The Rise of Engineering Education in Canada


The scene below is from a Bartlett print (ca 1842) across the river from Fredericton, New Brunswick. The building half way up the hill is the fledgling King's College, later to become the University of New Brunswick.

Notice the cart. Roads were just dirt tracks, severely rutted in spring and with the first snow fall, making travel difficult, at those times of the year. Communications depended upon travel, too, as did the movement of goods such as farm implements and foodstuffs. There was a crying need for engineers to develop roads and railways, as well as other constructions. The river provided the best means of travel from the coast. However, that was not an option in many parts of the Canadas. Consequently, the populace demanded other means such as canals.

Whether by canal or road, we must remember that at this time there was stil fear in the colonies of their giant neighbour to the South, as in many parts there were still cross-border skirmishes. So, although roads, railways and canals were wanted, they could not be too convenient to the border with the US.


From their founding, the universities in Canada were controlled and dominated mainly by the Anglican Church. (See Denominational Colleges.and the story of Dr. Jacobs.) As self-government began to take hold, there was unrest in the legislatures over the use of tax to pay for partisan education, particularly at higher levels. In New Brunswick, the situation rapidly deteriorated in the mid nineteenth century, so much so, that members of the legislature moved to close King's College. Sir Edmund Head, the Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of New Brunswick, attempted to come to grips with the problem of preserving the University of King's College. He had been made aware of the need for some practical education such as law, medicine and engineering, in order to preserve the college during the rise of democratic rule in the province. The scene below shows King's College as it looked at the time, sitting on the top of the hill, with a farm and outbuildings below. (From a contemporary photograph by Willia, Notman, ca 1858.)

A closer view of the oldest university building in Canada that is still in regular use. This shows King's College as it was constructed about 1829. Later, a third storey was added.

However, things were changing in the world. The scientific method was popularized through the many scientific discoveries in the nineteenth century, especially during the industrial revolution both in England and North America. The Great Exhibition in London in 1850 changed people's perceptions of what was possible.

Sir Edmund Head finally convinced Dr. Jacob, the college principal, to inaugurate a course of engineering instruction at the college. It was begun in the winter term of 1854, making it the first regular course of engineering instruction to be given at a Canadian University.

The fight to establish university education free from the dominance of the Anglican Church was no where near as fierce elesewhere as it was in New Brunswick. Head attempted to circumvent an outright effort to close the University by promising to establish a commission of enquiry into the affairs of the college. The protagonists wanted a more practical education than that offered. They also wanted to establish the university separate from the Church. Naturally there was a rearguard action by the old garde to maintain it as a privilege for the sons of the elite. The commission met and made its recommendations during that year.

Head's efforts ultimately culminated in the establishment of the university as the University of New Brunswick in 1859, with a considerably changed curriculum, geared towards medicine, law, engineering and agriculture. The following year, Head became Governor General of Upper and Lower Canada, leaving the University to capitalize on its gains by awarding the first engineering diploma in Canada to one Henry George Klopper Ketchum. But more about Mr. Ketchum later!

Sir William Dawson, at the time, the Superintendant of education in Nova Scotia, was appointed as the Principal of McGill College in 1855. He gained his reputation as a geologist, during his early years, and subsequently served on Head's commission of enquiry. Immediately after his appointemnt, Head announced courses of practical instruction in engineering and law.

The text of Dawson's inaugural discourse from 1855 | Prospectus describing the engineering program at McGill

King's College, Upper Canada , had been transformed into the no-sectarian University of Toronto in 1849, provision having been made to establish a chair in civil engineering. No attempt was made to fill the chair until 1851, when the position was advertised as available. There was a long list of applicants for the chair of civil engineering. However, no appointment was made to this post, even though Toronto dates the founding of its engineering school from 1851. The fact is, that no civil engineering course was even advertised in Toronto until 1857. We have no evidence that anyone entered the program until 1859. Since no appointment was ever made to the chair of civil engineering, the course never did achieve any measure of popularity. Seven students did embark upon the two year diploma course in Toronto, the first, (F.G. Robertson,) graduating in 1861, and the last in 1878.

