In the Beginning
Robert Fletcher wasn't just the founding director of Thayer School. For 65 years, he was Thayer School.
By Lee Michaelides
Photographs courtesy of Dartmouth College archives
“We all love our Bobby — many of us received our life’s inspiration from him,” wrote a Thayer School alumnus on the occasion of Dean Robert Fletcher’s retirement in 1918. It was difficult to imagine Thayer School without Robert Fletcher, for from the beginning, Fletcher was Thayer School.
Fletcher’s service to Thayer began in 1871, when he came to Hanover as Thayer School’s founding director and sole faculty member. He retired only because he reached Dartmouth’s mandatory retirement age of 70. He didn’t actually leave, however. He stayed on as a lecturer and overseer until his death in 1936 at the age of 88. Clearly, Dartmouth loved Fletcher, and Fletcher loved the College.
Dartmouth and Fletcher’s relationship was not quite love at first sight. It grew from a complicated courtship that eventually required White House intervention.
In 1867 General Sylvanus Thayer, the “Father of West Point” and a member of Dartmouth’s class of 1807, bestowed on Dartmouth the means to establish a school of civil engineering. Dartmouth President Asa Smith announced that the engineering school would open the following year. Thayer tapped a trusted friend, West Point professor Dennis Mahan, to suggest a suitable candidate for the position of director of the new school. The search proved harder than expected. By 1870 nearly a dozen candidates had turned down the job and its paltry $1,500 salary. Then Mahan suggested an “industrious and reliable” young second lieutenant, Robert Fletcher.
Only 23 years old, Fletcher was teaching math at West Point, his alma mater. Mahan asked him if he would consider taking on the headship of Thayer’s engineering school. “Fletcher replied that not only would such a career suit him,” Mahan wrote Thayer, “but that, in coming on duty here, he had looked forward to qualifying himself for some such place.”
Fletcher made mixed first impressions on both Thayer and Smith. Thayer worried about “a defect in his speech.” Smith thought twice about Fletcher’s age and bearing.
“He is young, but if that be a fault, time will surely correct it. His presence is not very imposing, but as [English preacher Isaac] Watts said, ‘The mind’s the standard of the man.’ I think there will be no intellectual deficiency,” Smith wrote Thayer. “If you are satisfied, I think it would be well to appoint him.”
A relieved Thayer replied, “We must take him for better or for worse, at least so as to give him a fair trial; right glad shall I be if he prove to be the right man.”
Fletcher, too, had reservations about linking himself to Dartmouth. There was no guarantee that the College was committed to him or to the nonexistent engineering school, and he was reluctant to resign his Army commission. He decided to keep his options open by seeking a leave of absence from his duties at West Point.
Getting the leave wasn’t easy. Fletcher had to bring his request all the way up to President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant approved the leave. But, claiming that the President didn’t understand the request, Grant’s Secretary of War overruled him and revoked Fletcher’s leave. Fletcher resigned from the Army, committing his future to the uncertainty that awaited him at Dartmouth.
Once Fletcher moved to Hanover, the doubts about his appointment vanished. Within a week of his arrival, Fletcher began preparing three students for entrance into Thayer School. After Fletcher’s first two months, Smith wrote Thayer, “We are delighted with him. We have been directed to the man for this place.”
Neither Fletcher nor Thayer actually expected the school to open in 1871. They had planned to spend a year or two writing the curriculum. But President Smith wanted the school to open immediately, and he prevailed.
Fletcher had to build the school from scratch. He secured five rooms scattered around Dartmouth Row’s Wentworth, Thornton, and Reed Halls. He bought books, tables, and other supplies. And, most time-consuming of all, he developed Thayer’s ideas for entrance requirements — the general’s “Program A” — and for the engineering curriculum — “Program B.” Finally, on September 20, 1871, Fletcher wrote Thayer, “I have the honor to report that the Thayer School of Civil Engineering has fairly opened.”
Fletcher was not only director of the new school. He was the sole professor. And upon Thayer’s death in 1872, Fletcher shouldered the full responsibility for upholding Thayer’s goals. In his first report to the Thayer overseers in 1873, Fletcher wrote, “Gen. Thayer intended the Thayer School to attain, in a few years, the very first position as an Institution for the training of engineers.”
