Mission and History

Our Mission

Cornell University’s College of Engineering is a rigorous and dynamic intellectual community that plays a central role in the interdisciplinary life of a uniquely broad research-intensive university.

The mission of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering is to provide its students with a broad and exceptional education in electrical and computer engineering built upon a substantial foundation in science, mathematics, computing, and technology. The School strives to prepare its students to lead responsively, creatively, and ethically in the discovery and application of new knowledge, technologies, and inventions leading to the solution of pressing global problems.



Franklin Hall
Franklin Hall, 1800s

Housing for electrical engineering at Cornell was a mixed bag from the very beginning of the discipline.  When Franklin Hall was opened in 1883, the principal occupant was the Department of Physics.  Two years later, electrical engineering was established as a department in the Sibley College of Mechanical Engineering, the first courses in the new program were offered in Franklin Hall, and machinery laboratory instruction was conducted in Sibley Hall.  In 1904, physics moved into brand-new Rockefeller Hall, Franklin Hall became the permanent home of electrical engineering, and a new electrical machinery laboratory in Rockefeller was used by both physics and electrical engineering until 1916 when EE opened its own machinery laboratory in the second floor of Rand Hall.

The School of Electrical Engineering became a separate entity in 1921, but the 1916-level classroom and laboratory space remained essentially unchanged until World War II days.  At that time an additional machinery laboratory for the Navy V-12 program was installed in the Old Heating Plant, a long barn-like structure located in the area now occupied by Bard Hall.  By 1946, when the first wave of veterans came to Cornell under the G.I. Bill, five professors and a dozen graduate instructors had been added to the teaching staff, many of whom were given office space in the old Franklin Annex behind Franklin Hall.  The service-courses staff (for non-electrical engineering students) was housed in the Old Armory next to the Old Heating Plant, a high-voltage laboratory was in operation on Mitchell Street Extension, and the School machine shop was located in the basement of Morris Hall adjacent to Franklin Hall on the present site of the Johnson Museum.

Dean S.C. Hollister, who had been planning the development of a new engineering quadrangle for a number of years, was fully aware of the fragmented state of housing for electrical engineering.  When the new EE Director, Dr. Charles E. Burrows, arrived on campus in mid-1945, the Dean told him that the EE School had first priority for construction of the next addition to the quad.  Dr. Burrows appointed a Building Subcommittee to study projected enrollment and space requirements and to prepare a plan for a new building.  On January 10, 1947, the Subcommittee, under the chairmanship of professor L.A. Burckmyer, Jr., presented a preliminary report to the EE Faculty based on estimated future totals of 400 undergraduates and 40 graduate students.  The Faculty was invited to examine the report and to submit criticisms, suggestions, and recommendations.  The faculty's responses were incorporated into the study, and a highly detailed and completely documented final report was submitted on July 8, 1947.  The members of professor Burckmyer's subcommittee were professors A. Berry Credle '30H.G. Smith '30E.M. Strong, and J.G. Tarboux '23.

Before the new building could come into being it was necessary to find a donor and to select a suitable site.  According to University archivist Dr. Gould P.Colman '51 AB, the College of Engineering in the late 30s had begun to look at Sage Hall as a potential site for future expansion.  In 1942, the School of Chemical Engineering moved into its new Olin Hall, next to Sage Hall, and the outline of the future engineering quadrangle began to emerge with the start of construction of Kimball-Thurston Hall in 1949.  Consequently, the EE Building Committee gave serious consideration to Sage as the site of choice for the new structure.  When word of this plan became known to Cornell alumnae who had fond memories of the old building, the reaction was predictable, perhaps best illustrated by the tortured outcry of one worried alumna who wrote, “Touch not one blade of old Sage Green!”  The Sage plan was quickly abandoned in favor of the present site along Grove Place, the southern extension of East Avenue that contained three early professorial “cottages” one of which, at the time, was headquarters for Naval ROTC, with the other two serving as faculty apartments.

While the Dean struggled with the problem of finding a donor, Professor Burckmyer and his committee labored for several years on a series of alternate building designs that would meet the criteria set forth in its 1947 Report, fit within the selected site, and satisfy assumed budgetary constraints.  After six separate plans had been considered and discarded, a seventh design was finally adopted in early 1952, and the architectural firm of Perkins and Will was commissioned to draw up preliminary designs.  In September of that year, the architects sent Dean Hollister a large oil painting of an external view of their projected design for the new building.  Shortly thereafter, the Dean announced a visit by a potential donor, Mr. Ellis L. Phillips, president of the Phillips Foundation, who wished to speak to members of the EE faculty about their plans for use of a new building.  The interviews took place in the Dean's office where the painting was prominently displayed on an appropriate easel.  In the spring of 1953, Cornell received a grant of one million dollars from the Phillips Foundation for a new electrical engineering building, and an additional grant of $100,000 for furniture and equipment.  Construction of Phillips Hall began later that summer.

The new building was to be a modern edifice, complete with state-of-the-art laboratories and facilities, that would offer relief from the existing cramped quarters, encourage pedagogical benefits from the presence of most of the School divisions under one roof, and provide adequate space for future expansion.  The design included a number of special features that reflected the educational views and interests of the EE faculty at the time.  In addition to the standard power and machinery components of the curriculum, the areas of power-network analysis, servomechanisms and control systems, power electronics, illumination, analog computers, advanced radar and radio communication, audio and acoustic systems, and vacuum-tube electronics were all represented. 

