History

A Forward-Looking Tradition

The uniquely broad and rigorous education SEAS offers is a student’s best preparation for a leadership role in engineering or in any of the diverse career paths our graduates follow. Proof of the effectiveness of our approach is the fact that the world has long welcomed Columbia engineers, who continue to distinguish themselves in almost every field of human endeavor.

The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science has a rich history.

A Colonial Charter
Since its founding in 1754, as King’s College, Columbia University has always been an institution both of and for the city of New York. And with an original charter directing it to teach, among other things, “the arts of Number and Measuring, of Surveying and Navigation . . . the knowledge of . . . various kinds of Meteors, Stones, Mines and Minerals, Plants and Animals, and everything useful for the Comfort, the Convenience and Elegance of Life,” it has also always been an institution of and for engineers.

Engineers for an Industrial Revolution
An early and influential graduate from the school was John Stevens, Class of 1768. Instrumental in the establishment of U.S. patent law, Stevens procured many patents in early steamboat technology, operated the first steam ferry between New York and New Jersey, received the first railroad charter in the U.S., built a pioneer locomotive, and amassed a fortune, which allowed his sons to found the Stevens Institute of Technology.

The Gilded Age
As the city grew, so did the school. King’s College was rechartered as Columbia College in 1784, and relocated from the Wall Street area to what is now Midtown in 1857. Students began entering the new School of Mines in 1864.

Trained in mining, mineralogy, and engineering, Columbia graduates continued to make their mark both at home and abroad. Working around the globe, William Barclay Parsons, Class of 1882, was an engineer on the Chinese railway and the Cape Cod and Panama Canals, and, most importantly for New York, chief engineer of the city’s first subway. Opened in 1904, the subway’s electric cars took passengers from City Hall to Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the newly renamed and relocated Columbia University in Morningside Heights, its present location on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. 

A Modern School for the Modern Era
The School of Mines became the School of Mines, Engineering, and Chemistry in 1896, and its professors —now called the Faculty of Applied Science—included by this time Michael Idvorsky Pupin, a graduate of the Class of 1883. As a professor at Columbia, Pupin did pioneering work in carrier-wave detection and current analysis, with important applications in radio broadcasting; invented the “Pupin coil,” which extended the range of long-distance telephones; and taught classes in electromechanics.

An early student of Pupin’s was Irving Langmuir. Graduating in the Class of 1903, Langmuir enjoyed a long career at the General Electric research laboratory, where he invented a gas-filled tungsten lamp; contributed to the development of the radio vacuum tube; extended Gilbert Lewis’s work on electron bonding and atomic structure; and did research in monolayering and surface chemistry, which led to a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1932.

Early work on radio vacuum tubes, however, was not restricted to private industry. Working with Pupin, an engineering student named Edwin Howard Armstrong was conducting experiments with the Audion tube in the basement of Philosophy Hall when he discovered how to amplify radio signals through regenerative circuits. Graduating a year later, in the Class of 1913, Armstrong was stationed in France during the First World War, where he invented the superheterodyne circuit to tune in and detect the frequencies of enemy aircraft ignition systems. After the war Armstrong improved his method of frequency modulation (FM) and by 1931 had both eliminated the static and improved the fidelity of radio broadcasting forever.

The Nuclear Age
As the United States evolved into a major twentieth-century political power, the University continued to build onto its undergraduate curriculum the broad range of influential graduate and professional schools that define it today.

Renamed once again in 1926, the School of Engineering prepared students for careers not only as engineers of nuclear-age technology, but as engineers of the far-reaching political implications of that technology as well.

After receiving a master’s degree from the School in 1929, Admiral Hyman George Rickover served during the Second World War as head of the electrical section of the Navy’s Bureau of Ships. A proponent of nuclear sea power, Rickover directed the planning and construction of the world’s first nuclear submarine, the 300-foot-long Nautilus, launched in 1954.

The Technological Age
Today, The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, as it was named in 1997, continues to provide leadership for scientific and educational advances. Even Joseph Engelberger, Class of 1946, the father of modern robotics, could not have anticipated the revolutionary speed with which cumbersome and expensive “big science” computers would shrink to the size of a wallet.

In 1986 the Engineering School was one of the first schools in the country to use videotapes as tools for distance learning. Today Columbia Video Network continues to be in the forefront of distance learning at the graduate level through its online education programs. Named as one of Forbes Magazine’s “Best of the Web,” CVN offers the opportunity for students anywhere in the world to enroll in certificate programs or obtain a master’s or professional degree from Columbia Engineering via the World Wide Web.

The New Century
No one could have imagined the explosive growth of technology and its interdisciplinary impact. The Engineering School is in a unique position to take advantage of the research facilities and talents housed at Columbia to form relationships among and between other schools and departments within the University.

The new Biomedical Engineering Department, with close ties to the Medical School, is but one example. Interdisciplinary centers are the norm, with cross-disciplinary research going on in environmental chemistry, materials science, medical digital libraries, digital government, new media technologies, and GK-12 education. The School and its departments have links to the Departments of Physics, Chemistry, Earth Science, and Mathematics, as well as the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Graduate School of Journalism, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Teachers College. 

The transforming gift of The Fu Foundation has catapulted the School into the forefront of collaborative research and teaching and has given students the opportunity to work with prize-winning academicians, including Nobel laureates, from many disciplines. 

The New Research
For the past several years, Columbia has been first among the handful of research universities that earn the largest patent income from inventions created by its faculty.

The University is the only academic institution that holds patents in the patent pool for the manufacture of MPEG-2, the technology that enables DVDs and high definition TV. Another exciting patent that holds great promise is a laser-based method to create a single crystal film for a variety of devices, from solar cells to thin-film transistors for flat panel displays for computers. Within a short time, it may be possible to put an entire computer on a sheet of glass or plastic, thanks to the innovations taking place in Engineering School labs.

A Forward-Looking Tradition
But, for all its change, there is still a continuous educational thread that remains the same.

The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science still remains an institution of manageable size within a great university. Committed to the educational philosophy that a broad, rigorous exposure to the liberal arts provides the surest chart with which an engineer can navigate the future, all undergraduates must complete a modified but equally rigorous version of Columbia College’s celebrated Core Curriculum. And all graduates are encouraged to be increasingly aware of the enormous impact their work can have on the society and on the earth.

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