By Erik Nordberg, University Archivist
Michigan Tech Archives and
Copper Country Historical Collections
The Archives’ collections include a large amount of photographic material, everything from shaft houses to warehouses, and prom queens to copper kings. Not surprisingly, we have also amassed a sizeable collection of images which document the history of the Michigan Tech campus, back to its founding as the Michigan Mining School in 1885.
The largest portion of this campus material has been transferred to us from the University’s communications department. This collection includes a smattering of material from the 1940s and 1950s, but most date after the mid-1960s, when the University began employing photographers on its full-time staff. Up through 2000 (when the University switched to digital photography), the archives has taken possession of more than 35,000 photographic negative strips and prints, many of them multi-image rolls of film. In all, the collection probably includes more than 200,000 individual frames.
As you can imagine, its no easy task to organize and describe this much material. All too often, we receive only vague notes with the images, containing very little specific information about the people and places depicted. And for those who visit our reading room to conduct research—sorry, dear reader, but our limited staffing doesn’t allow us to go digging for that picture of you in front a Winter Carnival statue—it can prove to be a time-consuming and often-unsatisfying chase for the proverbial wild goose.
For instance, take a look at the adjacent image of the four men working with some electrical testing equipment. We received a request from Eric Halonen, Gift Planning, Michigan Tech Fund, for use of this image in their Foresight newsletter. The image had been used in the campus’s 1985 centennial publication, and Eric thought it would add some visual interest to their piece.
As I dug through material connected to the 1985 project, I discovered that the photograph wasn’t actually part of our holdings at all— it was from the collections of the State Archives of Michigan. I helped the folks from the Tech Fund contact archivists in Lansing, and permission was secured for publication in their newsletter.
A few months later, Eric Halonen received a letter from Bill Corkin, MTU class of 1954. Corkin indicated that he was depicted in the photograph, second from the left. He was amused that his face was now enshrined in the state archives and wanted to be sure that people in Houghton knew that he was alive and well in Saline, Michigan.
More interestingly, Corkin was able to provide additional information about the photograph. He indicated that the photo was taken in the automotive lab in the old Engineering Building. “I believe that the person standing on the far right is professor Bayer of mechanical engineering,” he wrote. “I do believe we had a donated Oldsmobile Rocket V-8 engine. However, I cannot recall the test we were running.”
Corkin indicated that professor Richard Bayer was the faculty advisor for the MCMT student chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers. Corkin himself served as president of the branch during the 1953–54 school year.
With this additional information, I was able to locate the original photographic negative in our holdings. It was buried in our massive collection of campus photographs, under the amorphous description, “Auto lab advertising photos/Winter 1954.” None of the research done previous to this had indicated it was an automotive testing lab. In fact, many related images were misfiled in a folder with photographs of the campus radio club. (Yes, I can hear all of the automotive guys shouting, “That’s clearly a pressuregraph and synchro-marker, not a radio!”)
On my way to locating the negatives, I also learned a bit about automotive engineering at Michigan Tech. Up through 1926, the Michigan College of Mines only offered three degree programs: the engineer of mines, the metallurgical engineer, and a general bachelor of science. With the slowing of the local mining economy following World War I, however, college officials began to expand the curriculum to include more generalized areas of study.
The course catalog for the 1927–28 academic year indicated a change in institutional name—to the Michigan College of Mining and Technology—as well as an improvement in the number of degrees offered. In addition to the aforementioned mining and metallurgy degrees, the new curriculum offered bachelor of science degrees in chemistry, geology, and general engineering.
Yet, even with this broadening of scope, the college lacked any detailed curriculum specifically geared toward automotive and engine work. This was answered with the construction of the “new” engineering building in 1931. In fact, as early as 1929, the college anticipated the new building—and its automotive lab—by listing a series of new courses which wouldn’t be offered until construction was completed.
During the 1930s, the course list grew to include three different classes in automotive engineering, a special class examining internal combustion engines, and a course on valve gears which would cover “the fundamentals of the valve mechanism of internal combustion engines.”
By Bill Corkin’s time as a student in the early 1950s, the course catalog would indicate that “the automotive laboratory contains apparatus for testing engines, fuels, and lubricants, including electric and hydraulic dynamometers, several automotive engines, diesel engines, and a standard fuel-testing engine.”
Although the building was renamed Hotchkiss Hall in 1955 (in honor of former college president William O. Hotchkiss), the automotive laboratory remained the campus’s primary automotive research and testing facility for nearly four decades. It wasn’t until the completion of the Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics (ME-EM) building in 1971 that Michigan Tech’s automotive engineering program vacated this space, the true “birthplace” of automotive engineering at Michigan Tech.
During those years, countless students honed their automotive skills and many, such as Bill Corkin, put the effort to good use. Following his education in Houghton, Corkin embarked on a thirty-four-year career at General Motors, retiring as chief engineer for manufacturing process at seven plants in the company’s Hydramatic/Powertrain division. Talk about “creating the future,” eh?
Looking back on his time at Michigan Tech, Corkin realized that the days spent in the auto lab with that old V-8 weren’t just a career-building experience, but also drove his personal fascination with automobiles and engines. “It must have been a good test, because the first auto I bought was a 1949 Oldsmobile with a Rocket V-8.”
You can contact Erik Nordberg at email@example.com