Fletcher continued to develop the course of studies. The curriculum he introduced in 1879 formed the mainstay of Thayer School until 1918. During that time courses were updated, but with the exception of new classes in electrical engineering and the dropping of a class called “Masonry and Foundations” the core remained constant.
The 1879 Curriculum:
- Resistance of Materials
- Properties of Construction Materials
- Materials and Structural Elements
- Bridges and Roofs
- Hydraulic Works
- Heat and Heat-Engines
- Sanitary Engineering
- Rivers and Harbors
- Rockwork, Tunneling, and Mining
- Masonry and Foundations
The administrative efficiency gained by Fletcher’s one-man-band status was more than offset by the time it took to prepare for the 14 different courses he was required to teach. Even after the College administration cut Fletcher’s teaching load in half, it was still too heavy even for a man with Fletcher’s energy. “Four recitations or lectures per day on different topics is too much for one professor, who must prepare himself in each subject by hard study,” wrote Fletcher to the College administration. “Add to this the keeping of records and general oversight of the Institution and the duty cannot be properly done without assistance.”
What motivated Fletcher to work so hard? It wasn’t money. His starting salary in 1871 was $2,500, and he worked 39 years before the College gave him a raise. More likely Fletcher, a devout Christian, was driven by a biblical mandate for his success in his chosen profession. A lecture titled “The Durable Satisfaction of the Civil Engineer,” which Fletcher delivered in 1928, offers an insight into his sense of purpose. He told his audience:
“In the spiritual realm God works through human agency; through the conscience and intelligence and energizing spirit of man. In the very beginning of recorded history the command went forth to mankind to subdue the earth, ‘to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ Reverently we may say that the civil engineers are assistants to the Creator and the upholder of the universe in creating (as the French happily express it) ‘works of amelioration’ for the betterment of the world.”
In addition to tending to Thayer School, Fletcher embraced the civic side of civil engineering, bringing the same limitless energy to public works projects all over Vermont and New Hampshire. He was a member of the Hanover School Board for 17 years. He was the project leader for determining the exact boundary between Vermont and New Hampshire. He had a hand in building Wilder Dam and was the consulting engineer for the iron bridge across the Connecticut River in West Lebanon. He was a founder, president, and chief engineer of the Hanover Water Works and was consulting engineer for water projects throughout New England. During 40 years as a member and chair of the New Hampshire State Board of Health, Fletcher spread the use of septic tanks and other marvels of sanitary engineering, inspecting hundreds of septic tanks, sewers, and cesspools along the way.
Ironically, while the Thayer School was chronically under-funded during its early years, Fletcher was able to convince skin-flinted Yankees to pony up tax money for water, sewer, and transportation projects. Evidently Fletcher’s simple, direct, and logical prose had a greater impact on the common man than on the likes of Andrew Carnegie, who turned down a funding opportunity at Thayer on the grounds that “General Thayer’s attempt to start an engineering school at Dartmouth was unwise” and that “no effort should be made to perpetuate same.”
Carnegie’s opinion notwithstanding, Fletcher took great pride in the achievements of the graduates he sent off into the world. He visited alumni working on engineering projects all over the country. He toured the Panama Canal during its construction and recorded the Dartmouth men engaged on the project. In public forums, when he recounted the projects managed by Thayer alumni, he often included a sly reference to the fact that Harvard brought in a Thayer grad to direct the construction of its stadium after the project fell behind schedule.
Despite his fondness for the stadium anecdote, Fletcher was not a fan of sports. He was contemptuous of “football fever” and was unambiguous in his dislike of baseball: “I am opposed to the baseball business as to the matches between colleges. The raising of so much money for such a purpose, the interference with study, the loss of time, the rivalry, etc, are demoralizing and detrimental to the best interests of all.”
Fletcher did not support the performing arts either. Her skipped a famous 1879 performance of “HMS Pinafore” staged by Dartmouth students (Little Buttercup was a tackle for the football team) because he did “not think it consistent with my Christian profession to attend such a play.” In 1886 he grudgingly attended a student production of “Julius Caesar.” “Except for the fact that the entire affair was gotten up and managed by the students and all the parts taken by them, I would not have stepped inside the building,” he noted.
