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Paper submitted to the Board of Visitors by Lieut. James St. C. Morton.
Are civil and military engineering taught at the West Point Military Academy in a manner which demands no changes in the text books or in the method followed?
If not, is this an opportune moment to suggest changes, and will there be found sufficient space to admit of their incorporation into the present course?
Whatever may be the answer which those two questions receive, it should not be given hastily; the most impartial consideration, and a judgment wholly unbiassed by the prestige of the existing system of instruction, are required in order to insure a just conclusion.
I think it can be shown that the academy will profit directly by a judicious remodelling of the department in question, and also indirectly from the impulse which such an example would give to certain other departments now equally in need of improvement.*
To begin with the 2d question, I will state that the change from the four years term to the five years was commenced with the lowest class, which was halved for the purpose; and that in this and the succeeding classes the time devoted to the several studies has been successively increased. The first and second classes will be reached in the present year and the next, and they will afterwards devote more time than heretofore to the studies in question. The second class will study civil, and the first military engineering.
In September, 1857, the second class will commence civil engineering, and will recite on this subject every other day for nine months, or for four and a half months. At present they devote four months to this course, so that there will be a gain of two weeks at least, and I will indicate a way to obtain six more, so that the course may be increased one half.
In September, 1858, the same class-then become the first-will enter upon a nine months' course of military engineering, while at present only half of that time is available; so that there will be an opportunity of doubling the course; besides, a term of six weeks, now devoted to drawing, (as explained further on,) may be better used in developing the subject in other ways.
It appears, therefore, that ample time is disposable for innovations, and even that enlargement is necessary to employ the increased space to be allowed to engineering; and since the plan to be adopted in arranging the new and enlarged courses must be decided upon within a year, the present is a highly suitable opportunity to advance opinions, which, if well founded, will tend to effect considerable changes in any plan which is based on the present one.
In considering the first question, I shall be as concise as possible, only going sufficiently into detail to show that the ideas here advanced are not vague in themselves nor impracticable in execution.
I must also ask space enough to explain that my suggestions are called for by actual deficiencies and defects in the existing system of instruction. This part of my task must necessarily impart to the whole a tone of criticism which I regret; but without proving that
* This remark cannot and does not apply to the philosophical department.
there is reason and room for changes, my remarks might be judged superfluous and uncalled for.
In the discussion, to avoid confusion, and for facility of reference, I shall separate the subject into distinct heads, commencing with the least important in a military school.
It will be remarked that the present text book on this subject at the academy is compiled in a great measure from English, French, and German sources, especially from the former.
But since there is a wide difference between the engineering necessities of these countries and our own, and because of the still greater variation from foreign types that may be noticed in the style of construction of our civil works, I consider that a decidedly American text book is required.
I have not space for an elaborate comparison of the English and American schools; this is, in fact, unnecessary, as it must be granted that there is a great variation in their practice.
The expansion which this country has experienced within the present century-an expansion unprecedented for extent and rapidity has necessitated, and gone hand in hand with, an immense development of civil works of all kinds. The incessant call thus kept up for the first talent of the country has produced a body of experienced and practical engineers who are in advance of the profession in Europe in at least one branch of their art, and that the most important, viz : railroading.
Now if American engineering, thus developed by experience and necessity, has assumed a style of practice peculiarly its own, it is fair to assume that this is the one best suited to the country, and the proper one to inculcate at the Military Academy.
For example, our railroads and canals are often laid out through unsettled districts; the capital of the projectors is limited; labor is often scarce, especially at the outset; and despatch is as important an element as cost. These controlling influences must cause a variation from the European practice, and those due to the grander natural features of the country are also of weight.
The length of the lines, the mountain ranges to wind over or penetrate, and the wide rivers to cross, combine with the first mentioned causes to impart a magnitude as well as a peculiarity to our enterprises, which renders the substantial and splendid but costly style of English works out of place, and unsuited for imitation.
An American text book should regard railroads as a highly important branch of engineering, especially as they comprise within themselves nearly all the constructions which belong to the art; and the method of their construction and the principles of laying them out should be thoroughly taught. Now in the same manner that a good engineer must be formed by experience, practice, and observation, so a student will learn more by noting the experience of others than by studying, however carefully, a collection of rules. These are, no doubt, derived from experience; but the student does not appreciate
this, and fails to fix them in his mind as so many facts, because he has not been able to accept them as such.
The railroad experience of the country may be exhibited in various ways; but the best one is to describe thoroughly a few of the most important lines, giving a correct idea of them by topographical maps, profiles, and detailed drawings. The method of laying out on the ground of the curves, gradients, levels, profiles, &c., may be taught practically with the instruments.
Next to the propriety of using a peculiarly American text book I would recommend that of making it as useful and practical as possible.
To this end it should pay attention to the cost of all constructions, and to some other points, which will be noticed in succession.
1. The cost in the United States of materials, workmanship, and labor, of ordinary descriptions, should be laid down in all enumerations of materials, and in descriptions of military and civil constructions; and the student should learn some little about drawing up specifications and making estimates; these latter are part of the duties of a chief engineer, and with the necessary elements and data ought to form part of a course, which, like the one in use, is more devoted to the higher branches of the profession than to the practical duties of the rodman, surveyor, or assistant.
It is true that prices and wages vary in different sections of the country, and also from time to time; but this only shows that tables of prices should be made out, and be kept constantly correct, instead of being a reason for omitting all notice of this important element in engineering problems. Now at present the words "dollars and cents" do not occur in the text books, nor is there any information on actual cost in the course.
