitimizing the Panama Canal project in the United States reflected a growing emphasis on scientific expertise in modern U.S. society. [7]

Strahan would continue to work at the University until 1944, but his political activities did decline over the last decades of his life. Still he created a template for future leaders in the engineering department, notably Rudolph Drifmier, who would do for the Agricultural Engineering Department what Strahan had done for civil engineering at the University of Georgia.



[1] F. N. Boney, A Pictorial History of the University of Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984),  98.

[2] Charles M. Strahan, Clarke County, Ga. And the City of Athens (Atlanta: Charles B. Byrd Printers, 1908).

[3] “University of Ga.’s Dr. Strahan Dies at 83,” Atlanta Constitution, Dec. 29, 1947, 1.

[4] “Good Roads Conference at the University Soon,” Atlanta Georgian and News, Dec. 28, 1911.

[5] “Road Survey Basis of Good Highways,” New York Times, Jun. 15, 1913, 11.

[6] J. W. LeCraw, “Power Company Gains Big Point in Tallulah Suit,”  Atlanta Constitution, May 28, 1913, 1.

[7] Charles M. Strahan, “The Full Story of the Panama Canal Up To Date,” Atlanta Constitution, Apr. 23, 1911, a12.