A lifelong Republican and prohibitionist, Fletcher regularly lectured students on the evils of drink, tobacco, and swearing and on the importance of attending church. Fletcher’s status on campus was so high that although students failed to comply with his views, they respectfully listened. They knew he cared deeply about their welfare. Years later former students would recall his pearls of wisdom with great affection. One member of the class of 1910 remembered Fletcher telling him “the body is like a steam boiler, feed it regularly and rake out the clinkers and you will always be able to get up steam.”
Even the few students who didn’t like Fletcher admired him. “Bobby Fletcher was a didactic fussbudget who early each winter would get all of us together on a Sunday afternoon and instruct us in what underwear to use for winter,” one alumnus wrote. “But he was a fine teacher.”
Fletcher and his family were also pillars of the community. He kept a daily diary spanning the 65 years he lived in Hanover. In it he recorded all the facets of town life involving the Fletcher family: wife Ellen, son Robert, and daughter Mary. The diary is filled with accounts of teaching Sunday School, croquet games, and New Year’s visitations. Although known for exhaustive reports to Thayer School’s Board of Overseers, Fletcher didn’t waste words. His diary entry for Oct 14, 1871 simply says, “Engaged to Ellen.”
It would be easy to think of Fletcher as someone who was all work and no play. But that’s probably a mistake. To be sure, he had a strong moral compass, high professional standards, and a biblically inspired hobby — the study of ancient engineering projects in the Holy Lands. The truth is that Fletcher enjoyed his work so much that it doubled as a form of play. How else might one interpret why the eminently practical Fletcher drew up plans in 1899 for a subway line running between Hanover and White River Junction?
Fletcher’s Hall Of Fame
Robert Fletcher frequently lectured students on the need to draw lessons of inspiration from history’s great engineers. Famous in their time, some of their names and accomplishments have been forgotten as technology advanced. More important, however, is the fact that all the engineers Fletcher singled out reflected his beliefs in what made a great engineer: education and hard work.
John Seaton (1724–1792)
Seaton was the most famous engineer of his time. He is remembered for his design of the Forth and Clyde Canal and for improving the steam engine. Seaton won a gold medal from the Royal Society. The key to Seaton’s success was time management, Fletcher wrote. “From an early period he carefully divided his time, allotting so much for study, so much for practical experiments, so much for business and so much for rest and relaxation.”
James Watt (1736–1819)
“The name of Watt,” wrote Fletcher, “is inseparably connected to the steam-engine. His genius and persistent study developed it from a wasteful and hence nearly impractical motor, to a working success.” Fletcher noted that Watt studied German and Italian so he could remain current with the latest works in his field.
Robert Fulton (1765-1815)
“Although Robert Fulton is not entitled to distinction as an inventor,” Fletcher wrote of the steamboat builder, “he was one of the ablest, most persistent and most successful of those who have done so much for the world by the introduction of the invention of others. He was an intelligent engineer … whose skill, acuteness and energy have given the world the fruits of the inventive genius of all who preceded him.”
George Stephenson (1781–1848)
English coal miner Stephenson was made a mining engineer at age 17 because of his inventions. One project reduced the number of horses required in the mine from 100 to 16. In 1825 he built a railroad line and a locomotive capable of reaching 36 mph. Fletcher was impressed that the self-taught Stephenson had achieved so much — and that Stephenson believed in formal engineering education despite lacking one. Stephenson made it a primary project of his life to send his son Robert, who also became a famous engineer, to the University of Edinburgh.
June 20, 1870
West Point professor Dennis Mahan recommends 2nd Lieut. Robert Fletcher to Gen. Sylvanus Thayer for the post of Thayer Professor of Civil Engineering.
Fletcher makes his first visits to Dartmouth President Asa Smith in Hanover and Gen. Thayer in Braintree, Mass.
December 31, 1870
Fletcher resigns his Army commission.
January 1, 1871
Fletcher takes Thayer School appointment.
En route to Hanover, Fletcher visits scientific departments at Yale, Harvard, and M.I.T.