A student ought to have some idea of the prices of cast and wroughtiron, of lime, cement, building stones, brick, timber, machines, steam engines, &c. Also, in order to make an estimate, there should be laid down, approximately, the wages of mechanics and laborers, and such items as the cost of earth work and masonry, of running steam engines, &c.
Such information would be neither difficult to obtain nor hard to learn. It is to be found in American "books of the trades," and periodicals, and a good deal may be got from the papers of the United States engineer corps. As, however, the rapid changes in engineering very soon leave behind and render useless for reference all publications of this kind, as far as cost is concerned, I mention them more as examples than to recommend compilation from them.
2. Tables of experiments on strength of materials should be from American sources, and relate to the materials in use in America, and to those only.
Take, for example, timber: In the Military Academy text books on civil engineering, we find two tables showing the tensile and crushing strength of about thirty kinds of timber, such as are used by builders in England.
On the subjects of lime and stone: There are four tables, with about forty-five figures, on the strength of English building stones,
none of which are used in this country, and there are none for any kind of American stone; there are, also, tables of the strength of foreign limes and mortars, and accounts of the modes of manufacturing them. Now, our hydraulic mortars are essentially different from the foreign ones, and we have long ceased to import Roman cement for building purposes. The cheapness of our hydraulic cement rendersunprofitable the processes resorted to abroad for manufacturing an article which is inferior in quality.
Now, as all foreign information on the above subjects is of no practical use here, and causes superfluous study, and as, on the other hand, with the same pains bestowed on similar data for American materials, the student would acquire knowledge immediately useful to him, I submit that the course would gain by the change recommended above.
There are ample sources of information in this head; and in the absence of such, for any special point, direct experiment may be resorted to by means, for example, of the machine used at some foundaries for testing samples of iron.
3. The department of engineering ought to possess collections of all the varieties of timber, cast and wrought-iron, building stones and limestones, and other materials referred to in the course.
A pupil cannot properly be expected to give an intelligent account of the natures and appearances of different qualities, for example, of iron, when all his knowledge of them is derived from a book, since the mass of youths who enter the academy either have not taken the pains, or never had an opportunity, to learn anything on such a subject by personal observation. A student cannot possibly describe the trees of America with respect to their leaf or bark, the hardness, durability, and strength of its timber, and the uses for which its qualities fit it, when probably he is unable to recognize more than a few of them in the woods, and not many by the appearance of the grain.
To exact recitations on this subject without having resort to the aids I propose, is to oblige the cadet to memorize his lessons for the purpose of getting a good mark on it; thus causing (as in many other instances throughout the academy) a waste of labor, and a wear and tear of the intellect, without a sufficient return.
I am strengthened in the opinion that the careful observation of fine collections will be of great service, by the fact that I have exhibited a private one to my class at West Point, and observed that the cadets displayed a real interest in the subject when thus illustrated and explained. There is no doubt but that both instructor and pupil will gain by the change; the former, because of the greater zeal and success of the latter.
For a collection of timber, I would recommend a slice of each species of tree, cut across the grain, showing the texture of the heart and sap, and the appearance of the bark; to be planed, and, when the wood is susceptible of it, polished. An herbarium should accompany this collection, showing the leaf and the fruit or seed of each variety.
There should be a collection of irons, both cast and wrought, exhibiting a fracture, so as to show the grain, color, lustre, &c., of each variety. Such a collection of samples would be rather troublesome
to keep in order, but the trouble of replacing the rusty pieces by new ones would be repaid by the resulting benefits.
A collection of building stones should comprise cubes of three inches, smooth or polished on one face.
There should also be samples of brick, lime, stones, and other materials not as important as to need enumeration.
Such a museum as above recommended would be of service to naturalists generally for reference, and would be an ornament to the academy, as well as directly useful for the purposes of instruction.
4. With regard to the course on machines, which is studied at present only by the highest section of the class, on account of the theory of the subject being developed by a calculus too hard for the rest to comprehend, I should recommend that it may be made more practical. The theory ought to be by this time understood by the cadets who reach this class, since they are all well grounded in it in the course of mechanics studied the previous year. It follows that there may be time saved in the engineering course by avoiding this repetition, and in place of it there might be taught a practical course, such as a mechanic would understand and be able to explain.
Such a course should explain the various applications of powerwhether steam, water, or animal-to the ordinary purposes of the engineer. For example, there should be taught (orally and by models) the best kinds of steam machines for dredging, pumping, and pile driving; mill machinery, steam and horse power, cranes and derricks, both stationary and travelling; all these, at least in addition to the locomotive, stationary and steamboat engines, now explained to the highest section. Some practical rules should also be added to that given in the course for measuring the horse power of engines.
5. On the subject of foundations of edifices, there should be added the most recent methods for building on shoals and under water, &c. The pneumatic pile and screw pile should be described; and for this purpose models of some of our light-houses will be excellent illustrations. Our seacoast forts also furnish some interesting examples of good foundations being secured under great disadvantages.
6. The use of cast and wrought-iron, and of corrugated iron, as building materials, especially in the construction of fire-proof buildings, should be noticed; examples may be obtained from our customhouses and military buildings.
7. On the subject of river and seacoast improvements, I recommend an alteration in the matter and manner of treatment similar to that above proposed for railroads.
This branch of engineering has been illustrated on our rivers, lakes, and the sea-coast by works of the engineer and topographical engineer corps, which will compare favorably with any foreign ones for economy, success, and exhibition of perfect knowledge of the subject. Only one of these is alluded to in the present course, and of that no more than a passing remark is made; whereas, by explaining the subject of plans and drawings of the most important and successful American works, the student will gain practical and enlarged ideas, while, in addition, there will be offered to the engineering profession