Rensselaer's 175th Anniversary Web Site

From Eaton to Roebling to Low:
Rensselaer History Celebrated

David McCullough
"I am convinced that Amos Eaton's idea of learning by doing is so right, so real, so important, and never more so than right now."

—David McCullough

The Brooklyn Bridge is more than a way to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan. It is, said David McCullough, one of the finest of American symbols, fashioned by a true American hero. That hero, Rensselaer alumnus Washington Roebling, was committed to "creating something of real public value," said McCullough, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of The Brooklyn Bridge.
  McCullough spoke at Rensselaer's Founders Day on Nov. 6, part of the Institute's 175th Anniversary celebration. He was one of a group of scholars of the history of technology and of technological education who took part in the daylong symposium exploring Rensselaer's role in shaping American history. Presentations by Merritt Roe Smith of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stuart Leslie of Johns Hopkins University, Thomas Carroll, executive director of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, Institute Dean Thomas Phelan, and Rensselaer historian Carl Westerdahl also highlighted the day.

Stuart Leslie
Stuart Leslie

  The Founders Day symposium explored the revolutionary change in science and technology education begun in 1824 by Amos Eaton and Stephen Van Rensselaer. In that year, Van Rensselaer and Eaton began their "Magnificent Experiment"--creating a pioneering technological school in upstate New York that departed radically from traditional methods in higher education. "It was a year worth reckoning with--not least of all because it marked the beginning of RPI, one of the great schools of engineering and science education and application in America," said Smith.

Merritt Roe Smith
Merritt Roe Smith

  Leslie examined the role of science and the university in advancing regional economic prosperity. He addressed the much-debated question of whether a phenomenon such as California's Silicon Valley could occur today in New York's Hudson Valley. Leslie recalled George Low's "Rensselaer 2000" plan, which Leslie called "a remarkable blueprint to carry RPI to the millennium." Low hoped to mimic the successful partnership between Stanford University and the Silicon Valley. "Low may not have been able to accomplish all he had intended for RPI and for the Capital District," Leslie said, "but that should not obscure how far he did move RPI and the region in the right direction."

Thomas Phelan
Thomas Phelan

  The Founders Day event demonstrated that the contributions of Rensselaer's founders went well beyond anything they anticipated, even in their most optimistic hours. "I am convinced that Amos Eaton's idea of learning by doing is so right, so real, so important, and never more so than right now," said McCullough.
  For more on Founders Day and other 175th Anniversary events, visit the Web site at


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