January 23, 1871
Writing from Hanover, Fletcher informs Gen. Thayer, “I have made a beginning of business here.”
September 20, 1871
Fletcher writes Gen. Thayer, “I have the honor to report that the Thayer School of Civil Engineering has fairly opened.” The sole professor, Fletcher teaches 14 courses.
June 23, 1873
Albert Porter and Thomas Green lay become Thayer School’s first graduates.
Fletcher’s 26-page report on Thayer School causes the Board of Overseers to recommend that he “reduce his official writing to the least volume necessary.”
Thayer School expands into rooms in Thornton hall.
Fletcher acquires space in Culver Hall for a “physical laboratory” and a “room for rough work where the young men may do little jobs of repairing, etc. … and thus save the School items of expense while acquiring for themselves useful manual dexterity and mechanical skill.”
Fletcher outlines the Thayer School philosophy: “to give the civil engineer an indispensable training which must be fundamental in character, thorough as to principle and general in its scope.”
Fletcher gets some teaching relief as Charles H. Pettee, Thayer 1876, becomes a Thayer School instructor for one year. Between 1877 and 1882, three more graduates hold one-year instructorships.
Fletcher adds courses in “Sanitary Engineering” to the curriculum.
Hiram Hitchcock, Thayer 1881, joins the faculty.
Fletcher takes students to Boston to visit the Boston Bridge Works, Meigs Elevated Railway Construction Co., and other engineering firms.
Thayer School moves into its own building on Park Street. Fletcher pays part of the purchase price himself. Dartmouth reimburses him two years later.
Fletcher becomes a founding member of the Hanover Water Works Co.
Dartmouth allows students to take first-year Thayer courses during their senior year.
The Thayer School catalog notes that each graduate should have “the habit and method of keeping himself well-informed as to the progress of engineering science and progress.”
Toot Worthen, class of 1904, skis down the stairs of Thayer School and crashes into Fletcher.
Fletcher lobbies for a bigger building but advocates frugality. “The newly instituted Tuck School has managed to spend $125,000 for its building, I am informed, which, to my mind, is at least $50,000 too much.”
Thayer School moves into Bissell Hall.
The Thayer School catalog states: “Instructors give personal supervision from three to eight hours daily. … The principle of close personal supervision has always characterized Thayer School.”
Fletcher visits Thayer School graduates working on the Panama Canal.
Fletcher travels around the country visiting Thayer School graduates.
Fletcher reaches Dartmouth’s mandatory retirement age of 70. The College awards him an honorary Doctor of Science degree. He joins Thayer School’s Board of Overseers.
January 9, 1936
Robert Fletcher is buried in the old Hanover cemetery. Three years later Thayer School moves nearby, to Cummings Hall.
Thayer School institutes the annual Robert Fletcher Award, given to a graduate or friend of Thayer School in recognition of distinguished achievement and service in the highest tradition of the School. The first award is presented posthumously to Robert Fletcher.
“Shooting the Moon — It Can’t be Done.”
By all accounts Robert Fletcher was a methodical, down-to-earth engineer whose main interest was the improvement of the lives of the citizenry. Bridges, roads, water works, and septic systems were his primary concerns. Dartmouth’s archives are filled with articles he wrote promoting the civic, health, and economic virtues of sensible civil engineering.
Writing an op-ed in 1929 for the Boston Transcript in response to its article on “Aspiring to the Skies,” Fletcher used clear prose to explain the mathematical calculations that led him to conclude that a spacecraft couldn’t leave the earth’s gravitational field, much less make it to the moon. Although Fletcher was aware of German and American experiments with rockets, Fletcher dismissed their efforts, saying, “the low efficiency of rocket propulsion is well-known.”
Was Fletcher unable to imagine the kind of improvements to a rocket on par with what his hero James Watt did with the steam engine? Possibly. More likely space exploration was at odds with the old engineer’s faith. He concluded his Transcript op-ed by writing, “But why dwell upon impossibilities? It is evident that the Almighty Creator created man, as to his body, to have dominion only in his present environment, where he has more than ample scope for all of such science and skill as he may acquire.”
Categories: Featurescomments powered by Disqus