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Rearview Mirror: ROTC, An Exciting Corps of Learning and Skill

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As perhaps this site’s first Yahtzee reference, it’s a stretch. Oh well. Better luck next time.

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The Army ROTC, circa 1950.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (http://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/879)

The Georgia School of Technology was created as the latest in education, an institution solely dedicated to the instruction of the next generation of Georgians in the skills of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It was at first seen in a skeptical light, but, as the fervent support surrounding the initiative grew, its stance as the logical evolutionary endpoint of education in the industrial age became more apparent. Even then, it barely got off the ground. For years it struggled as an underfunded, outmanned school that made tremendous hay with the modest resources it was given. It is fitting, then, that the one event that changed everything for the Institute that was pitched as the endpoint of educational advancement was the War to End all Wars.


SARAJEVO, AUSTRIA-HUNGARY, JUNE 28th, 1914 - Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot as

Though Rearview Mirror may be From the Rumble Seat’s premier history column, analyzing the root causes of the First World War is not on the docket for this week. However, the Great War, which started in 1914 from a single spark in the restless Balkans, grew into an inferno that brought most of the planet into a four year long conflict played out across the globe. By 1917, this included the United States, though the foundations of war were being laid even before then. In June 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Defense Act. Among many other things, this established the first Tech Reserve Officer Training Units, branches of service that placed young men on the Flats to learn engineering while also being prepared for military service. The Signal Corps and the Coast Artillery, seemingly small when compared to the broader Naval, Air Force, and Army branches Tech would eventually secure, would prove to be the ballast that helped set Tech on the right course towards permanent stability.

Tech’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, as they became known later, were the first to be granted to a Southern school. The war-time training programs, which continued Tech’s long line of turning out excellent military leaders sprouting from Leonard Wood and Kendall Fielder, keep that tradition alive to the current day.

When the war eventually broke out, Georgia Tech, like most schools, threw open its doors to the federal government, offering to help the war effort in any way possible. The federal government, of course, responded that then, more than ever, did the country need the type of education offered by the Hill. Georgia Tech’s enrollment numbers, already trending steadily upward, lurched farther that way once more. Not satisfied with Tech’s offering as it stood, the government, desiring more educational opportunities for aviators, support crew, and suppliers, kicked in more funding to open specialized war-time curriculum, thanks to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which also bolstered the existing engineering departments. The desire of supply officers, though, would manifest itself in perhaps the most obvious way: the incorporation of what is known today as the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering. Thanks to the rapid ramp-up in federal funding to universities, Tech secured what would become one of its crown jewel programs. The Stewart School has been the number one undergraduate program of its kind for 23 years in a row, and the graduate program for 28. Tech has World War One to thank for that.

The curricular increase naturally led to an uptick in student population as well, both civilian and military alike. Though the latter took newer classes in specialized fields like radio communication, wireless telegraphy, and road construction, they were Tech students indeed.

The war effort extended all the way to the president’s office as well, as seen in the Board of Trustees meeting minutes from January 18th, 1918. President Matheson was asked by the YMCA War Council to participate in behind-the-front duties with the American Expeditionary Forces. Though they desired a year’s leave for his trip to France, he was given a six month absence and stayed until near the end of the war.

The urgency of the war shortened many programs related to the military to just two years, instead of the usual four. This was accomplished by cutting down vacation and breaks to the bare minimum. Over one thousand regular soldiers were also training at this time.

Many returning veterans after the war came back to finish classes. The Rehabilitation Department oversaw their transition back to the States. However, the increased enrollment didn’t subside, and these additional students finally proved to wear out Tech’s meager financial, administrative, and physical resources. For a few years after the war, Tech was bursting at the seams.

Though the war brought new programs, some of which stayed around for a while, like the geology program and Industrial Engineering, it also increased the burden on Tech’s already strained position. Tech, however, finally cemented its place in the overarching vision of higher education in the state and region. No longer could the state legislature pretend that Tech was just an arm of the school out East. It had received its contracts completely independently of Athens, and was granted them because it very clearly did what the government wanted - and that wasn’t something that they could offer up in Clarke County. Georgia Tech ultimately prospered thanks to the infusion of resources and investments offered by the tragedy of World War One. Tech thrived because its technological education was one of the finest in the nation, right when the nation needed technical skill the most.

In the midst of the war, Tech was stocked full of able-bodied men. The school in Athens, however, was not. Most of its young men were enlisted, and it, unlike the Yellow Jackets, did not field a football team in 1917 and 1918. It is a true shame two of John Heisman’s finest Georgia Tech teams were unable to play their biggest rivals. This substantial difference between the wartime character of the two campuses would later prove highly inflammatory, but that’s a story for another time. Tech fielded some two outstanding teams, and, yes, it was aided by the federal mandate to stockpile as much excellent engineering and physical talent on the Flats to participate in training programs and degrees useful to the military. But, the fact of the matter is, this infusion pushed Tech into the stratosphere.

This isn’t to say that’s solely because of the two reserve units or because of the single investment from the government, but more of what it represented. Matheson’s entire tenure had been aimed at advancing the power of the Georgia Tech education. The Hill, eager to shed the clunky notion of Georgia Tech as a trade school, pushed Tech farther and farther up the list of prestigious technical institutes and universities not just in the nation, but in the world as well. For the first time, Georgia Tech was something truly special. Outsiders noticed. The federal government noticed, too. Its investment proved the most significant propulsion towards what we know today. Tech had level ground to stand on financially, and powerful interests outside of Macon and Atlanta pushing it towards success. The Tech we know today, shaped by great men like Isaac Hopkins, Lyman Hall, Matheson, Heisman, and those who came after them - some of whom were even students at the time like George Griffin and William Alexander - really came into form with the war, and the creation of the Industrial Engineering department, among other things, in the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917.

Sure, the consequences of that success - like the ironic increase in budgetary pressures and the struggle to find competent faculty willing to come to the South and teach on a modest salary - exacerbated some issues. But, in the long haul, the Great War brought far more good than harm to the Flats.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, 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!