Professor Rolla C. Carpenter
Professor R. C. Carpenter, with his surveyor’s transit, circa 1875.
Photo Credit: Kuhn, p. 20k.
Rolla Clinton Carpenter (1852–1919) has never had a campus building named for him, nor other significant tribute, but he nevertheless was a major asset to the College’s early campus development. Carpenter earned his BS from M.A.C. in ’73, then worked for a year as civil engineer for a railroad company before the University in Ann Arbor awarded him a C.E. degree in 1875. Soon after, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Civil Engineering at M.A.C., a position he held for fifteen years. He took his MS in ’76 from the Agricultural College.
Professor Carpenter taught algebra, geometry, trigonometry, mechanics, civil engineering, surveying—and French. He also taught astronomy, holding class three nights a week on the flat roof of Williams Hall until 1880, when he built the Observatory. “A brother, Louis G[eorge] Carpenter, ’79, joined him in 1881 to teach algebra, geometry, and free-hand drawing. This released Rolla to teach mechanical drawing and later agricultural engineering in a shop which he fitted out in the original brick stable.”[Kuhn, p. 104]
Yet “for R. C. Carpenter, as for his colleagues, teaching was but one of his assignments.” He not only managed the earliest football team (for a year), and supervised the manufacture of some 400,000 bricks at the College brickyard, but his keen surveyor’s eye and steady draftsman’s hand touched much of the early campus and city. A partial list of his engineering accomplishments follows:
- 1875: Designed the second Farm Lane bridge.
- 1877: Designed and supervised construction of a dam on the Red Cedar River (designing his own pile driver in the process).
- 1880: Designed and built an ice house near the river, and the aforementioned Observatory.
- 1883–1884: Installed fire hydrants, connected by underground wooden pipes to a three-hundred-barrel tank in the Williams Hall tower and fed by a well near the river.
- 1884: Designed and supervised construction of the first boiler house, which generated heat for Wells, Williams, the Chemistry building, and the Library–Museum.
- 1885: Designed the Mechanical Shops.
- 1887: Along with Prof. Beal, platted Collegeville, the nascent city’s first subdivision.
Kuhn also credits him with designing the first Agricultural Laboratory in 1889, but the M.S.U. Physical Plant Building Data Book lists Samuel Johnson (Professor of Agriculture) as the architect. Instead, Carpenter likely supervised the building’s construction. Thus, with the exception of Collegeville, none of Carpenter’s local creations remain.[Kuhn, pp. 105, 159. CEE website.]
In 1890, Rolla Carpenter accepted a position as Associate Professor of Experimental Engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. (His replacement at M.A.C., Herman K. Vedder, was, in a nice bit of symmetry, a Cornell grad.) Relieved of the burden of constructing a rapidly growing institution, and earning a salary at Cornell “much higher than the $1800 which was uniform for department heads here,” Carpenter found the time to publish his extensive knowledge: the popular textbook Experimental Engineering and Manual for Testing in 1890; a widely regarded as definitive work, Heating and Ventilating Buildings: a Manual for Heating Engineers and Architects, in 1891; and co-author of Internal Combustion Engines: Their Theory, Construction and Operation in 1908. Each of these books saw several revised editions in subsequent years, a testament to their educational importance. (Frightfully, no physical copies of these books are in the M.S.U. Library, although all three are available online at archive.org and other sources.)[Kuhn, pp. 151, 170]
Carpenter also worked as a consulting engineer for sundry portland cement companies, constructed numerous power stations for electric railways, was the patent expert in several important cases, and in 1893 served as a judge of machinery and transportation at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1907, Carpenter returned to M.A.C. for the Semicentennial commencement exercises, where the College bestowed upon him an honorary Doctorate of Laws.[Beal, p. 417]