Green Hall, home to Princeton’s School of Engineering from 1927 until 1963.
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Mark Czajkowski (2019)

Science can amuse and fascinate us all, but it is engineering that changes the world. — Isaac Asimov

The increased attendees at a reinvigorated Alumni Day this month may require some smelling salts. If you haven’t been on campus in a while (thanks, COVID) you’re in for a shock. Not only have two new entire colleges popped up beyond Poe Field in place of a magically transported soccer stadium, but one of the largest construction projects in the University’s history is perking along and impossible to miss. The new Environmental Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Science complex is not only huge — 2/3 of a million square feet, more than double the size of the new Frick chem lab or the entire current E-Quad or Jadwin Gym, bigger than both new colleges combined — but it is essentially linear, stretching from the Center for Jewish Life just off Washington Road to the prior site of the underground computer center and Stevenson Hall (old-timers alert!) far down Prospect Avenue. The siting alone guarantees it will be as high-profile when completed as it is with all the construction fencing. Certainly justified by the popularity of the two sprawling academic fields involved — and that’s without computer science, moving across the street to the old Guyot Hall — it’s still a highly dramatic move. This leads to repetition of the basic question that’s bounced around for 150 years, then when they built Green Hall just for the engineers, then when they built the E-Quad, every time they expanded the undergraduate student body: Why does a liberal arts college have an engineering curriculum?

The Engineering School was created a century ago — its centennial in 2021 was badly messed up by COVID, just like Alumni Day — but for its real place at Princeton, we need to go back a stunningly long way before. In a sense, president John Witherspoon’s fascination with science, embodied in his purchase of the ill-starred (sorry about that…) Rittenhouse Orrery, foreshadowed his student Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769’s hiring of John Maclean Sr., the country’s first chemistry professor in 1795. This also inadvertently brought into the mix John Maclean Jr. 1816, whose shepherding of the college, faculty and alumni as vice president from 1829-54 and president from 1854-68 not only kept the flame of the sciences burning, but on multiple levels laid the groundwork for much heavier applied science advancements to come over the next century. The linchpin of this, of course (you, the Ardent Historian, have been keeping up with your 19th century science, right?), was the famed Joseph Henry, who from 1832-46 was not only a wildly popular teacher of physics, chemistry, and architecture, but also the chair of “Natural History” while performing unprecedented experiments in electromagnetism. Meanwhile his brother-in-law Stephen Alexander was teaching astronomy to almost equal acclaim, as was John Torrey in botany. Internationally renowned Swiss geologist Arnold Guyot came on board in 1854, and 10 years later the faculty as a whole, backed by Henry, now a trustee, formally proposed the college create a school of applied science, to encompass chemistry, physics, metallurgy, civil engineering, applied mechanics, and similar goodies. The trustees liked it, but in the middle of the Civil War, the money couldn’t be found. As quixotic as this seemed, its timing and impact were crucial.

Which brings us to a separate thread in the story, which prominently features … a lawyer. Actually, in the 19th century, a very important lawyer. Born to a farmer in Lawrenceville and the great-great-grandson of the first college president John Dickinson, Henry Woodhull Green 1820 was fastidious as an undergraduate, where he maintained records of the students’ Commencement speeches his junior and senior years which still reside in the archives. After law school and practice in Trenton, he nudged into politics and became a delegate to the New Jersey constitutional convention of 1844, where he opposed election of judges. Two years later, he was named (not elected) the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Thus he became a featured speaker at the college’s centennial ceremonies in June 1847, which was coincidentally the celebrated opening of the ill-fated law school. In 1850 he became a college trustee and served prominently on the board until his death in 1876. In the meantime, he had left the Supreme Court in 1860 to be named the Chancellor of the New Jersey Chancery Court, since 1948 a vanished function. In 1864, he turned down Abraham Lincoln’s offer of a spot on the U.S. Supreme Court because of questionable health. Henry Esq. was now ensconced as Chancellor Green.  

Maybe to you, but to John Cleve Green he was the beloved little brother. John was part of the very first class at Lawrenceville School in 1814, then headed up the road to New York to make his fortune. Which he did, twice over. His strikingly Dickensian career began as a clerk with a firm in the Chinese trade where his superb clerkitude earned him a field assignment as supercargo — i.e. chief controller — of a succession of the great clippers of his time in voyages to South America and China. He returned ashore in 1833, but this time in Canton, as head of Russell & Co., the largest American trading firm in Asia. He battled the established British firms there, while they all expanded their trade throughout Asia, dealing in tea, silk, and increasingly opium and a growing variety of other goods. He returned to New York in 1839 with a small fortune and a list of commercial contacts across the globe; by 1868 this had become a large fortune, enhanced by investments in the railroads that were transforming the country. His children had all died as youngsters, and he felt the need to be benevolent with his riches.

And then in 1868 came the final thread, the bolt of energy from Scotland, President James McCosh. Little brother Henry Green, you recall, had been a trustee for 18 years and was waiting for the new president with big brother John on alert at the other end of the new train line from Princeton Junction to New York. To say McCosh and John hit it off is a wild understatement. Initiating new optional courses for the students, but with no place to put them, McCosh hit Green up for the new Dickinson Hall (named after great-great-grandpa John) in 1870, the first dedicated classroom building ever built at Princeton. The college’s library, which existed more as rumor than functional facility, was reimagined as the stunning Chancellor Green Library, the first ever built here and second largest college library in the country, standing between Nassau Hall and Dickinson in 1873. John footed the bill, and named it for his accomplished brother, the trustee. Not one to let the grass grow, McCosh was simultaneously acting on the faculty’s (remember the faculty?) applied science proposal from the decade prior. At his request, John endowed a physics professorship named for Joseph Henry, still a very proactive trustee 30 years after taking his job at the new Smithsonian. This lured in the top electrical science/engineering professor in the country, Cyrus Fogg Brackett of Bowdoin, who hobnobbed with Edison and testified for Alexander Graham Bell in his patent suit. Then in turn John endowed a professorship in civil engineering, so Charles McMillan, an acknowledged expert on water and sewage issues, came on board from Lehigh to start the first engineering department in 1875. But monumentally, John built the imposing John C. Green School of Science on Washington Road; in another nice family note, its construction was overseen by Charles Ewing Green 1860, who succeeded his father Henry as college trustee. It opened in 1874, a huge stone symbol of the college’s commitment to the applied sciences and engineering. Brackett’s facility, with a boost from Edison, became the first electrically lit college classroom in the country. He then created the graduate program in electrical engineering, the first in the country, in 1889; he would remain the embodiment of physics and electrical engineering at Princeton until his retirement in 1908. The father of one of his students donated the Palmer Physical Laboratory (now the Frist Campus Center) at the same time. McMillan, the first engineering department head, taught until 1916, 41 years, at which point the engineering departments were overflowing the Green School building. . 

The School of Engineering would later be officially christened in 1921 with much brouhaha (World War I gave a big boost to scientific research, as wars often do), and the whole kit and kaboodle moved across the street to the new John C. Green Hall in 1928 (the School of Science then burned, as if to emphasize the finality) to give the school a dedicated home. But it’s most likely the future of engineering at Princeton was already assured the day James McCosh and Green first shook hands more than 50 years before.