One might say that the position of the father of engineering education in Canada should be shared between Sir Edmund Head and Dr. William Brydone Jack (shown at left from a photo about 1870), who laid the groundwork for the first program of engineering at then King's College, New Brunswick. In 1854 Sir Edmund Head was appointed Governor-General of Canada. This position carried with it the responsibility to act as Visitor to McGill College in Montreal. He was influential in having William Dawson appointed as Principal to McGill, and consequently, perhaps indirectly, fostering the establishment there of engineering. Dawson was the first Canadian to be chosen as a President of a Canadian University. (See Susan Sheets-Pyenson's article.) It might be remembered that Head, as Governor-General, was also the Visitor to the University of Toronto. It is an intriguing speculation that he might also have been responsible for the implementation of Engineering and Agricultural Chemistry at University College.

Sir William Dawson's principalship of McGill University began in the fall of 1855 when he was just 35 years old, and continued until his resignation in 1893. Sir William forged the destiny of a small college: by sheer dint of his own forceful personality he transformed the college into a great university. The transformation is all the greater if one remembers that Dawson held no University degree until after his appointment. To the end of his life he opposed the Darwinian concept of evolution, being a staunch fundamentalist Presbyterian. In spite of his personal feelings he made McGill a haven for learning in the sciences decrying the concentration of others on the arts, and concentrating instead on subjects of materialist application. Under his direction engineering flourished.

From a print of McGill, showing the college ca 1860

Four year courses were implemented in 1878 in Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Practical Chemistry and Mining, with the degrees of B.A.Sc., M.A.Sc. and M.Eng. offered. McGill thus became the earliest university in Canada to offer degree programs in engineering. The offering of electrical engineering did not commence until 1891. Still maintaining its innovative role in establishing engineering curricula, McGill went on to offer Chemical Engineering and Metallurgical Engineering in 1908.

Although the University of New Brunswick demands first recognition for the teaching of engineering at a University in Canada, and continuing the instruction with the most meagre of resources and especially with very few faculty, McGill University deserves just recognition as the great innovator of engineering education in this country.

University College, which purported to offer Civil Engineering

from George Munro Grant, ed., Picturesque Canada; the Country as It Was and Is (1883)

When one thinks of the School of Practical Science, or Skule, as it is affectionately known by generations of engineers throughout the world, one thinks of the myriad reflections of engineering at the University of Toronto. For, despite the fact that a few other universities have had their schools of practical science, none has retained the title borne by the most successful engineering college in Canada, SPS.

The Ontario Legislature passed an act establishing a School of Practical Science in 1877, with implementation of the program in a new building the following year. Although a separate institution, it was effectively controlled by University College, one of the colleges of the University of Toronto. University College saw itself as the sole proprietor of the right to educate civil engineers. In 1889 SPS gained autonomy from University College as an affiliated institution under the aegis of the University of Toronto, by virtue of the University Federation Act passed that year. Recognition of the program had come five years earlier when, with the establishment of the University Senate, provision was made for the award of a professional degree of Civil Engineer upon completion of three year's engineering experience, and certain other conditions.

A more traditional program was established in 1892 with the establishment of the degree of B.A.Sc. in five departments:
1. Civil Engineering.
2. Mechanical (and Electrical) Engineering.
3. Mining Engineering
4. Architecture.
5. Analytical and Applied Chemistry.

Eleven candidates were awarded the degree the following year.

University College had established itself as an early claimant to the program by offering the Civil Engineering Diploma as early as 1857. C.F.G. Robertson was the first graduate of this early program, in 1861, the next being W.G. Bellairs in 1862; G.C. Brown in 1867; and a total of only seven in the entire history of the course. The diploma course was effectively terminated in 1878, with the inauguration of SPS.

The early success of the School of Practical Science was due to the boundless energy of John Galbraith, who took the first Chair of Civil Engineering in 1878. He had intended to enter Civil Engineering at McGill University but was dissuaded from so doing since "engineering was but a trade and a person might, after serving some apprenticeship, present himself for examination by the University examiners, and if his test proved satisfactory, he would be awarded a diploma." James Loudon also had significant effect on the early endeavours of the fledgling school, first as a lecturer in Natural Philosophy (Physics), 1872-5, then as a member of the Board, and finally as President of the University of Toronto.

