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Rensselaer’s yearlong 175th anniversary celebration included major events that attracted astronauts, technological scholars, and alumni from around the country who celebrated the university’s role of pushing America to the forefront of cutting-edge technology.
A hundred years ago, the university celebrated in much the same way. In 1899, the 75th anniversary festivities included a number of events that marked Rensselaer’s already rich history of engineering and technology.
One major event was “a trip to the great gun plant at the Watervliet Arsenal,” as recorded by the student newspaper, the Polytechnic. The university wanted to get a first-hand look at the latest model of the Seacoast Cannon, which was still in its development stages.
The 50-foot-long cannon, with a 16-inch bore diameter and weighing 190 tons, represented the newest technology of the day, according to John Swantek, the present Watervliet Arsenal public affairs officer.
The technology to build such a cannon was the 19th-century counterpart of the “Star Wars” defense system spearheaded in the 1980s.
“The object was to build the best defense system ever installed in the United States, and the idea was to protect the entire American coastline with these massive guns,” Swantek says. “At that time, we were still concerned about an attack from Europe. The Spanish-American War had just ended, and it was a time when America was beginning to flex her muscles internationally.”
The Polytechnic said the new Seacoast Cannon was “the largest gun that has ever been manufactured in this country, and it probably will never be duplicated.”
Although cannons today are more powerful, the Seacoast Cannon’s 16-inch bore and the World War II naval guns of the same diameter remain the largest guns ever made in America, Swantek says.
Rensselaer has a long, historical relationship with the Watervliet Arsenal, which was built in 1813. Many students conducted projects at the arsenal and many secured jobs there after graduation.