A COLONIAL CHARTER
Since its founding in 1754, as King’s College, Columbia University has always been an institution both of and for the City of New York. And it has always been an institution of and for engineers. In its original charter, the college stated that it would teach, among other things, “the arts of Number and Measuring, of Surveying and Navigation, . . . the knowledge of . . . Meteors, Stones, Mines and Minerals, Plants and Animals, and everything useful for the Comfort, the Convenience and Elegance of Life.”
An early and influential graduate from the School was John Stevens, Class of 1768. Instrumental in the establishment of U.S. patent law, Stevens procured many patents in early steamboat technology, operated the first steam ferry between New York and New Jersey, received the first railroad charter in the U.S., built a pioneer locomotive, and amassed a fortune, which allowed his sons to found the Stevens Institute of Technology.
THE GILDED AGE
As the city grew, so did the School. King’s College was rechartered as Columbia College in 1784, and relocated from the Wall Street area to what is now Midtown in 1857. Students began entering the new School of Mines in 1864. Trained in mining, mineralogy, and engineering, Columbia graduates continued to make their mark both at home and abroad.
Working around the globe, William Barclay Parsons, Class of 1882, was an engineer on the Chinese railway and the Cape Cod and Panama Canals. Most importantly for New York, he was chief engineer of the city’s first subway. Opened in 1904, the subway’s electric cars took passengers from City Hall to Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the newly renamed and relocated Columbia University in Morningside Heights.
A MODERN SCHOOL FOR MODERN TIMES
The School of Mines became the School of Mines, Engineering, and Chemistry in 1896, and its professors—now called the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science—included Michael Idvorsky Pupin, a graduate of the Columbia College Class of 1883. As a professor at Columbia, Pupin did pioneering work in carrier-wave detection and current analysis, with important applications in radio broadcasting. He is perhaps most famous for having invented the “Pupin coil,” which extended the range of long-distance telephones.
An early student of Pupin’s was Irving Langmuir. Langmuir, Class of 1903, enjoyed a long career at the General Electric research laboratory. There he invented a gas-filled tungsten lamp, contributed to the development of the radio vacuum tube, and extended Gilbert Lewis’s work on electron bonding and atomic structure. His research in monolayering and surface chemistry led to a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1932.
But early work on radio vacuum tubes was not restricted to private industry. Working with Pupin, an engineering student named Edwin Howard Armstrong was conducting experiments with the Audion tube in the basement of Philosophy Hall when he discovered how to amplify radio signals through regenerative circuits. Armstrong, Class of 1913, was stationed in France during the First World War, where he invented the superheterodyne circuit to tune in and detect the frequencies of enemy aircraft ignition systems. After the war, Armstrong improved his method of frequency modulation (FM), and by 1931, had both eliminated the static and improved the fidelity of radio broadcasting forever. The historic significance of Armstrong’s contributions was recognized by the U.S. government when the Philosophy Hall laboratory was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003.
As the United States evolved into a major twentieth-century political power, the University continued to build onto its undergraduate curriculum the broad range of influential graduate and professional schools that define it today. Renamed once again in 1926, the School of Engineering prepared students for careers not only as engineers of nuclear-age technology, but as leaders engaged with the far-reaching political implications of that technology as well.
After receiving a master’s degree from the School in 1929, Admiral Hyman George Rickover served during the Second World War as head of the electrical section of the Navy’s Bureau of Ships. A proponent of nuclear sea power, Rickover directed the planning and construction of the world’s first nuclear submarine, the 300-foot-long Nautilus, launched in 1954.
TECHNOLOGY AND BEYOND
Today, The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, as it was named in 1997, continues to provide leadership for scientific and educational advances. Even Joseph Engelberger, Class of 1946, the father of modern robotics, could not have anticipated the revolutionary speed with which cumbersome and expensive “big science” computers would shrink to the size of a wallet.
No one could have imagined the explosive growth of technology and its interdisciplinary impact. The Engineering School is in a unique position to take advantage of the research facilities and talents housed at Columbia to form relationships among and between other schools and departments within the University. The School’s newest department, Biomedical Engineering, with close ties to the Medical School, is but one example. Interdisciplinary centers are the norm, with cross-disciplinary research going on in biomedical imaging, environmental chemistry, materials science, nanotechnology, digital government, and new media technologies. The School and its departments have links to the Departments of Physics, Chemistry, Earth Science, and Mathematics, as well as the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Graduate School of Journalism, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Teachers College, Columbia Business School, and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The transforming gift of The Fu Foundation has catapulted the School into the forefront of collaborative research and teaching and has given students the opportunity to work with prize-winning academicians, including Nobel laureates, from many disciplines.
