Skip To Main Content

Reflections on More Than 140 Years of Civil Engineering History at Texas A&M University

Texas A&M began as a small military college in 1876 and has evolved into one of the top universities in the world. Civil engineering courses were first introduced into the curriculum of Texas A&M College through the Department of Mathematics. The first civil engineering degree was awarded in 1880 and was conferred upon all who graduated from the departments of Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Mechanics, the English Language, one Modern Language, General Chemistry, and Geology. However, the words "civil engineer" did not appear in any catalog until 1883 and it was not until 1887, eleven years after the opening of TAMC, that a separate Department of Civil Engineering was established. Interestingly, at this time the recommendation was made to establish a curriculum for postgraduate courses in civil engineering and in the year 1905 the first M.S. in Civil Engineering was awarded. By the year 1920, 501 young men, as well as two women, had completed the courses necessary to be awarded the civil engineering degree. Both of the women were daughters of an acting history professor. In addition, 12 men had completed the graduate curriculum and were awarded an M.S. in Civil Engineering. Through its early beginnings, the department changed names, descriptions, and missions several times to reflect its continued growth and success, all the while keeping in focus its ultimate goal…to provide a solid educational experience that prepares its students to be leaders in the profession of civil engineering.

In 1920, the department contained the following divisions: Structural Engineering, Highway Engineering, which was believed to have the best-equipped laboratory in the United States, Railway Engineering, and Hydraulics and Sanitary Engineering. At that time the department owned more than forty transits, levels and compasses, several plane tables and other general field engineering equipment. In conjunction with the academic developments, two additional assets to the engineering programs were the organization of the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, in 1914, and later the development of the Texas Transportation Institute, in 1955.

From the first class days at Texas A&M College, constant changes were being made to keep the curriculum and facilities abreast of the changing times and capable of handling the ever-growing number of students interested in the intriguing nature of applied science and engineering. The laboratory facilities in 1920 occupied only two rooms in the basement of Nagle Hall, but by 1957 the department grew from one building to five and occupied facilities vacated by the School of Veterinary Medicine. In 1968 the first phase of a facility to be used primarily for research and graduate study in materials and structural mechanics was completed and occupied. Between 1964 and 1975, the department increased from 403 to 1,062 students and from 28 to 68 faculty members, and the necessary expansion of the facilities was anticipated in the near future.

By 1976, the department had revised and restructured itself to encompass the following five divisions: Coastal, Hydraulic and Ocean Engineering; Environmental Engineering; Construction, Materials and Structural Engineering; Geoengineering and Civil Systems Engineering. Today the department has four divisions, Coastal and Ocean Engineering; Environmental and Water Resources Engineering; Construction, Geotechnical and Structural Engineering; and Transportation and Materials Engineering.

During the formation of the department, several key individuals contributed much time, effort, talent, and knowledge to the successful development of the curriculum, administration and faculty. Mr. Charles Puryear was the first Head of the Civil Engineering and Physics Department at Texas A&M College in 1889 and held this position of one year. Following which, Mr. Puryear held the position of head of mathematics for 42 years, was dean of the college for 25 years and acting president for one year. Mr. James C. Nagle, one of the most influential and dynamic figures in the engineering history of Texas A&M College, began his connection with TAMC in 1882, as an assistant professor and was eventually named the first dean of engineering, when the position was created in 1911. Mr. Nagle continued his career as a professor and administrator until 1913, when he retired and became the first chairman of the Texas Board of Water Engineers. He returned to Texas A&M in 1917, as Head of the School of Engineering, but once again resigned in 1922 and entered private practice. Another significant figure is David Wendel Spence. Mr. Spence followed in the footsteps of Mr. Nagle as dean and department head. He served TAMC for eighteen years as a professor, dean, and department head, until he resigned in 1913 to become a member of the Texas State Board of Water Engineers, which he served as Chairman until 1917. He, once again, returned to teach at TAMC until 1922, when he resigned and began his career in private practice.

Others with outstanding influence on and dedication to TAMC and the engineering sciences are individuals such as John J. Richey, whose career at Texas A&M lasted from 1912 to 1941. John Thomas Lamar McNew, who began his employment at Texas A&M in 1920, remained an innovative part of the institution until 1945. Mr. McNew had a brief interruption in 1943, when he served the nation in WWII, but returned to continue his career with Texas A&M in 1945. During his absence, Mr. Sandstedt served as department head for three years. Another important historical figure for the department is Samuel Robert Wright whose career at Texas A&M University spanned more than four decades, from 1923 to 1964. All of these remarkable individuals are remembered on the university campus by the dedication of buildings and streets with their honorable names.

The ocean engineering program was established in 1972. Dr. John B. Herbich, who became the first head of the program, was the faculty leader who orchestrated its development. In 2015, the program became it's own department within the College of Engineering.

In May 2019, the department officially changed its name to the Zachry Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to reflect an already strong tradition of positive engineering impacts between the built and natural world. The department also began in the fall of 2019 the first ever B.S. in Environmental Engineering program at Texas A&M.