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Rearview Mirror: Square One

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Tech’s first rivalry traces its roots to before the school opened its doors in 1888.

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The campus as it appeared in 1888.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/1411)

After getting positive feedback from a couple of one-off history pieces I’ve done in the fairly recent past, I’ve been meaning to follow up with a more regular look at the rich legacy we as Tech fans are proud to share. With non-revenue sports in the postseason grind, therefore making Yellow Jacket Roundup shorter, and at the same time being free from other extra-curricular writings for the summer, I figured now was as good of a time as ever to pull a few books off of the shelf and start a history column. Here goes nothing, and this week we’ll start with the origins of the Georgia Institute of Technology itself.


The roots of the Georgia School of Technology, as it was first known, can be traced to the tail end of the Civil War. Following the war, the southern states were in the midst of a transition from a primarily agrarian society to one increasingly saturated with industrial manufacturing. A certain vein of Tech’s School of Public Policy is inclined to insinuate certain, say, Athenian, parts of the state are still undergoing the aftereffects of this change. They, in turn, argue that the university in Clarke County reflects old-fashioned, genteel Southern society, with professional degrees and schools representing traditional Southern economic outlets, whereas Tech reflects the modern vision of the postwar era. That the school in Athens, which dubs itself the birthplace of higher education in America, has continued down this path for more than a century now leads one to believe this “traditional” vein will persevere. Regardless, the Reconstruction process only exacerbated the economic shift of the times, creating the need for technological education.

In 1882, cotton reigned supreme in the state of Georgia. No matter that nearly two decades of manufacturing progress had slowly but surely turned the state into the South’s largest industrial outlet, the majority of the state’s output was committed to King Cotton. To presume this to be counterproductive is false, though, as harnassing traditional exports to advance modern thought, like the legacy of the influential 1881 Atlanta International Cotton Exposition, was certainly a step in the right direction. Enter John Hanson.

Here he is.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/3786)

Besides promoting diversity in the predominantly cotton-based industrial landscape, training native Georgians in engineering and manufacturing remained a prevailing concern. Though transplanted Northerners and other professionals advanced industrial goals, proving both lucrative financially and productive to their philosophical goals, prominent manufacturer-visionaries like Hanson of Macon were convinced that a source of Georgian mechanical intellect must be developed.

Hanson found a worthy ally in local attorney Nathaniel Edwin Harris. The two men were able to quickly advance their cause through their respective positions of power. The manufacturer Hanson also headed the prominent newspaper, the Macon Telegraph and Messenger, replete with iconic columnist Henry Stillwell Edwards. Meanwhile, Harris ran a successful campaign for state legislature, the start of a prolific career. The politician would go on to become the state’s 61st governor decades later. The two Macon men were apprehensive about securing adequate funding for the school, correctly foreshadowing an issue that hounded the school for decades. However, thanks to Edwards and his powerful editorials, their cause was adopted by other prominent Georgians. Henry Grady, champion of the New South, provided an important outlet for the cause in the capital through his Atlanta Constitution. The dream of providing an affordable, or even free, technical education to the citizens of Georgia was inching closer to reality.

Once elected to the state legislature, Harris got to work developing a bill in support of the new school. Following its narrow passage, he developed a committee of ten members, including himself, to investigate the potential school, which was to be endowed by the state and intended to fall under the purview of the state university.

The committee ventured to four northeastern model schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The ten men, however, felt the methodology of the Worcester Free Institute, later known as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, better reflected the needs of the state of Georgia. This choice, that of “shop culture” over “school culture,” continues to define the difference between Georgia Tech and other leading engineering schools, most demonstrably through the nation’s premier capstone senior design initiative, project-focused classes like ME 2110 and BMED 2250, and the InVenture Prize. This practical, hands-on approach has attracted its share of detractors over the years, most obviously from the derisive “trade school” jeer. It arises from the inconsistencies between our modern sense of the word technology, a word whose meaning has been in tumult for the better part of two centuries. This phrase, though incorrect, wasn’t necessarily false either when the school first opened its doors, with our modern understanding of the language. In the 130 years since, however, Tech has embraced its cultural difference as the key to setting it apart from other schools.

Back in 1883, the deck was stacked against the ratification of the manufacturing school bill. The relative newness of the concept of technological education, resistance to non-classical education by key interests, most notably those in Athens, and powerful agricultural titans all lined up against the school. The new state constitutional provision not to enter debt for any reason hamstrung the potential school’s funding as well. The Georgia School of Technology was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Harris, along with the vocal Joseph M. Terrell and R. B. Russell, convinced the dominating agricultural interests to back the bill, theorizing that increased mechanization would lead to superior output, a net positive for their industry. Meanwhile, the school in Athens saw themselves as the parent college of any tech school founded in Georgia, and added their support. The implication being that the new school would be an arm of the state university, destined for Athens. The chancellor of the state university considered the removal of the technical school from the state university a mortal and unrecoverable wound, and every recourse was taken to have the industrial education school located on the grounds of the existing school.

After a contentious vote and revote, House Bill 8 was passed and signed by the governor on October 13th, 1885. The Georgia School of Technology officially existed. By January, a commission tasked to run the school was officially founded. Harris, Samuel Inman of Atlanta, and three other men representing interests from around the state were chosen to head up the search for a permanent location for the school. Harris was elected chairman, where he stayed until his death in 1929.

The committee received five bids, conveniently representing home constituencies of each board member. Bids from Athens, Atlanta, Macon, Penfield, and Millidgeville were tied through 21 rounds of voting before the Millidgeville representative threw his support behind the Atlanta proposal. Three more rounds passed before Atlanta was chosen by majority vote. Some controversy surrounds the actual results, as the minutes reflect the Athenian representative switching sides to support Atlanta. However, contemporary reports in Athens’ newspaper, as well as the riots in the town following the vote, including the burning of the “traitorous” Columbus Heard of Penfield in effigy, suggest that the consequences of an Athens man dropping support of his hometown’s bid would be seismic and not taken particularly lightly. The relationship between the two separate institutions was off to a fantastic start.

The new school received lump sums of $65,000 from state and $70,000 dollars from the city of Atlanta, as well as an endowment from the city totaling $2,500 per year. A gift of four acres from Edward Peters, his first of several donations, brought the campus to nine acres of land just outside city limits on North Avenue.

The Old Shop Building, circa 1890
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/5848)

The first two buildings, the iconic building now known as Tech Tower, and its twin, the Old Shop Building, were completed by October, 1888, when the first class was matriculated. It was a small group, composed primarily of in-state students, and it offered one degree: Mechanical Engineering. The students studied for half of the day and worked the shops in the second half, using their hands-on training to give them both experience and to output goods to fund the school’s continued operation. This arrangement, indeed somewhat reminiscent of a trade school, proved cumbersome and did not last long, as Tech quickly moved away from the for-profit shop. The set-up attempted to solve one of Tech’s two pervasive problems, which defined it for generations: consistent, crippling lack of funding and the interference of the educational establishment, be it directly from the school in Athens, the board of regents they dominated, or the state government they influenced. Thus, political maneuvering not only shielded the young flame of Georgia Tech, but fanned the embers of Clean, Old Fashioned Hate.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Cracking the Solid South, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information used in writing this column.


For now, we’ll start from the beginnings and work our way forward. I promise, there will be more sports in the next one. As my selection of resources here at Georgia Tech-Lorraine is a little bit thinner than what I have on my shelves in Atlanta, there aren’t any guarantees I’ll find enough information on any given topic. However, if you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to delve into it when I am back in Atlanta.