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Our History

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Fred (Dusty) H. Rhodes, the first Director of the School of Chemical Engineering
Vintage Unit Operations Laboratory experiment using a dilatometer, circa 1950

Since its founding in 1938, the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) has trained many of the nation's leaders in the practical use of chemistry for the benefit of society. Cornell chemical engineers hold research, engineering, and management positions throughout academia, government, and industry.

As long ago as 1870, Cornell offered courses in industrial chemistry, but it wasn't until 1930 that Fred H. "Dusty" Rhodes set up a true chemical engineering curriculum which transformed into the School of Chemical Engineering within the College of Engineering.

The Smith School's early focus on undergraduate education and professional training has expanded to include a vigorous research program. Faculty research interests have led to extensive interdisciplinary associations with other research centers and programs at Cornell. The student body has changed, too. The Smith School's first female Ph.D. candidate graduated in 1967; now, nearly half of our students are women.

A Conversation with Peter Harriott and Paul Steen

Harriott's early years in Ithaca, his formal education, the writing of three distinguished textbooks and his pride in his family and personal interests, such as life outdoors and music, are discussed, as well as the origins of his famous Reynolds Number Song.

Reynolds Number Song

"Reynolds Number Song" was written in 1978 by Professor Peter Harriott to help students remember and honor the work of Sir Osborne Reynolds. It was published in Chemical Engineering Education in 1979. As an Emeritus Professor, Peter Harriott continues to perform the song for Cornell students each year. The recording below was done at home by Harriott's grandsons, Mark and Greg Harriott.

Olin History
Olin Hall just before its dedication

Olin Hall
The Smith School of Chemical  Biomolecular Engineering is housed in Olin Hall, which has about 108,500 square feet of offices, laboratories, classrooms, and other facilities. The laboratory wing of the building was completely renovated in 1989 at a cost of $6.3 million. Included in the renovation were special facilities for research in biotechnology, materials studies, thermodynamics, polymer studies, and fluid mechanics. Olin Hall also houses a research computing center, with sophisticated computers and computer graphics equipment. Equipment for animation, advanced graphics, and visualization is also available to support research.

The School of Chemical Engineering: A History of the First Fifty Years
Written by Julian C. Smith and published by the College of Engineering in 1988.

"This is a history of the School of Chemical Engineering at Cornell University, from the time of the School's founding and establishment as part of the College of Engineering in 1937-38 to the present, fifty years later."

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The School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell: A History of the Third Twenty-Five Years
Written by T. Michael Duncan, School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, 2013

The Undergraduate Program

"An enduring tradition of the School is a vibrant undergraduate program that prepares alumni for prosperous careers in industry and distinction in PhD programs. Our undergraduate program is defined by three compenents: Curriculum, Culture, and Careers."

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Our Faculty
The School's faculty of 21 includes two members of the National Academy of Engineering, one fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and four National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigators. In the past six years, seven faculty members of the School have received awards for excellence in engineering teaching, which recognize the best teachers from among the College's two hundred member faculty. Recent additions to the faculty have expanded the School's research in emerging technologies such as advanced materials and bioengineering.

Our Students
Now, about 45% of our undergraduate students and 25% of our graduate students are women. The percentage of under-represented minorities is small but on the rise: they comprise roughly 6% of the undergraduates and 10% of the graduate population.

Some Origins of Biotechnology
Prof. R.K. Finn, School of Chemical Engineering,

"From our vantage point fifty years later is it difficult to appreciate the radical implications of the submerged culture of molds. The basis for this methodology was laid by Kluyver and his student Perquin in their 1933 paper from Delft on the use of shake–flasks for physiological studies [2]. Nevertheless there was grave doubt that sterile air and sterile seals on rotating shafts could be maintained over week–long periods on an industrial scale–not just in the controlled environment of the laboratory. Consequently surface culture continued in use during the first three years of penicillin production in the United States; it was simply an extension of the method used for citric acid production..."

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