Origins of Agricultural Engineering at Auburn

Ag Class Historical

Early Ag Engineering Class

The first Agricultural Engineering work at Auburn began in 1914 at the urgent request of farmers in wet areas of Alabama. A cooperative drainage research project between the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station and the USDA was initiated in several Alabama counties in 1914. These investigations continued until 1922 in Hale, Marion, Talladega, and Wilcox counties.

Mr. Ralph U. Blasingame (BSCE '08, API and BS Agriculture '10, API) was appointed the first Professor of Agricultural Engineering in 1915. The first year he was on the faculty, he was in the Agronomy Department along with seven other faculty members.

In 1916, the Department of Agricultural Engineering was organized under the administration of J.F. Duggar (who was the Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station). Offices for Agricultural Engineering were in Comer Hall. At that time, there were seven other departments in the School of Agriculture (including Veterinary Medicine and Extension).

Four courses were offered by the Department of Agricultural Engineering from 1915 through 1919:

  • Drainage and Terracing
  • Farm Engines
  • Farm Machinery
  • Farm Structures

The department was reorganized in 1919 when Mark L. Nichols was appointed head of the department. The department, which included 3 instructors, was housed in the basement of Comer Hall. Nichols revised the courses taught in Agricultural Engineering and soon made an effort to establish a degree program in Agricultural Engineering. He met considerable resistance and the degree program wasn't established until after he left the department. Nichols was interested in a wide range of research topics and was very effective in attracting good students from both agriculture and engineering to pursue graduate studies in the department. Those students graduating with an engineering degree took additional subjects in agriculture while those graduating in agriculture took additional subjects in engineering.

In 1921, Nichols received a federal grant to start a project on "Factors Influencing Traction of Tractor Wheels."

He also initiated projects on Land Clearing, Soil Erosion Control, Rural Electrification, and Soil Dynamics as related to tillage. Nichols modified the design of the Mangum terrace which later became known as the Nichols terrace. Today, remnants of these terraces across Alabama remind us of Dr. Nichols. The precious topsoil that remains on tens of thousands of acres of Alabama land is just one the great contributions of Mark Nichols.

1933 Erosion PlotsNichols designed and supervised the construction of 10 erosion control plots of varying slopes. These plots were 20 ft wide and 50 ft long with a water and soil catch basin at the lower end of each plot. Later, a tilting plot of the same size was mounted on a center pivot so that slope could be varied from 0% to 15%.

Nichol's work on soil dynamics (tillage and seedbed preparation) gained so much recognition that he was able to convince the federal government to establish the National Tillage Laboratory at Auburn. Today, the lab is known as the National Soil Dynamics Laboratory. It is listed as a historic landmark by the American Society of Agricultural Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

1939 Ag Eng Blding2When Comer Hall burned in 1920, the department lost its home. Nichols convinced API President Dowell to request an old airplane hanger from the War Department. This hanger, which was located on what is now Mell Street, housed the department for 18 years.

Nichols and J.B. Wilson were instrumental in creating a federal appropriation for construction of a new Agricultural Engineering building. This appropriation provided relief for the unemployed during the depression of the 1930's. The building was finished and the old hanger was demolished in 1938.

The first B.S. degree in Agricultural Engineering was awarded in 1938.

In 1933, Nichols left the department and began working with the Soil Conservation Service because the state was not paying faculty due to the depression. During this time, he helped plan the construction of the National Tillage Machinery Laboratory.

He worked for SCS until 1954 when he returned to Auburn as the Director of the Tillage Laboratory. He remained there until his retirement in 1958.

Dr. Nichols was in the inaugural class of inductees in the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 1989.

Last Updated: Oct 24, 2012