On November 11th, WPI celebrates Founders Day, commemorating the day the Institute first opened its doors. Each year, the Student Alumni Society (SAS) focuses its celebration on one of the nine Founders. They chose to honor Charles O. Thompson, WPI’s first Prinicipal (now known as President), for 2016.
In March 1868, the Board of Trustees elected Thompson, a 31 year-old high school administrator and civil engineer with a degree Dartmouth, to be Principal of the new school. They also appointed him to be professor of Chemistry. His single condition for accepting the position was that the opening of the school be postponed until at least November 1st, so that he could tour the technical schools of Europe in preparation.
Shortly after accepting the position, Thompson sent Stephen Salisbury and the Board a “Memorandum for organizing the Worcester County Free Institute of Practical Industrial Science.” In this document, he laid out his vision for the new school in “the fewest words as possible.”
“The corporate name seems rather heavy,” Thompson started the memo. “Some abbreviation will be indispensable for current use. A name should be an index rather than a compendium.” He suggested the school be called “The Worcester Technical School” instead. He mentioned that similar schools in Europe contain the words “Real, Technical, Industrial, and Polytechnic,” and suggested that the trustees consider doing the same. (Perhaps inspired by Thompson’s thoughts, the school did officially change its name to “Worcester Polytechnic Institute” in 1887 under President Fuller.) “The school is… to furnish an education based on the natural sciences, the mathematics and the modern languages,” Thompson continued. “It is not a place where boys can learn trades.” Washburn Shops, the vision of another founder, Ichabod Washburn was completed after Boynton Hall. It offered a place where students were apprentices to tradesmen and focused on learning how to produce commercial products. The proper role of the Shops in the larger picture of the Institute would be hotly debated long after Thompson’s presidency ended.
Later in the letter, Thompson recommended the Institute hire a math teacher named Harriet Goodrich. Miss Goodrich taught mathematics at Arlington High School where Thomposn served as principal and had “a great natural ability in this department and is of great dignity and refinement.” Miss Goodrich also happened to be Prof. Thompson’s sister-in-law. The trustees did hire Miss Goodrich, but she retired after one year of teaching due to bad health. Although other women were also hired over the years, female students were not admitted as undergraduates until 1968 – 100 years after the first class entered WPI.
The memorandum contains many more specifics concerning staffing and equipment for the new Institute in addition to Thompson’s European travels from New York to Belfast, Dublin, London, Paris, Lyon, Vienna, Zurich, and cities in Germany. He had already studied the plans of all of the scientific schools in America and with his new knowledge of the European schools he intended to shape the new institute into a world-class university. The Free Institute’s innovative approach to education stimulated the founding of other engineering schools which mimicked the WPI model. Thompson became well regarded as a visionary of scientific education through his work at WPI and was later hired as the first president of Rose Polytechnic Institute to implement his educational model honed at WPI.
The Thompson memorandum and other founding documents are held in the collections of Curation, Preservation, and Archives and can be viewed in the Fellman Dickens Reading Room, Level G, Gordon Library weekdays during term from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.