RPI history

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The text below is mostly copied from the original handbook.


A Short History Course

For a school a mere one hundred and sixty years old, RPI is soundly buried in historical events that seem uniquely peculiar to an engineering school. Those oddities obscured by time, error, or deliberate cover-up were the events sought after by Not the Handbook's staff of researchers. We wish to thank the Rensselaer Library's Archives Department for their assistance in our efforts. Their collection is, to no one's surprise, second to none on this subject.

Amos Eaton

Amos Eaton was a major figure in the early part of RPI's growth as an Engineering School. The man, however, came into a good bit of trouble in his later years when he became connected with the corrupt land deals concerning the building of the Erie Canal.

Amos Eaton Hall was started as a project by president Ricketts in 1928 to build an auditorium large enough to hold the student body which was then around 1500. The actual costs of the building are unknown, as Ricketts contracted it along with the Caldwell dorms in the Quadrangle, but it has been estimated at $300,000.

Russell Sage

Another notable character in Rensselaer's history was Russell Sage. Russell Sage's name appears on almost as many buildings as does Jonsson's. There is the Russell Sage Laboratory, the Russell Sage Dining Hall, and Russell Sage College in downtown Troy. As a matter of fact, most colleges in New York have at least one building named after him. However, the story behind these institutions is far more bizarre than meets the eye.

Russell Sage was never a student at RPI, and his influence and contributions toward the school while he was alive were small in scale when compared to what his second wife made. Sage was born the seventh child of a poor farming family from Connecticut. He first moved to Troy at the age of 13 to work at his older brother's grocery store. He soon became a little Horatio Alger in small trade and later in paper money options. By the time he was 24, he was a member of the Troy City Council, a bank director, and a money lender. He then married a pretty young woman, Maria-Henrie Winne, who was the daughter of a local lumber baron. They moved into a posh Washington Park home that Maria's father gave them. Russell became very interested in politics, and in 1844 became the city treasurer. From 1844 to 1849 he kept the city in the black with his judicious use of city funds. He then ran for Congress in 1850, but was defeated. This did not deter him, and in 1852 he was elected to the representative seat for Troy under the Whig party. It was at this point in his political career that his economic rise was to begin.

Sage's first big deal was over a railroad project that involved Erasmus Corning and other local political figures. He pushed through a project that involved the City of Troy buying a railroad from Sage for $700,000. This same railroad had recently been purchased by Sage for a mere $200,000. Sage quite openly bragged about his five hundred thousand dollar profit, justifying it by pointing out how much money Troy would save by owning the railroad. The scheme backfired, however, when Corning and others worked the railroad away from Troy.

After the deal in Troy, Sage went on to bigger things. He is responsible for most of the major railroad development in Minnesota from 1852 to the end of the nineteenth century. He was noted for being careful, and yet taking risks and profiting very well from them. It was at this period in his life that he moved from Troy to New York City and began to speculate on Wall Street.

On 7 May 1867, Sage's wife died of stomach cancer. After the funeral, Sage was a very solemn and depressed man. He devoted the rest of his life to the accumulation of money.

In 1869, Sage was involved, and later convicted, in a case concerning the Usury Laws in New York state. He was fined $500, but his jail sentence was suspended. He was accused of being the gang leader in a usury group. Later that year, Sage married his second wife, Olivia Slocum.

Olivia Slocum was a school teacher from Troy, who had attended the Troy Female Seminary, now known as Emma Willard School. She was forty-one when Sage married her, he was 53. The marriage was not out of love; Sage needed someone to call his wife so that he would not be the prey of "seduction lawsuits." There is no indication that Olivia and Russell ever really cared for each other, and it seems even less likely that they were ever intimate. Sage continued to have affairs with beautiful and exotic women until his later years, after which he settled down to doing his serious profiteering.

Sage was elected onto the Institute's board of Trustees on 24 June 1896. His only relative to attend RPI was a newphew, Russell Sage, Jr., who graduated in 1859.

Sage died in 1906, during a vacation that his doctor requested he take to get away from the business. Apparently the withdrawal killed him. His wife Olivia found herself with a $70 million estate almost overnight. She immediately established the Sage Foundation to aid in promoting social and educational causes. It was in this way that this school teacher from Troy, who was at the time the wealthiest woman in the US, began to make contributions to education. In particular, she fought for better women's education.

Olivia Slocum Sage made two large contributions to RPI. The first was funds for the building of the Russell Sage Laboratory, which was to house the new Mechanical and Electrical Engineering departments. At the time RPI was primarily a Civil Engineering school. When Palmer Ricketts, then President of RPI, sent her a letter suggesting the building of these departments, Olivia replied with a letter which said, in effect, "Good idea." To lend some weight to her letter, she also enclosed a check for $100,000. Eventually, the total sum donated for that purpose reached one million dollars.

