Brief History and Timeline

Classes in civil engineering have been offered at MIT ever since the Institute opened in 1865, just after the Civil War. Since that time, the department's name and curriculum have changed several times in keeping with the evolving needs of humanity.

The course was first called Civil and Topographical Engineering and the focus was on surveying and building infrastructure: roads, railways, bridges, canals and drinking water systems. In 1889, Civil Engineering merged with Sanitary Engineering, and in 1892 the name of the department was changed to Civil and Sanitary Engineering. In 1934, the Building and Engineering Department was absorbed into Civil and Sanitary Engineering, and early in the 1960s, Sanitary Engineering was dropped from the department name. In 1992, the department was renamed the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, in recognition of the new combined discipline and its added emphasis on environmental chemistry and biology.

CEE Department Heads


Markus J. Buehler
Andrew J. Whittle
Patrick Jaillet
Chiang C. Mei (acting head)
Rafael L. Bras
David H. Marks
Joseph M. Sussman
Frank Perkins
Peter Eagleson
Charles L. Miller
Rolf Eliassen (acting head)
John Wilbur
Theodore B. Parker
Charles Breed
Charles M. Spofford
George Swain
George Vose
John Henck

A Timeline of CEE History

Twenty-first Century

2015: CEE at MIT has developed a new vision that focuses on "Big Engineering," which reflects our focus on systems with large-scale tangible and visible impact on people and sustainability.

2010:  The Concrete Sustainability Hub is established to study cement at the nano and molecular levels with the goal of designing a "green" cement that will require lower CO2 emissions in manufacturing and be lighter and more durable.

2008:  The Center for Environmental Sensing and Modeling (CENSAM), an international collaborative research program initially headed by Professor Andrew Whittle, is founded. Many researchers from CEE, other MIT departments, and universities in Singapore are developing environmental sensor networks to monitor air and water quality continually, pervasively around the globe.

2002:  CEE and EAPS launch Terrascope as a project-based, team-oriented learning community for freshmen with coursework and research focused on a single environmental/Earth-systems problem each year.

2000:  The first Traveling Research Environmental Experiences (TREX) trip is offered to Course 1 undergraduates during the January Independent Activities Period. Through TREX, students have gained hands-on fieldwork and research experience doing work in the Florida Everglades, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, and Lake Pontchartrain, La., after Hurricane Katrina.

Twentieth Century

1995:  Professor Moshe Ben-Akiva’s MITSIMLab traffic modeling and simulation system is used to test and refine the real-time electronic monitoring and surveillance systems for Boston’s Big Dig, setting off a transformation in the field of traffic management systems analysis and driving-behavior modeling.

1994:  The Master of Engineering is established as a new model of graduate education. The nine-month, practice-oriented program prepares graduates to enter engineering practice in high-performance structures, water quality engineering or geotechnical engineering.

1992:  Course I becomes the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and adds an undergraduate curriculum in Environmental Engineering Science.

1988:  Professor Sallie (Penny) Chisholm and colleagues discover Prochlorococcus, the smallest and most abundant oxygen-producing organism on Earth. Chisholm developed this ocean microbe into a model system for environmental microbiology, and led the expansion of Parsons Laboratory research into that area.

1983:  Professor Steven Lerman becomes the first director of Project Athena, a large-scale experiment to develop innovative educational uses for computers and graphics. Athena integrates personal computers, servers and printers into a single system and provides campus-wide email and other network-based services.

1982:  Frederick Salvucci, the Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, begins planning the Big Dig, a project to move Boston’s Central Artery underground and extend I-90 to the airport. Salvucci is a Senior Lecturer at MIT 1979-82 and 1991 to present.

1976:  Professor Jerome Connor is the first to apply finite element modeling to fluid circulation, in models of the Massachusetts Bay and Boston Harbor. These and later models by Senior Research Associate, Dr. Eric Adams, are used to design Boston’s Deer Island wastewater outfall.


1973:  Professor Francois Morel initiates efforts to understand cycling and impacts of metals in aquatic environments. His 1984 book, “Principles of Aquatic Chemistry,” integrates fundamental chemistry principles into environmental quality studies.

1973:  The MIT Center for Transportation Studies is established as an interdisciplinary research center with Professor Paul Roberts as its first director. In 1979 the Master of Science in Transportation program is offered.

1970:  Professor Peter Eagleson’s textbook, “Dynamic Hydrology,” establishes hydrologic science as a geophysical science, ushering in a new era for the discipline.

1970:  Hydrodynamics Laboratory adds two floors and is renamed the Ralph M. Parsons Laboratory. Research expands into the aquatic and environmental sciences under the leadership of Professors Arthur Ippen and Donald Harleman.