Galbraith contributed greatly to the life of SPS, especially with the formation of the Engineering Society in the spring of 1885. He was its first President, and, incidentally, the only faculty member to be so honoured, each successor being a student. This society was a significant unifying force in the profession numbering amongs its accomplishments the dissemination of technical information through the organ of the Engineering Society bulletin.

Montreal had been the scene for formation of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers, forerunner of the Engineering Institute of Canada, in 1887, with 288 members, among them Hurd Peters, the first graduate of UNB in engineering. McGill University, quite naturally enough served as host for the meetings of the society, and there is every evidence that the students of McGill took every opportunity to rub shoulders with the Great Canadian Engineers of the era: Sir Sandford Fleming, Thomas C. Keefer, Kivas Tully, and Sir Casimir Gzowski, to mention but a few. The greatest of Canadian engineering accomplishments were presented in talks at society meetings. Of special interest were those prepared by Henry George Clopper Ketchum. Ketchum proposed a ship railway across the Isthmus of Chignetco, the remains of which are still visible today. (The site noted above is from the Harriet Irving Library of the University of New Brunswick, well worth a virtual visit. Be sure to see the Virtual Museum on Ketchum!) There were on average about twelve presentations a year in those early days, and the McGill Engineering students came to adopt almost a proprietorial attitude to the proceedings.

As of 1909 the program at Toronto gained considerably in stature with the beginning of the four year program, in contrast to the three year course operational until then. Three years earlier SPS had gained status as the Faculty of Science and Engineering under the University Act (1906).

Ecole Polytechnique lays claim to being one of the oldest engineering schools in the country. It was established in 1873 on a site now covered over by the Place des Arts in Montreal. At the outset the course was intended to be of four years' duration, the first graduands emerging in 1877, consisting of a class of five students. Initially commissioned as l'Ecole des Sciences Appliquees aux Arts et a l'Industrie, Ecole Polytechnique changed its name to the present one in 1875. By 1887 it was decided that affiliation with a chartered isntitution might prove to be of mutual benefit. Hence, in that year, Ecole Polytechnique was affiliated with Laval University, an arrangement which was continued until 1920 when the school became alligned with the Universite de Montreal instead. Since then, the latter arrangement has continued, with a move to a shared campus in 1955.

Dalhousie claims to have implemented engineering instruction in 1891. However, it was not until 1902 that a program was established in Mining, followed two years later by one in Civil Engineering. The Faculty of Engineering ceased to exist in 1909 after passage of the Technical Education Act in 1907, creating Nova Scotia Technical College. From then on, students matriculating in all but Engineering Physics, did their final two years at "Tech". In fact, "Tech" was established as the engineering degree-granting institution for the province, taking students for the final two years, at the outset (1909) in the disciplines of Civil, Electrical, Mechanical or Mining Engineering.

Queen's University at Kingston has a far more defensible claim to an Engineering heritage than has Dalhousie. The Rev. George M. Grant had long been an admirer of engineering works, especially those connected with the railway. He accompanied Sandford Fleming on the construction expedition for the Canadian Pacific Intercolonial Railways, and reporting its wonders in "Ocean to Ocean", published in 1873. Hence when Grant became Principal of Queen's University he had a long-standing friendship with some of Canada's finest engineers, and proceeded to exploit the relationship, especially with Fleming, to their mutual advantage. In 1880, Grant induced Fleming to accept the appointment of Chancellor of Queen's, prompting Fleming to remark: "This is the strangest thing of my life. What made them elect a man to the highest position, who has never been in his life at college?"

But it was not until 1894 that the Faculty of Practical Science was established at Queen's under the direction of N.F. Dupuis as Dean. It was Dupuis who gave the opening address to the college on 2 October, 1872, remarking: "... it is not a matter of choice with us, whether we will have scientific teaching or not, but a matter of necessity ... if our universities will not make provision ..., schools of technology, established for the purpose, will." He had clearly an eye to the movements in that direction south of the border, and was probably aware of the growing importance of the Mechanics Institutes which had sprung up across the country to fill a gap not addressed by anyone else. However, due to a disconcerting lack of funding it was several years before the need could be met. In 1902, a degree program was established covering the disciplines of Chemistry, Mineralogy, Mechanical, Civil, Electrical and Mining Engineering. Strangely, a separate School of Mining grew up on the same site, side by side with the Faculty of Applied Science, and not amalgamated with Queen's until 1916.