The other major contribution came in the wake of a new addition to the Quadrangle dorms. During the planning for the White dorm extensions, Olivia Slocum wrote President Ricketts stating that she would offer $100,000 for the construction of a dining hall. This hall was to be named after her nephew, Russell Sage, Jr.

Eric and Margaret Jonsson

Eric Jonsson, a dedicated Rensselaer alumnus of the class of 1922, and his wife Margaret, have done much to improve the appearance and facilities of RPI. Their first major contribution came in 1961 when they gave the school a gift which led to the construction of the Science Center, on a 20 acre site of land that the school had just purchased from the Catholic Seminary in 1958.

The next major gift to Rensselaer was $2,600,000 toward the construction of a new engineering center. The initial cost estimate for the building, as given to the New York State Dormitory Fund on 4 March 1975, was $11,808,100. While the Dormitory Fund did cover some of it, a 30 year bond was taken to cover most of the cost of the building. RPI intended to cover the bond with gifts, despite the annual payments of $202,000.

The actual groundbreaking was to be initiated by Margaret Jonsson; however, she was in Dallas, Texas at the time. A small charge was set up to be detonated by a phone call that Mrs. Jonsson made ... thus the term "dial-a-bomb" came to be the description of the event on 15 April 1975, at 11AM. The '86 Field became the "'43 Field," as construction equipment and much of the fill that was excavated for the basement of the Center (4000 cubic yards) was placed on the playing surface, cutting the field almost precisely in half down the long axis. The half of the field which was buried with fill became known as Mount Fogarty; it was two stories tall. The Jonsson Engineering Center opened in August 1977, and became a center piece of the "Rensselaer 2000 plan.

Alan Voorhees

The Chapel became the school's second computer center, with the donations of Alan Voorhees and the insistence of RPI's students. In 1977 a study was completed detailing options for a new computer center, to replace the Amos Eaton facility and house the 'brand-new' IBM 3033 (see Myron in Tute Speak). The study was to choose among three plans. The first two proposals sought to build the center on top of or below the Armory Parking Lot. The third plan suggested renovating the Seminary Chapel, which was empty as of the opening of the Folsom Library. The Chapel was not favored by either the architecture group doing the study, nor by the Trustees, but a student referendum overwhelmingly chose the old church building as the site, remarking on the aesthetic beauty of the Chapel versus yet another "high-tech" edifice. According to students who were present at the time these decisions were being made, the student referendum did not really amount to a hill of beans; the item which tipped the scales in the favour of the Chapel as a computer center was that the estimated cost of the Armory computer center nearly doubled between the initial cost estimates and the final decision. With Alan Voorhees' $3.4 million gift (the largest single donation in RPI's history) the Voorhees Computing Center went under construction. The center opened on 9 Oct 1979.

The center is unique in that a small building was constructed inside the old chapel. To save energy costs, the heat generated by the computer within keeps the building warm in the winter. The new IBM 3081D computer now resides in the basement of the VCC. Unfortunately, the new machine does not produce the heat that the 3033 did, and people were worried about the possibility that they would have to install a real heating system in the computer center; however, it turned out that the IBX telephone system generates more heat on its own than the 3033 ever did. And since the IBX is housed in the VCC, heat is suddenly no problem. Of course, the air conditioning systems have had to be beefed up ...


Libraries at RPI have always taken a back burner to the more pressing needs of the research and education departments. The first Rensselaer Library was in the Main Building in downtown Troy, which was instituted in 1864. When the Main Building burned down in 1893, the library was moved to the Alumni Building. After the Pittsburgh Building was finished in 1912, it was chosen as the location of the new library. There the library remained until President Ricketts finished Amos Eaton Hall, in 1928, which became the Institute's fourth site for a library.

The Amos Eaton Hall served as a library until around 1961, when the Chapel and University Building were purchased by RPI. The Chapel was 'renovated', and in the place of pews went library shelves. By 1965, the Chapel was the main library. The Amos Eaton building became the Mathematics building, and housed the first real computing center at RPI. Here Fat Albert, Godot, Myron, and other, smaller, unnamed computers would later reside. The Chapel was a problem as a library, however, as its useful space was quickly filled with shelving.

By the early 1970s, a referendum was under way to increase library space on campus, as part of a national library drive on college campuses. It was during this turbulent period that the question of expanding the Chapel or building a new library, probably on the site of the University Building, came up. The Institute's president, Richard Folsom, was quoted in the Troy Record on *.* as having said, "the last thing this school needs is a new library ..." Despite this, a new building was commissioned in the early 1970s.

The Richard Gilman Folsom library was dedicated on 15 May 1976. It cost $6,900,000, holds 500,000 volumes, is composed of 10,000 cubic yards of concrete, and seats a maximum of 900 students. The library is named after the twelfth president of RPI; according to legend, it was so named as a final spit in the eye, since Folsom had kept the 'Tute from having a library for so long. The ground breaking ceremony was held in the spring of 1973. It is a fine library for a school that has traditionally shunned vaults for its texts.