Civil Engineering Almanac – Sylvanus Thayer, ‘Father of West Point,’ is born

This week in civil engineering history: Colonel and Brevet Brigadier General Sylvanus Thayer, known for his educational reforms at the United States Military Academy at West Point and Dartmouth College, was born on June 9, 1785.

Born in Braintree, Massachusetts, Sylvanus Thayer grew up in Washington, New Hampshire, and entered Dartmouth College in 1803. He was the class valedictorian in 1807 but did not attend his graduation as he was granted an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy and left for West Point before the ceremony. Thayer graduated from West Point one year later.

Thayer was actively engaged during the War of 1812, and following the war, he spent two years in Paris studying at the French École Polytechnique. In 1817, Sylvanus Thayer was appointed to replace Alden Partridge as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, but Partridge refused to relinquish his command to a former subordinate. Partridge was court-martialed for insubordination and neglect of duty, and although he was acquitted, Partridge resigned his position. In August 1817, Thayer became the fifth superintendent at West Point.

During his tenure, Thayer’s reforms included setting new standards for admission, establishing minimum levels of proficiency, and creating a system to measure progress. Under Thayer, West Point became the nation’s first college of engineering. Although military subjects dominated the program, Thayer believed that the arts and sciences were important. By 1831 the military engineering course was designated “civil engineering” and had lost most of its military overtones, encompassing the construction of “buildings and arches, canals, bridges, and other public works.” Thayer served as superintendent for 16 years, the longest tenure in West Point’s two century history.

In 1867, six decades after graduating from Dartmouth, Thayer brought engineering to his alma mater, offering $70,000 to create an engineering school and detailing the curriculum: technical studies built on a strong liberal arts foundation. A century and a half later, the Thayer School of Engineering continues the program that he originated.

The “Father of West Point” died Sept. 7, 1872, at his home in Braintree and is interred at the West Point Cemetery on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy.

Reuben Hull, P.E., PMP, M.ASCE, is civil regional manager for LaBella Associates in Albany, New York, and a self-made historian who has penned numerous articles on civil engineering history. An active ASCE member, Hull is a corresponding member and former chair of the History and Heritage Committee, serves as vice president of the Mohawk-Hudson Section, served as president of the New Hampshire Section, 1999-2000, and was named New Hampshire Young Engineer of the Year in 1997.

Follow his daily Civil Engineering Almanac series on Twitter: @ThisDayInCEHist.

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