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History book chronicles 130-year evolution of agricultural engineering at WSU

Published on November 21, 2022
LJ Smith Hall circa 1949
WSU’s LJ Smith Hall, center for teaching and research in agricultural engineering, pictured in 1949. The hall was built in 1947, as a permanent home for a growing program at Washington State.

As Washington agriculture changed over the last century, so too did teaching and research in agricultural engineering at Washington State University.

That evolution is chronicled in detail in a recently published, 218-page history, “Agricultural and Biological Systems Engineering at Washington State University: More than 100 Years Committed to Building a Better and More Sustainable Agriculture.”

Written by current and retired faculty and present staff from the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, the book reaches from the university’s 1892 origins to the present, highlighting the forces that shaped the department as well as its growing team and changing faces.

“The Department goes beyond a single life,” wrote BSE chair Manuel Garcia-Perez. “It is a huge social enterprise in which several generations have invested their lives, their dreams, and their humanity. We are a big family with a long and distinguished history well worth documenting.”

“The formation and evolution of this department was driven by major national and global trends and events,” said retired chair Larry James. “We were a little ship carried by the currents of a big ocean.”

Larry James with book
Retired chair Larry James holds a copy of the book, “Agricultural and Biological Systems Engineering at
Washington State University,” at the department’s 2022 retreat.

James, who led the department from 1987 to 1991, took on the role of lead researcher and compiler of the book. He spent months assembling the text from recollections and records of past chairs and faculty, catalogs, yearbooks, deans’ files, and other materials in WSU Libraries’ Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC).

James was especially interested in understanding how the department quickly grew mid-century from a tiny, two-person program with dwindling space for teaching and research, to having its own building and a growing staff.

“We went from two faculty to eight in five years,” James said.

After World War II, society and the university were changing. Veterans were returning from World War II with a need for education and careers. Grand Coulee Dam had been completed in 1942, and irrigated agriculture was spreading through the Columbia River basin. Communities statewide were still rooted in agriculture, and college ag-education graduates needed to be able to teach high-school students how to maintain machinery for increasingly mechanized farms and support services.

At the same time, Washington State College was on its way to becoming a full-fledged university and a center for agriculture and industrial technology.

“There was tremendous interest in mechanization and ag engineering,” James said.  “Commodity groups were calling for more research into machinery, farm structures, controlled farm building environments, rural electrification, food processing, and irrigation. All of this came together, and in 1946, WSC’s Agricultural Research Station put the first permanent research funding into ag engineering.”

L.J. Smith Hall, named for the influential early leader of the program and completed in 1947, was the result: the department’s first, dedicated building for teaching and research. Space for learning and research doubled with a remodel and addition in 1968.

BSE Class of 2003
BSE students in 1983; from the WSU Chinook yearbook.

The program continued to expand, drawing faculty from around the globe. During the 1990s, the mission broadened to encompass biological systems engineering, applying engineering principles and techniques to field of non-medical biology.

“There was a lot to go through and a lot of thinking about why things happened and who these people were,” James said of his journey. “Learning about the faculty members was really interesting. The first four professors were young men who had just received an engineering degree and were looking for an adventure out west.  They later became prominent ag engineers.”

James enjoyed talking with retired faculty such as Day Bassett, 100 years old, Alan Pettibone, 90, and Larry G. King, 87.

“They were as sharp as ever, that was a joy!” he said. Those conversations, by phone and video conference, helped craft the former chairs’ sections of the book.

Book contributors included Ralph Cavalieri, Claudio Stöckle, Juming Tang, Denny Davis, Birgitte Ahring, James Durfey, Jonathan Lomber, Nina Willis, Dorota Wilk, Valentina Sierra and Veronica Crow. University archivist Mark O’English tracked down valuable historic archives, and writer Brian Clark edited, organized, and designed the book. Garcia-Perez wrote the introduction and conceived the project. Without Garcia-Perez’s vision, “this would merely be stacks of paper in the archive,” James said.

Thirteen alumni from more than 50 years of the department were interviewed and profiled. Staff combed decades of Chinook yearbooks to picture and identify former students.

BSE annual retreat
Current and retired members of the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, pictured at the annual retreat and book release in 2022.

“The alumni stories were the most fun part of doing the book,” James said. “Once they started talking, you’d remember their voices and mannerisms. It was like they were in your office again, but instead of talking about what they might do, they were telling you what they have done. It was fascinating and rewarding to hear about their accomplishments.

“I wish I’d known all of this when I was chair,” he added. “Faculty today can read this book to gain perspective. Alumni can see how they fit in the big picture. It’s 120-plus years of people working together: everyone had their role and niche in building this department and making this history.”

The book can be viewed and downloaded online.