Members of the EE Faculty worked diligently to prepare for the transfer of the School to the new building.  Professor Burckmyer designed a unique and flexible electrical power supply and audio communications system that would allow interconnections between discrete points in the building.  It would thus be possible, for example, to have an experiment in progress in a laboratory, and, in a classroom in another part of the building,   to receive a description of the activity and measure resulting data.  Professor Sam Linke, who had joined the Building Committee when professor Tarboux left Cornell to go to the University of Michigan, and lecturer Lawrence B. Spencer ‘34 planned the installation of a Power Network Calculator for the second-floor south wing.  Professors E.M. Strong and C.L. Cottrell designed a special illumination laboratory for the third-floor north wing.  Professors B.K. Northrop and Walter Cotner prepared for the development of a power-electronics laboratory for the third-floor south wing.  Professor Wilbur E. Meserve designed a servomechanisms and control-systems laboratory for the third-floor east wing.  Professors A. Berry Credle and True McLean planned an extensive radar and radio communications laboratory for the fourth-floor east wing.  The vacuum-tube manufacturing and analysis facility in Franklin Hall was designated for transfer to the fourth-floor north wing of Phillips Hall.  A building tower specified by the architects was designed to accommodate a future anechoic chamber for acoustical research..

Occupation of Phillips Hall occurred between terms (under the old academic calendar) during the first week of February, 1955.  Professor Berry Credle, Assistant Director of the School, was in charge of the well-planned operation.  Previously, (during exam week) the large electric machines had been brought into Phillips Hall and permanently wired.  Since most of these heavy items could not be accommodated by the building elevator, it was necessary to use cranes to insert them through windows that had been temporarily removed.  New office furniture and laboratory benches had been back-ordered and were in place, and the new laboratory power supply was energized and ready for use.  By the end of the week the move had been completed.  Spring-term classes began in the new building on the following Monday with relatively few problems.  The building was formally dedicated on June 11, 1955.

S.C Hollister, dean of the College of Engineering; Mr. Ellis L. Phillips; Mrs. Ellis L. Phillips; and Cornell President Deane W. Malott at the dedication of Phillips Hall in 1955
Photographed at the dedication of Philips Hall in 1955 were, left to right, S.C Hollister, dean of the College of Engineering; Mr. Ellis L. Phillips; Mrs. Ellis L. Phillips; and Cornell President Deane W. Malott

The new building had an instant and positive impact on the EE School.  The faculty was pleased with the new classrooms, laboratories, and facilities.  The 94,000 square feet of space, identical with the target set by the 1947 Building Committee Study, offered opportunities for development of innovative educational techniques, and encouraged expansion of faculty research activities.  These changes could not occur immediately, of course, so for several years members of the Arts and Sciences faculty often gave instruction in Mathematics, History, and English Literature in some of the classrooms, and on occasion, other schools in the Engineering College would use the Phillips Hall lecture rooms.  Eventually the School caught up with the building as the curriculum underwent major revisions, and graduate study and faculty research expanded far beyond the original projections of the Building Committee.

During the first two decades of its presence on the engineering quad, there was little physical change in Phillips Hall.  Certain laboratory modifications were introduced, however, to match the new content of the EE curriculum. The Power Network Calculator was abandoned in favor of the digital computer, and its former location in the building eventually became a laser and optics laboratory.  Power and machinery courses were removed from the required curriculum with a concurrent reduction in the laboratory space allocated for those disciplines.  The control-systems laboratory was updated with modern equipment and associated computer facilities.  Solid-state electronics completely superseded vacuum-tube laboratory activities.  The space allotted to the former illuminations laboratory was assigned to a new research program in bioelectronics conducted by Professor Myunghwan Kim.  The projected anechoic chamber for the tower was never installed, but professor Clyde Ingalls conducted acoustic research in the space for a number of years.

Significant changes to the building began in the mid-70s with the advent of the controlled-atmosphere microelectronics laboratory, the so-called “clean rooms” in the fourth-floor north wing, which led to the establishment of the National Research and Resource Facility for Submicron Structures and the construction in 1982-83 of the major addition now known as the Knight Laboratory, the home of the National Nanofabrication Facility.  After 30 years the EE School once again found itself in cramped quarters and discussions of plans for a new building were initiated. Some of the pressure for additional space was relieved by transfer of faculty office space to the Upson Hall extension, and  again in 1991 when the third floor of the new Engineering and Theory Center Building was made available to the EE School.  The latter move opened up substantial areas in Phillips Hall for the development of the new computer facility, the laser laboratory, the Master of Engineering Program, and the Electric-Car Project  that have all been described in previous issues of Connections.

When we moved into Phillips Hall back in 1955, many EE faculty members were of the opinion that the building would be obsolete in about 30 years.  The structure is approaching its 40th anniversary and is still going strong.  Certain imperfections have been corrected, internal architectural improvements have reduced the former barren institutional appearance, and partial air conditioning has made the building more comfortable.  The ongoing modernization and upgrading of the laboratories bodes well for many more years of useful service to the EE School.

-Connections, Spring 1994

UPDATE: Since  publication of this article in 1994, Phillips Hall has been further upgraded as part of the planning and construction of Duffield Hall. Room 101 has been transformed into an attractive auditorium with acoustics that have been pronounced excellent by speakers who have used the room. Audiovisual and lighting equipment of the latest design has been installed with central control provided by a computer-monitored system housed in the podium. The first three rows have been rearranged for conference seating with tables to allow the room to be used for small classes and seminars. The formerly stark second-floor classrooms with the long fixed tables have been replaced with two small amphitheaters complete with comfortable lecture-room seats and flexible presentation facilities. Other improvements, including extensive modernization of instructional laboratories, major expansions of computer networking that is easily available to students, and convenient access to the new facilities provided by Duffield Hall all combine to transform the building into a first-class state-of-the-art educational facility that will enable the ECE School to maintain its objectives for many years.

Sam Linke
Professor Emeritus
Electrical Engineering