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Rearview Mirror: Hanson to Harris to Hopkins

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I can never pass up good alliteration to segue into talking about the Institute’s first president.

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The first president of the Georgia School of Technology, Dr. Isaac S. Hopkins.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/22463)

Tech’s early years quickly established a routine: struggling to make ends meet financially, grappling with the political wrangling of powers-that-be that would rather it not, well, exist, at least not in its present form, and a fiercely regimented routine. These are almost entirely thanks to the first man at the helm: Dr. Isaac S. Hopkins.


Perhaps you’ve noticed a thing or two about the characters of the memories of the days gone by as you’ve read through the first couple of weeks of the history column. Surprisingly, the names aren’t that unfamiliar, especially to, say, former residents of East Campus dormitories. John F. Hanson, brainchild of the Georgia School of Technology and quite literally a scion of the Southland, is memorialized in a nondescript expansion-era building abutting the Downtown Connector on the edge of campus. The man he enlisted to champion his idea, future Governor Nathaniel E. Harris, received a namesake building in 1926, mirroring neo-collegiate gothic Cloudman Hall on the Brittain Lawn, and overlooking Bobby Dodd Stadium on Techwood Drive. And, of course, the third man, Georgia Tech’s first president, has a residence hall named for him next door to Hanson Hall on Third Street. These men, though from quite long ago, aren’t all that unfamiliar, even to the average newly-minted Tech student.

But on to Dr. Hopkins - to get to him, we need to take a glance back at the trustees, specifically the primary movers and shakers: Harris, the chairman, and the Atlantan Samuel M. Inman.

Tech started laying its faculty foundation almost a full calendar year before the Institute first opened its doors. Doubling down on its commitment to the Worcester Free Institute model, which prioritized shop culture over perceived ivory tower academics like those of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tech shelled out its first $5,000 to hire away a Worcester professor, M. P. Higgins, for a year of consultation on matters of curricula and shop operation. The center aspect to the early Tech culture was hands-on experience in the working environment. This would also theoretically boost school income, by selling products made in the shops. In the earliest days, Tech was forbidden to charge tuition, and was grossly underfunded by the Georgia State Legislature. Therefore, having a shop running in tip-top shape was vital.

The Commission, of course, was deciding all of these matters independently before seeking the input of the University of Georgia system board, aligning with their interpretation of the school charter. This would become the Institute’s other primary struggle, and probably the one that remains more relevant in the present day. The Commission, joined now by newer faces like Henry Grady, fleshed out an administrative structure and selected eight faculty chairs: Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering, Physics, Mechanical Drawing, Architecture, Mathematics, English, and Geology, in that order. The only degree offered for the time being was a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, and only one man was proposed to head the fledgling school: Dr. Isaac S. Hopkins.

Hopkins’ workshop at Emory, where he was tinkering with his own idea of the technical education.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/22622)

Hopkins, who was both a Methodist preacher and a physicist, had grown tired of his presidency of Emory College in Oxford. The man, who sought to set up Georgia’s first college-level mechanical arts program at Emory, had quite an impressive pedigree for a school that had not even opened its doors. The academics at his old university frowned upon his innovative education model, seeing it as beneath the purview of esteemed higher education, much like how the state university out East desired to subject the “junior” technological school to the professional schools in Athens, so he left to midwife the new school on North Avenue.

The first faculty member was a Mathematics professor named Lyman Hall. Remember that name; he gets important later. The rest of the chairs were filled, with the most notable being John Saylor Coon, whose already-impressive pedigree included the first American-built dynamo electric machine, as the first professor of Mechanical Engineering and later the first chair of that same school. 129 students registered for the first full year of classes at the Georgia School of Technology, mostly, but not solely, freshmen. Just 29 of the first freshman class made it to graduation. The first two graduates, meanwhile, enrolled as juniors. Legend has it that they decided the graduation order with a flip of a coin; Henry L. Smith was followed by George G. Crawford. On that opening day, some of the great leaders of the state were in attendance, but no remarks were more fitting than that of the Institute’s inspired creator, Nathaniel Harris. He spoke presumably to Hanson, the dreamer, saying, “Sir, our work is done, and with our hands outstretched in blessing and prayer, we commit the child to the keeping of that great people into whose favor and affection it must struggle to make its way.” Harris did not miss the mark, as the Institute’s tenuous existence would continuously demonstrate that prediction to be wholly accurate.