1969:  Structures faculty members write an open source computer programming language for structural design called STRUDL, which continues to be modified and widely used today. STRUDL revolutionized the practice of structural engineering.

1968:  Professor Allin Cornell writes a seminal paper on Earthquake Risk Analysis that lays the foundation for the entire field of risk and reliability in natural and man-made hazards. Research in this field is a mainstay of the department through the mid 1980s.

1966:  Course I first offers 1.00 Information Systems, teaching computer approaches to engineering problems. It is immediately popular with undergraduates throughout MIT. In 1981, the name changes to Principles of Computer-Based Engineering Problem Solving.

1961:  Professor Charles Miller develops COGO (Coordinate Geometry System), ushering civil engineering into the computer age by making it possible to write software to solve engineering problems using object-oriented language. Miller and others go on to develop ICES (Integrated Civil Engineering Systems) to integrate software packages.

1959:  Led by Professor Robert Hansen, the Structures Faculty works with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to design bomb-resistant structures during the nuclear scare of the Cold War years. This work led to publication of the groundbreaking book, “Structural Design for Dynamic Loads.”

1954:  The Monsanto House of the Future, set in 1986, was designed and built by MIT architecture faculty with engineering by Professors Albert Dietz and Frank Heger and others in Civil Engineering’s Plastics Lab.

1953:  Building Engineering and Construction, Course XVII, becomes a division of Civil and Sanitary Engineering.

1950:  A new Hydrodynamics Laboratory opens under the direction of Professor Arthur Ippen with the help of Professor James Daily. Both men are fluid mechanicians recruited from Caltech.

1946:  The first research laboratory to study the fundamental properties of plastics as construction materials is established by Professor Albert Dietz of Building Engineering and Construction.


1942:  Courses in surveying are expanded to meet the needs of the armed forces. Professors work on special war research projects. Civilian undergraduate enrollment plummets and the Sanitary Engineering undergraduate major is dropped.

1938:  Professor Arthur Ruge invents an electronic strain gauge, the SR-4, for measuring the movement of a structure during earthquakes. A form of the sensor is still in use today.

1931:  The country’s first hydraulic model that recreates tidal motion is built in the River Hydraulic Laboratory to study means of slowing tidal currents in the Cape Cod Canal, overseen by Professor Kenneth Reynolds.

1929:  Professor Thomas Camp develops an undergraduate curriculum for Sanitary Engineering. Camp leaves MIT in 1944, but his more than 100 scientific papers on water and sewage treatment are still widely referenced today.

1926:  Building Construction is established as a course of study, possibly the first in the country, and is run by Professor R. F. Tucker. The course emerged from Economics and Engineering Administration.

1925:  The country’s first academic program in Soil Mechanics is established by Professor Karl von Terzaghi, Over the next 85 years and particularly in the 1970s under the leadership of Professor T. William Lambe, the Soil Mechanics Faculty receives many accolades, including election of 14 professors to the National Academy of Engineering.

1917:  Curriculum is altered to speed up the technical training needed by the armed forces during World War I. An expanded summer camp session provides military training to sophomores in all majors.

1916:  Civil and Sanitary Engineering moves to the Institute’s new Cambridge campus.

1912:  Alumni purchased land in East Machias, Maine, to create a permanent home for “Tech Camp,” the Civil Engineering Survey Camp which ran annually through the summer of 1953. The summer sessions provided more than three generations of civil engineers with invaluable field experience. Between 1888 and 1912, CEE conducted summer surveying classes in different locations in the Boston area.

Nineteenth Century

1892:  Course XI and Course I merge to become Civil and Sanitary Engineering. The Sanitary Engineering course of study was organized in 1889 at the urging of Professor William Thompson Sedgwick.

1889:  The hydraulic tank is fully installed in the top floor of the Institute’s new building at Trinity Place, Boston, the first step in creating the Hydraulic Laboratory.

1887:  The Lawrence Experiment Station, the first wastewater treatment research plant in the U.S., is built in Massachusetts, based on work by Professor William Thompson Sedgwick, who carries out research at the plant.

1873:  Civil Engineering switches with Mechanical Engineering to become Course I and drops Topographical from the name.

1872:  Professor John Henck and 12 students explore and study many of the main bridges in the United States.

1865:  The first classes are held on the Boston campus. Course II Civil and Topographical Engineering offers classes in mechanics, surveying, geodesy and structures.

1861:  MIT’s Charter is accepted by the state legislature just two days before the Civil War starts. The war causes a delay in plans for the Institute, but in 1864, the scope and plan of education is written with Civil and Topographical Engineering as Course II.