A Powerful Learning Laboratory

Winter 2007

The Power House, ca. 1916.
The Power House, ca. 1916.

Back in the 1910s and 1920s, the Power House on the Homewood campus did more than keep faculty and students warm. It also served as a learning laboratory for budding young engineers.

Once a freestanding building and the tallest structure on campus, the 92-year-old smoke stack structure (today adjacent to Whitehead Hall) provided enough heat and steam to serve the Homewood campus and generated surplus energy that was sold to the city of Baltimore, according to university archivist James Stimpert.

“The Power House wasn’t intended to be an academic building, but it’s perfectly logical that it would have been used that way,” Stimpert says. “We had a long line of frugal presidents—if you couldn’t justify the necessity of an expenditure, you weren’t going to buy it.”

Its academic uses fit with John B. Whitehead’s vision that an undergraduate education in engineering should include hands-on experience. In a piece for the Bulletin of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education in 1914—the year the Power House was built—Whitehead wrote of a colleague’s survey to assess students’ “fitness for professional work.”

“Stated briefly,” Whitehead wrote, “the general conclusion was that the graduate lacks practical experience, has little knowledge of commerce, business methods and economies, and must devote himself in some way to acquiring further information and knowledge of affairs for several years.”

If it wasn’t the building’s originally intended use, its academic potential was being fully embraced just five years after it was built, according to “Mechanical Equipment at Johns Hopkins University,” an article by Julian C. Smallwood published in Power in 1919.

“Naturally, the power plant is designed primarily with a view to providing economical and continuous service, which, of course, means the installation of modern engines and scientific instruments. But of nearly equal prominence is the purpose to include not only every usual facility for undergraduate experimentation, but also all practicable means for research, usual and special. In fact, it may be said that research is the keynote of the whole equipment.”

Smallwood’s account includes a description of the machines that made the Power House tick, such as the 50-kilowatt Loco-mobile, also known as the “Buckeyemobile.” There were also four 250-horsepower Babcock & Wilcox boilers for function, as well as equipment that was strictly experimental, like a 15-ton Frick refrigerating machine and a Studebaker auto engine with a fan brake, he notes.

After a visit to the Power House, an alumnus writing for the January 1915 edition of the alumni magazine posited that the engineering school radiated “an atmosphere vibrant with preparation, tense with expectancy and eagerness and hopefulness, a spirit which seemed not only to animate instructors and students, but even in some magical fashion to emanate from the fresh plaster and shining woodwork of the building and its equipment.”