Reprinted from ASEE/SEFI/TUB International Colloquium, October 1, 2002. 8 pages. Publisher website: http://www.asee.org/conferences/index.cfm
NOTE: At the time of publication, the author William Durgin was not yet affiliated with Cal Poly.
Since it’s founding in 1865, the faculty, students, and alumni of Worcester Polytechnic Institute have been responsible for the establishment of nearly all the manufacturing industry in the region. Beginning with the Norton Company, a world-wide abrasives manufacturer now owned by Saint Gobain, to recent biotechnology companies, they have combined confidence, innovation, and resourcefulness to continuously accomplish what is now referred to as technology transfer to form start-up companies. By following the historical development of these firms, we seek to determine some of the traits and environmental factors that have fostered the continual entrepreneurial success of the founders.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute was founded by leading industrialists to provide graduates trained in the mechanical arts in order to support the burgeoning manufacturing community of the North American industrial revolution. The educational philosophies of the two principal financial contributors were substantially at odds: one believed that the traditional “book-learning” as practiced in many of the early American universities would be the appropriate curriculum while the other believed that a hands-on apprenticeship in a workshop environment would be more suitable. As it turned out, each financed the construction of a major building; one to provide classroom instruction and the other mechanical shops and laboratories. This theory and practice philosophy still prevails today and was also adopted by such colleges as Rose-Hulman, Illinois Institute of Technology (formerly Armour Institute) and Georgia Tech.
From the beginning, WPI students conducted independent research and development projects embodied in a senior thesis requirement until 1970 and in the Major Qualifying Project, one of the primary degree requirements, subsequently. Students and faculty work together to solve open-ended projects derived from real problems of industry. It will be argued that the technological self-reliance, active learning, and discovery embodied in such projects promote entrepreneurship. Examples will include: Wyman Gordon, automotive and aircraft forging; Morgan Construction, steel mills; Alden Research Laboratory, hydraulic research; Jamesbury Corporation, ball valves; Viva Scan, biomedical sensors; NASA, the area/drag rule development and DEKA, the stair climbing wheelchair.