Tech’s moniker reveals its true history
North Avenue Trade School. Most students are familiar with this moniker for our beloved institute, but I’ll venture to say that few are familiar enough with Tech’s history to realize just how accurate it is. Our origins are actually very close to a trade school, and those origins are still reflected today in the attitudes of the students and faculty. Tech, that is, the Georgia School of Technology, was founded for the purpose of turning out engineers to work in the factories of the post-reconstruction New South. The committee established to investigate the feasibility of a technology school in Georgia decided to build a school modeled after the shop-oriented Worchester Free Institute of Industrial Sciences (today’s WPI) rather than the research-oriented Boston Tech (currently MIT).
Under the Worchester model, the students enrolled in the school would spend part of their day in classes and part in the machine shop. There they would go through an apprenticeship to learn the tools of the shop and then proceed to produce goods that would be sold by the school. This way they gained experience and earned revenue for the school to subsidize their tuition.
There were several advantages for the Worchester model. First, the experience of working in and running a machine shop gave graduating students the skills necessary to build and run a working factory in an area that had a small industrial base. Second, the revenue generated by the shop would help pay for the school. This was significant because the state government had extremely limited funds. In fact, the school was founded for the nominal sum of $19,000, which is roughly $350,000 in today’s dollars. Finally, the shop work reduced tuition and gave full scholarships to many students.
Therefore, for the first years of Tech’s existence, students studied courses in the morning and worked in the shop in the afternoon. Students started off as apprentices their first year and worked their way up through the ranks of the shop as they studied through their course load.
Unfortunately, the shop wasn’t a total success. Production quality and volume were not high enough to generate significant revenue for the school, though it did break even. It was, however, still run for a number of years to provide students with practical experience. The shop building itself was burned to the ground in 1892, was rebuilt in 1893 and subsequently razed in 1967. The steam engine in front of Tech Tower marks this location and serves as a reminder of Tech’s origins.
As our school matured, the shop took on a smaller role and has now been eliminated, but the pragmatic leanings that it represents have been a constant influence on Tech’s policies and agenda. For example, up until the mid-1940s all students, regardless of major, had to build a working electric motor as a graduation requirement. During World War II, the school adopted an accelerated schedule to meet the needs of the military, and nearly all students participated in ROTC. We currently have, as the co-op office is so happy to point out, the largest voluntary co-op program in the country.
In every case, Tech has produced excellent engineers to get work done, get it done efficiently and to fill the needs of industry, whatever that industry might be. The idea of producing rank-and-file graduates to fill the needs of industry has become ingrained in the Institute psyche, the academic policies, and the attitudes of the student body and faculty.
I believe that Tech attracts, prepares and graduates people who are workers rather than dreamers. This is the root cause for a number of Tech’s quirks among what the Hill likes to refer to as our “peer institutions.”
Among these quirks are the student body’s political apathy and our low six-year graduation rate. It’s the reason I can count the number of students I know who are even thinking about starting a business on one hand. It is the reason you don’t hear about companies started by Tech alumni taking the world by storm. I’m sure some Tech startups must exist, but I can easily think of a number of Fortune 500 companies started by MIT, Stanford and Berkeley grads. The schools that are most highly ranked, such as Industrial Engineering, are those whose graduates tend to work within large organizations. Put simply, Tech is an environment that promotes results over innovation. It’s the reason we’re not the highest-ranked school in the country. It will take time to change this, and I believe the administration is, knowingly or not, working towards a more innovative environment. We’re just not there yet.