Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:21 pm
Business, industry relationships helped bring school to greatness
The character of the United States at the turn of the 20th century was infused with an entrepreneurial spirit and a belief in the idea of progress that was associated with industrial development. Cities like Milwaukee attracted men who, with a few dollars and perhaps an innovative idea, emigrated with a hope of capitalizing on the country’s business opportunities.
It is in that context that the Milwaukee School of Engineering was founded. It is the story of a 23-year-old German immigrant named Oscar Werwath, an engineer who graduated from European technical schools in the late 19th century. In 1903, Werwath founded MSOE with seven students and a $500 loan from industrialist Louis Allis. Next month, MSOE will celebrate its centennial while looking forward to its next 100 years and beyond.
"Our greatest accomplishment in the last 100 years is our close relationship with business and industry," said Hermann Viets, MSOE president. "It makes MSOE unique. Not many schools foster such a close partnership. We couldn’t exist without the support of business and industry. And we supply something they really need: highly qualified, talented employees."
MSOE’s connection to the Milwaukee-area business community was fostered with the school’s founding. Ellen Langill, a local author who has written several manuscripts on Wisconsin and business history, has written a book on the history of MSOE. In it, she relates Werwath’s story.
According to Langill’s book, Werwath came to the US in 1903 because he was interested in the country’s technological and industrial developments. He mainly was interested in electricity and took his first job in Milwaukee with Louis Allis Corp., a manufacturer of electrical controls and engines.
Werwath often would explain the workings of electricity to other young workers, and soon he began hosting informal discussions on electricity and other technical topics at his apartment. His friends convinced him to offer formal classes, and in the fall of 1903, he taught seven students, borrowing classrooms at a business college on Sixth and Juneau. He did this for two years, working at the Louis Allis Co. during the day and teaching at night.
In that capacity, Werwath caught the entrepreneurial fever that swept the US. He convinced Louis Allis to donate $500 to help him open a school of engineering, which would be called the "School of Engineering" until "Milwaukee" was added to the name six years later. Allis agreed, and Werwath opened his school in a former store on Winnebago Street.
One hundred students enrolled for the school’s inaugural semester in the fall of 1905. Tuition was $25 per term (as compared with $7,285 per trimester now). Enrollment doubled to 200 in 1906.
The school included an in-house production business which employed students. Sales from the products were used to help run the school.
There were nearly 100 engineering schools in the country at the time, but they all focused on mechanical or civil engineering. MSOE was the first school to concentrate on electrical engineering. Focus of the curriculum was hands-on learning.
In 1908, Werwath established a battery manufacturing business and employed two students part-time in the concept of "work-study." At that time, the school offered two full-time day courses in electrical and mechanical engineering, in addition to night programs. Three years later, he introduced the concept of "cooperative engineering education," known to engineering students today as "co-ops." The school worked with local industry to provide part-time jobs for students, enabling them to gain practical on-the-job training as well as pay for the cost of their education.
Work-study and co-op opportunities helped to forge lasting partnerships with area businesses. Companies often hired students for full-time jobs after they graduated, starting a trend of keeping talented employees in the area, said Kathleen McCann, MSOE’s director of media relations.
Viets calls it "brain gain." While 60% of MSOE students are from Wisconsin, 67% of MSOE graduates stay in the state due to work relationships they develop through co-ops and part-time work while in school.
"As students, they work with companies that treat them well and give them opportunities, so when it’s time to find a full-time job, they often want to stay with these companies," Viets said.
Although MSOE began as a small operation in an old store, Werwath’s vision has grown to become one of the most recognized engineering schools in the country. MSOE is one of only two schools in the country to feature a software engineering laboratory. The lab, sponsored by Johnson Controls, was created three years ago. Its first class will graduate in May.
Additionally, the school offers 16 bachelor’s degrees and six master’s degrees. The more than 2,500 students who attend MSOE come from all parts of the United States and from almost 30 other countries. MSOE also includes the Rader School of Business and a School of Nursing.
The school has several plans for celebrating MSOE’s centennial. A special Web site, www.msoe.edu/centennial, will launch in January and will feature biographies of MSOE’s four presidents, a timeline of university history, stories about alumni, a list of the top 50 employers of MSOE graduates and an online message board. MSOE also will publish Langill’s book on the history of MSOE and its relationship with business and industry.
Continuing to develop the business/industry relationship is one the school’s goals for its next 100 years, Viets said. The relationship is one of give-and-take, and MSOE will continue responding to the needs of Milwaukee-area business.
"Without business and industry support, we won’t be around for another 100 years," Viets said. "And for our part, we will continue to help keep talented workers here, as well as continue creating even better workers."
Dec. 20, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee