Although the University of Florida is a land-grant university and traces its founding to 1853, it was 1909-1910 when the current name and location of the UF campus were established in Gainesville, Florida. The Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, offering curricula in civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, was one of the four original colleges formed at that time. There were twenty-seven faculty members at the university including five in engineering, and 181 students enrolled, with forty-seven in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. Elsewhere in the state, Henry Flagler, co-founder of Standard Oil, was busy extending a railroad from Miami to Key West, an engineering marvel completed in 1912, while the Naval Aeronautical Center at Pensacola was established in 1914. During World War I, the UF campus was used for military training programs. In 1920, Aeromarine Airways initiated air passenger service between Key West, FL and Havana, Cuba.

Aeronautics first appears in the course listing of the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Florida in 1928, the year that Robert Thompson, who went on to become the founding head of the Aeronautical Engineering Department, entered the university as a freshman. Thompson earned his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1932 and joined the Mechanical Engineering faculty as a part-time instructor, and operator in charge of the mechanical engineering laboratory while he worked on his master’s degree. An aeronautical option in the Mechanical Engineering Department started in 1941. Aeronautical Engineering became a separate department in 1946, offering a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering. The new Aeronautical Engineering Department was founded with three faculty members, including Robert Thompson as “Head Professor of Aeronautical Engineering”. The other two founding members of the faculty were Ford Prescott and Sam Goethe, both graduates of the mechanical engineering program at the University of Florida and listed as research engineers.

Historic UFL Campus Picture

A phenomenal enrollment boom occurred after World War II as veterans took advantage of the GI Bill. Overall UF enrollments climbed from 1,500 in 1945 to 6,300 in 1946 to 8,800 in 1947, to 10,200 in 1948. Staff size in engineering grew at a comparable rate. Facilities that had been declared inadequate for a prewar enrollment of 3,500 students were serving almost three times that number. War surplus buildings became the quick fix for student housing as well as classrooms and laboratories, and some remained on campus for many years. In 1947, the University of Florida officially transitioned to a coeducational university, During the two-year period ending in 1954, the six departments of the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering awarded a total of 278 bachelor’s degrees, 34 master’s degrees and one PhD. Aeronautical Engineering accounted for 13 bachelors degrees compared to 51 in Mechanical Engineering and 75 in Electrical Engineering.

By the early 1960s, the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering at the University of Florida had grown and developed to offer the bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nine fields of engineering and a PhD in six. Undergraduate engineering enrollment was about 2,000, and graduate enrollment about 300. It was recognized by the university that to successfully compete for competent faculty members there must be adequate space and support for research activities as well as adequate salaries. Federal dollars were matched by state funds to construct seven new buildings to house engineering departments. The need was so great for aeronautical engineering that a special “surge” building was built to house the department temporarily from 1964 until the new aerospace engineering building was completed in 1967.

Robert Gaither

Mechanical Engineering also moved into a much-needed new building. Under Dr. Gaither’s leadership, ME linked up with other departments to take advantage of growing synergies in industry, and realizing the importance of the interconnectedness of the various engineering disciplines, reached out to other groups and included emphasis on newer applications such as biomechanical engineering and ceramic materials design. Along with Dr. Betty Abbot, they partnered with the Florida Foundation for Future Scientists, an organization formed by the state of Florida to encourage careers in science and engineering.

Dr. Mark Clarkson was hired as chairman of the Aeronautical Engineering department in 1961. He earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1939. After working in the aircraft industry from graduation through the war years, he became a research engineer and mathematician at the Defense Research Laboratory at University of Texas and earned his PhD in mathematics from the University of Texas in 1952. Like in Mechanical Engineering, a graduate degree program leading to a PhD was initiated in 1964. In keeping with local tradition, bright students were recruited from the undergraduate program for graduate studies, and three were hired as part-time faculty during the latter stages of their studies. The first Aerospace PhD was earned by Roland C. Anderson in 1965, with the guidance of Dr. Knox T. Millsaps. Anderson remained on the faculty of the University of Florida until his retirement in 1990, and he was active professionally until his passing in 1997.


A report on engineering programs in Florida commissioned by the state Board of Regents precipitated a reorganization of the College, in which the Department of Aerospace Engineering was merged with the Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics, with Lawrence (Larry) Malvern serving as interim chair. Malvern earned his PhD from Brown University in 1949 and had been a Professor at Michigan State before he joined the Engineering Science and Mechanics Department at the University of Florida in 1969. Dr. Malvern did pioneering work in plastic wave propagation analysis, and several generations of graduate students studied his text Introduction to the Mechanics of a Continuous Medium. The merger increased the breadth and depth of the aerospace program, particularly in the area of structures, and provided increased potential for collaborative research among faculty members. The combined faculty size at merger was thirty-one, and the Engineering Science and Mechanics branch brought with it responsibility for teaching the College’s key service courses Statics, Dynamics and Mechanics of Materials. The name chosen for the new department was Engineering Science, Mechanics and Aerospace Engineering.

On the teaching side, broad revisions to the curriculum, especially the undergraduate program, were implemented in the 1990s. The State of Florida requested that its public universities standardize the number of credits required for all bachelor’s degrees. In response, the Mechanical and Aerospace engineering programs not only trimmed the semester-hour credits to 128, but also underwent substantial revisions of the curriculum. While there are clear shifts in topics of emphasis through the years, there is an interesting consistency in the overall spirit, namely, a combination of mathematics, basic and engineering sciences, in addition to the mechanical and aerospace engineering disciplines. Additionally, there have been changes in textbooks and teaching methods within topics, usually an increase in mathematical sophistication and increased use of numerical methods and modeling tools. The modern mechanical and aerospace engineer needs a strong foundation in mathematics and science, breadth in other engineering disciplines, and depth in a chosen specialty for technical competence. Additional areas of emphasis include the “soft skills” such as teamwork, communication and leadership, which are increasingly important for multidisciplinary approaches to problem solving.

MAE 100 Year Enrollment Trends

With encouragement by the new dean of the College, Dr. Pramod Khargonekar, faculty members of the Aerospace Engineering, Mechanics and Engineering Science department, and of the Mechanical Engineering department agreed to merge, creating the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE). So after fifty-six years of parallel developments as separate academic departments, Aerospace Engineering and Mechanical Engineering reunited in 2002, with Dr. Wei Shyy becoming the first department chair. At the time of the merger, the two departments were approximately the same size, and the new department had nearly 50 faculty members, 700 undergraduate students, and 250 fulltime graduate students. The rationale for the merger came in part from the realization that Aerospace Engineering is focused on all aspects related to flight including fluids mechanics, structural mechanics, and dynamics and control, while Engineering Science/Mechanics was historically the home for nontraditional and developing curricula in engineering, including most recently, biomechanics, while finally, Mechanical Engineering is broad in its scope, encompassing all aspects related to vehicles, machinery, thermal and fluid engineering, and energy. Faculty and students from both departments regularly interacted with each other, and often publish scholarly works in the same journals. Intellectually, rapid advances in science and technology have significantly broadened the scope of engineering in all disciplines while blurring the boundaries between them.

Today, more than a decade after the successful merger, MAE is the largest academic department on the entire UF campus, with more than 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Recent campus-wide hiring initiatives hold promise of growing the faculty size to a goal of 60.

A number of graduates from the University of Florida’s Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering degree programs have become strong contributors to their chosen professions. We offer a few examples of those who have also continued to contribute to the MAE program at the University of Florida by visiting periodically to offer advice and encouragement. John D. Anderson, Jr. (BSAE 1957) has established a distinguished career as an aerospace educator and researcher. He is now curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air & Space Museum. William Powers (BSAE 1963) became a professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan before joining Ford Motor Company, where he held several positions including vice president for research before his retirement in 2001. He established an endowed professorship in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Florida, and earned distinction as a member of National Academy of Engineering, as well as a senior spokesman for the automotive and aerospace professions. Frank Gillette, Jr. (BSME 1962) enjoyed a 36 year career with Pratt & Whitney, retiring as Director of Advanced Military Programs. Frank currently serves on the MAE External Advisory Board and the College of Engineering Dean’s Advisory Board. Donald Daniel (BSAE 1964, MS 1965, PhD 1973) became Executive Director and Chief Scientist of the Air Force Research Lab, then Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Air Force, the highest ranked career civil servant in the US Air Force, before retiring in 2002. Carl Meece (BSAE 1969) became Director of Pratt & Whitney’s Turbine Component Center, responsible for all aspects of the air-breathing engine’s turbine technology for the company. Gary Miller (BSME 1970; PhD ME 1977) is a co-founder and current Executive Vice President of Exactech, a leading orthopaedic implant company with worldwide distribution. Gary has a faculty appointment in MAE and serves on the MAE External Advisory Board and the College of Engineering Dean’s Advisory Board.