The early days of Georgia Tech were just as rough on the students, if not more so than the operational issues were on the Commission and the administration. Under Hopkins’ leadership, school was split evenly between degree-required classes and hands-on work. The eventual inferno that consumed the Old Shops notwithstanding, the nature of Tech’s specific adaptation of shop culture was problematic. The very idea of selling the goods produced to fund the school’s operation muddied the already-unfamiliar concept of engineering education for Southerners. Like previously stated a few weeks back, we can thank that for the derisive “trade school” name. Not to mention that it just did not generate that much revenue. Tech had no money, and was plunged even further into the financial abyss when the shops were consumed by fire one night in 1892. Though Hopkins raised money to replace the shop building, thankfully partially covered by insurance, the state’s yearly input of around $20,000, coupled with Atlanta’s $2,500 contribution, was not nearly enough to fix problematic shortcomings like the lack of a dining hall, dormitories, or outlets for student extra-curricular activities, sports, and organizations. Tech did not yet even have a library or a health facility, let alone the other myriad of things present on today’s campus. The preacher-physicist-president oversaw a rigorously organized daily routine with early wake-ups, mandated daily chapel visits and attendance at least once a week at church services, and daily work stretching deep into the evening. The strict limitations on life outside of school and shops compounded the course load. For every uninformed doubter who presumed Tech to be churning out “blacksmiths” with basic trade school knowledge, there were a handful of students that couldn’t keep up with the fierce academic, moral, and social regulations of the Institute. Before there was “look to your left, look to your right,” it was quite literally “look to you left and look to your right.” Most did not make it out of the Georgia School of Technology with a degree in the early years.

The new “Old Shop Building” constructed after the fire.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/5856)

Needed change came with the elimination of the revenue shops and campus expansion, of course, though those came after the destruction of the Old Shop Building and the end of the Hopkins presidency, respectively. Conveniently, both marked the unification of the Shop Superintendent position into Coon’s fiefdom of Mechanical Engineering, but that’s a story for another time. The fact of the matter is that Hopkins was the right man to get Tech off of the drawing board and become a functioning school. Obviously not everything was perfect, be it the revenue shops not actually making a profit, regardless of the fire, the minuscule retention rate, or the tiny physical plant. However, financial constraints were not his fault, nor was he failing to execute the grand vision the state and the Commission set out for him. It certainly took years to work out the kinks, far beyond the years he gave the Institute. He was a more than serviceable leader to organize the school pioneering a brand-new form of education in the South. His rapid reconstruction of the burnt-down shops and the eventual birth of student activities like debate societies and, in 1892, football, charted the Institute on a path to safer waters. All that remained was ironing out the many, many imperfections inherent to the birth of the new organization.

Hopkins was truly excellent at many things, and his preaching background leant him superb oratory skills. In a controversial and remarkable speech in 1889, he declared,

“The engineer, after all, must be distinct and separate from the mere artisan or mechanic...he is efficient only by as much as possesses large and accurate knowledge of the principles of the science with which he deals and has learned in laboratory and workshop to verify these principles by actual experiment and observation. By this new education we have led the boy of to-day to unaccustomed heights. We have bidden him to look below into the broad valleys and beautiful fields of human endeavor. The sun of an old civilization is setting behind him, a civilization of which he, perhaps, could not without experience understand the charm. The mystery of vision is now upon him...it remains with the boy.”

In his address, not only did he defend the school he helped to build with rhetorical flourish, but also outlined the future of Tech - one with more fields, opportunities, and facilities. Without the leadership of the supremely gifted Hopkins, who knows where Tech would be today. After eight years at the helm, he retired from the hassle of administrative duty in 1896. He spent the rest of his days preaching and passed away in 1914.

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 and images used in writing this column.


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, as my selection of resources here at Georgia Tech-Lorraine is a little bit thinner than what I have on my shelves in Atlanta. I am open to all ideas!