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British Industrial History

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Robert Henry Thurston

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Professor Robert H. Thurston (1839-1903) of Stevens Institute and later Cornell University

He was Assistant Professor at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis and a published specialist on iron and steel as well as steam engines, when he was invited in 1871 by Stevens’ president Henry Morton to head mechanical engineering at Stevens. The same year Thurston was appointed the first professor of mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology.

1839 October 25th. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, the eldest son of Robert Lawton Thurston and his wife Harriet Thurston of Providence. He was trained in the workshop of his father, and graduated from Brown University in 1859.

Thurston was engaged with the business firm of which his father was senior partner until 1861, when he entered the navy as an officer of engineers. He served during the civil war on various vessels, and was present at the Battle of Port Royal and at the Siege of Charleston. He was attached to the North and South Atlantic squadrons until the close of 1865.

In 1865 he was stationed as Assistant Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, where he also acted as lecturer on chemistry and physics.

In 1870 he visited Europe, for the purpose of studying the British iron manufacturing districts, and in 1871 was appointed Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology. In that year he conducted, in behalf of a committee of the American Institute, a series of experiments on steam boilers, in which, for the first time, all losses of heat were noted, and by condensing all the steam generated, the quantity of water entrained by the steam was accurately noted.

In 1873 he was appointed a member of the United States Scientific Commission to the Vienna Exhibition; served upon the international jury, edited the Report of the Commissioners (in which he published his own report on machinery and manufactures), in five volumes, 1875-6.

In 1874 and subsequently he conducted, at the Stevens Institute of Technology, a series of researches on the efficiency of prime movers and machines, and upon the strength and other essential properties of the materials of construction.

In 1875 he was appointed a member of the United States Commission on the causes of boiler explosions, and of the Board to test the metals used in construction. He is a member of various scientific associations in the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany, and has written numerous papers on technical subjects, which have appeared in scientific journals in Europe and America, and has prepared articles upon similar topics for this Cyclopedia.

He was made vice-president of the American Institute of Mining Engineers in 1875; he was made vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at Nashville, in 1877, in the absence of Professor Pickering, elected at the preceding meeting, and was regularly elected to serve again in 187S, at the St. Louis meeting of the association.

From 1880 to 1882 Thurston was the first president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

In 1885 he left the Stevens Institute of Technology to replace John Edison Sweet as director of Sibley College at Cornell University, reorganizing it as a college of mechanical engineering.

In 1885, he received an honorary Degree of Engineering from Stevens.

1903 October 25th. Died in Ithaca, New York.

Thurston held two patents: one an autographic recording testing machine for material in torsion and the other a machine for testing lubricants. In 1875, he also developed the three-coordinate solid diagram for testing iron, steel, and other metals.


1903 Obituary [1]



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