NEW RESEARCH FRONTIERS
Columbia’s technology transfer office, Columbia Technology Ventures, works with faculty inventors to commercialize ideas and brings in millions in licensing revenue annually.
Columbia’s technology transfer office, Columbia Technology Ventures, works with faculty inventors to commercialize ideas and brings in millions in licensing revenue annually. Columbia Engineering faculty have been instrumental in developing some of the most successful inventions in consumer electronics, as well as establishing many of the widely accepted global standards for storage and transmission of high-quality audio and video data. Columbia is the only university actively participating in a broad range of standards-based patent pools, including AVC (Advanced Video Coding), the world standard for audio/video compression that is now one of the most commonly used HD formats and most commonly used in streaming media; and ATSC, a standard developed by the Advanced Television Systems Committee for digital television transmission. It is now the U.S. standard for recording and retrieval of data and HD audio-visual media. In addition to the standards, Columbia Engineering faculty have patents in areas as diverse as modular cameras, waste management, a search engine that matches facial features, and even methods to combat virtual reality sickness.
Increasingly, the inventions emerging from Columbia Engineering are developed in collaboration with biomedical and other researchers, expanding the potential applications for their important work. Programs such as the Columbia-Coulter Translational Research Partnership, PowerBridgeNY, the NYC Media Lab Combine program, and the Integrated Photonics Manufacturing Innovation Hub in Rochester, NY, are strengthening interdisciplinary capacity and fostering an entrepreneurial and inventive energy within the School. Some of these programs have helped prepare ideas for commercialization, including personalized robotics for use in physical rehabilitation and an implantable device that acts as a minimally-invasive glucose sensor for diabetic patients.
Another exciting area at Columbia Engineering is entrepreneurship. In 2016, the School’s faculty and students generated 120 inventions, almost 40 licenses and options, and four startup companies in all kinds of fields, from biomedical to cleantech to high-tech.
Throughout the academic year, the School hosts many activities and networking events to support its active startup community, including the Columbia Engineering Fast Pitch Competition, Columbia Venture Competition, Design Challenges, Hackathons, and the Ignition Grants program, which funds ventures started by current students.
The School's Translational Fellows Program (TFP) supports 20 percent of the salary of selected SEAS postdoctoral researchers and research scientists for one year, providing them with the opportunity to pursue commercialization of a technology that originated in their research work here at the Engineering School. Another exciting way the School fosters entrepreneurship is with its Coulter Program. A major goal of the program is to educate researchers, clinicians, and students about the many aspects involved in commercializing biomedical innovation.
Entrepreneurship remains an important central educational theme at Columbia Engineering. The School offers a range of programs and a 15-credit, interdisciplinary minor in entrepreneurship made up of both Engineering and Business School courses. The School also provides a four-year entrepreneurship experience for all interested Columbia Engineering students, regardless of major.
And for alumni, entrepreneurial support continues. The Columbia Startup Lab, a co-working facility located in SoHo, provides subsidized space for 71 Columbia alumni entrepreneurs to house and nurture their fledgling ventures. The Lab is the result of a unique partnership between the deans of Columbia College and the Schools of Business, Engineering, Law, and International and Public Affairs.
A FORWARD-LOOKING TRADITION
But, for all its change, there is still a continuous educational thread that remains the same. Columbia Engineering still remains an institution of manageable size within a great university. Committed to the educational philosophy that a broad, rigorous exposure to the liberal arts provides the surest chart with which an engineer can navigate the future, all undergraduates must complete a modified but equally rigorous version of Columbia College’s celebrated Core Curriculum. It is these selected courses in contemporary civilization in the West and other global cultures that best prepare a student for advanced coursework; a wide range of eventual professions; and a continuing, life-long pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and social perspective. It is also these Core courses that most closely tie today’s student to the alumni of centuries past. Through a shared exposure to the nontechnical areas, all Columbia Engineering students— past, present, and future—gain the humanistic tools needed to build lives not solely as technical innovators, but as social and political ones as well.