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My Engineering Education Was a First: Who Am I?

 Charles Storrow
 Charles Storrow

Storrow was born March 25, 1809 in Montreal, Canada and lived in France from the age of nine to fifteen with his family, as his father was a merchant and had a business located there. He attended the French schools. At the age of fifteen, his parents sent him back to Massachusetts to continue his education at the Round Hill School for Boys in Northampton, MA and later at Harvard College, Cambridge, MA where he graduated at the top of his class in 1829. One of his father’s closest friends was Laommi Baldwin, Jr., who was one of the founding fathers of civil engineering in the United States. It is thought that this relationship had an impact on Storrow’s decision to pursue a career in this new field. Baldwin became Storrow’s mentor, and they had a long period of correspondence prior to, during, and after Storrow’s stay in Europe. A. W. Wellington wrote in 1893, “In 1829 when Mr. Storrow finished his studies at Harvard, there was practically no such thing as engineering education in the United States. They became mechanical engineers by working with the ‘millwrights’ of the day or they became civil engineers by actual work with the few canal engineers of that time, for canal building was about the only field of employment then requiring the services of the civil engineer. Mr. Storrow, however, set out to obtain an engineering education and began by diligent reading in the library of Loammi Baldwin during his senior year in college and during the following six months.”

In December 1829, he returned to Paris to live with his family (his father had at the time gone bankrupt and had returned to the United States while his wife and children remaining in Paris) and became a student at École des Ponts et Chausseés, and also attended lectures at the École Polytechnique. His entry to these schools was through the influence of the Marquis de Lafayette who was a close friend of Charles’s father, Thomas Wentworth Storrow. Over the years the General came to rely upon the American merchant for financial advice.

Storrow attended these schools between February 1830 and March 1832. While there he seemed particularly interested in hydraulics and read all of the French works on the subject. Baldwin expanded the engineering library of his father and requested Storrow’s help in finding the newest engineering books while he was abroad. Prior to returning to the United States he also made a long tour of public works projects in the British Isles following the suggestions of an acquaintance, Philip Taylor.

“Returning to America, Mr. Storrow was at once employed under Loammi Baldwin as an Assistant Engineer on the construction of the Boston & Lowell, the first steam railway of New England. On its completion he became its first general manager and continued in that position for 12 years. It is stated that Mr. Storrow, by virtue of his brief experience on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, [built by George and Robert Stephenson] was the only person connected with the Boston & Lowell Railway during its construction who had ever actually seen a locomotive running on iron rails.” (Wellington, Arthur (May 5, 1904). “Charle Storer Storrow,” Engineering News, page 422).

In 1834, while recuperating from an accident, he wrote a 242 page book entitled, A Treatise on Water-works for Conveying and Distributing Water, which was published in 1835. It was based mainly on the works of French writers such as Prony, Bélanger, and Génieys. It was the first book in English touching on the relatively new field of what is now called hydraulics. It was an instant success and was found in the libraries of many practicing engineers and colleges. His introduction described the works of all the early French engineers who worked in this new area including the giants, Chezy, DuBuat, Bossut, Mariotte, Couplet, Coulomb, Girard as well as the works of D’Alembert, Smeaton, and Bernoulli. He returned to work on the Boston and Lowell Railroad with Baldwin until 1845 when he began his long association with the Boston Associates who were planning a new mill city on land carved out from Andover and Methuen, Massachusetts. This city became Lawrence and was developed by the Essex Company. He planned the entire city including the “Great Stone Dam” across the Merrimack River and the north power canal feeding the mills along the northerly side of the river. He, in association with James B. Francis, conducted many experiments on water-power over an extended period of time.

“It is probably true, as we have noted, that Mr. Storrow was the first American engineer educated in an engineering school. He was also among the first to take an active interest in the work of engineering education. It was Mr. Storrow's account of the engineering schools of France to his business associate, Hon. Abbott Lawrence, which led to the founding in 1846 of the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University. Mr. Storrow was urged to become the head of this institution at its foundation, but he preferred the more active life in connection with the great works of the Essex Co. Hiram Mills, in a tribute to Storrow, described a letter Storrow had written to Lawrence on engineering education. He quoted Storrow’s words about the need in our country, “of a increased number of men educated in the practical sciences...a school, not for boys, but for young men whose early education is completed, whether in college or elsewhere, and who intends to enter upon an active life as engineers or chemist, or in general, as men of science applying their attainments to practical purposes…This school of science should number among its teachers men who have practised and are practicing the arts they are called to teach.” (Wellington, Arthur (May 5, 1904). “Charle Storer Storrow,” Engineering News, page 422).


In 1862, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took control of the Hoosac Tunnel project from Herman Haupt and sent Storrow to Europe to study the methods adopted on the continent and England. He reported back on November 28, 1862 with a 122 page Report on European Tunnels and described all of the tunnels he visited. He thought the entire project could be finished in 10 to 12 years and estimated a cost of not less than $3,000,000. He remained as a consultant to the State for the duration of the construction of the tunnel. His last assignment was as a park commissioner for the city of Boston from which he retired in 1879. He died in 1904.