The beginnings of engineering at Queen's were started with six staff and five students. The University of New Brunswick could already claim diplomates of their new program with only two staff, having started with but one. Whereas institutions and governments throughout Canada were coming to recongize that the future success of their nation depended in marked degree on preparation for the technological era, the same could not be said of either the Province or the University of New Brunswick, the latter manifesting that Tory attitude of old, exascerbated by the meagre funds allocated by the former. The Province, for its part, displayed little zeal in providing the wherewithal to accomplish the practical pursuits so glibly bandied about the House.

After the turn of the century there followed a spate of schools begun, no doubt, out of the growing sense of nationhood. The University of Manitoba appointed Ernest Brydone-Jack (son of the late William Brydone Jack) as Professor of Civil Engineering in 1907 to mark the beginning of teaching of engineering at that institution. Electrical and Mechanical programs were established quickly in succession, in 1909, and 1913 respectively. Except for a period of two years during the First World War, when the program almost disappeared, it has grown and matured since. The University of British Columbia program claims its beginnings in 1906 at the McGill University College of British Columbia. However, it was not established in its own right until 1908 with passage of an Act to establish the University of British Columbia. As might be expected, in a province growing as rapidly as British Columbia, the prime requirement was for competent civil engineers at the outset. Mechanical Engineering was not begun as a separate discipline until 1914. Growth was exceedingly slow, hampered by a lack of space and facilities until well after the war, when the site at Point Grey was developed.

Alberta followed suit in 1909 (the same year as Nova Scotia Technical College), and Saskatchewan in 1912. The latter began a program with four students in Civil Engineering. But in 1916 a temporary hiatus in the growth of the institution was experienced when the entire population of students and faculty went off to war. Resumption of the program in 1919 brought sixteen students, and the following year, an additional staff of seven. However, Civil Engineering was still the only full program, Mechanical and Electrical Engineering being offered as three-year introductions up until 1923.

Excepting the Agricultural Engineering program begun at Ontario Agricultural College in 1928, it was not until more than four decades after the founding of the Saskatchewan program that another degree program was begun in engineering in Canada. Then there followed in rapid succession, Western University (degrees offered in 1956, with initial instruction in 1954), Waterloo University, founded as a co-operative program in 1957, and Sir George Williams University later Concordia University, begun as a partial program in 1957, and as a degree program nine years later.

Several smaller institutions offer, or have offered pre-engineering programs over the years, and others have developed fine programs since. But the Universities which chose to implement engineering programs prior to the First World War were of a special breed: their implementors were innovators and visionaries.

Origins of Engineering Education by Discipline

Although we have concentrated so far on the various institutions offering engineering programs, we should also consider the establishment of engineering disciplines. What we now call civil engineering is usually considered to be the oldest discipline, as we have remarked earlier. We might also encompass railroad engineering as part of civil engineering, together with the quite remarkable engineering of canals in Canada. With its origins lost in the annals of time, practical chemistry probably ranks even older than civil engineering. Practical chemistry was a requirement for the medical profession, and subsequently, formed the basis for the study of agricultural chemistry. For a short history of the development of chemical engineering education in Canada, see, for example "Chemical Engineering in Canada - An HistoricalPerspective," edited by L.W.Shemilt, The Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering, 1991 for articles on the origins of Chemical Engineering education, or the article by the author.

During the nineteenth century, mechanical engineering was an integral part of engineering education, although not recognized as a discipline separate from Civil Engineering Education in Canadian Universities until McGill established the Faculty of Allied Science with a separate program in Mechanical Engineering in 1875. (See "McGill University," Vol. 1, by Stanley Brice Frost, McGill-Queen's, 1980.) Some additional history can be found in "From Steam to Space," edited by Andrew Wilson, Canadian Society for Mechanical Engineering, 1996, also the attached.