History of the Department

The Department's Early Years

Courses with an element of agricultural mechanics in their content were taught for the first time in the College of Agriculture in 1900. The beginning of the present department was as the Division of Rural Engineering and Architecture formed with the appointment of Howard W. Riley, a Cornell University mechanical engineer, to head it in 1907. Department status came in 1910 with the name Department of Farm Mechanics. In 1913 it was renamed the Department of Rural Engineering. The name Agricultural Engineering was adopted in 1930 and remained until July 1, 1988, when the name was changed to Agricultural and Biological Engineering. The program continued to evolve into two integrated focal areas, so in 2001 the department name was changed to Biological and Environmental Engineering.

Byron B. Robb was the first faculty member hired by Howard W. Riley and was co-leader in molding the department. Others were A.M. Goodman, F.L. Fairbanks, B.A. Jennings and L.M. Roehl. The basement of Stone Hall was used to house the Division of Rural Engineering and Architecture upon Riley's appointment in 1907. In 1912, members of the department built a 40' x 96' "Temporary" farm mechanics building on land now covered partly by Mann Library and Plant Science. "Case" Hall was built north of this temporary building to house a Case Thresher. In 1914, department offices, drafting and laboratory rooms were located in the original Caldwell Hall. Another 40' x 96' laboratory close to the temporary building, with Case Hall connecting them, was built by the staff in 1918. In 1924, these buildings were moved east of Riley-Robb Hall, and a new connecting head house and court were added; these buildings were in use into the second decade of the 21st century. Offices were provided in Stocking Hall. In the late 1940s and 50s, the department acquired two Quonset huts and an army engineering building located on the upper campus. The department moved into its present facilities in Riley-Robb Hall in February 1956.


One of the first pieces of furniture acquired by the department, this desk, would eventually be shared by two of BEE's founding fathers. The desk is shown here in the basement of the now razed Stone Hall where the department was housed at the turn of the 20th century. Howard W. Riley and Byron B. Robb are seated at the desk much as they had been during their active years in the department. The desk can now be seen in the second floor library of present-day Riley-Robb Hall.

In 1912, seven courses were being taught by a faculty of two, with five assistants, and by 1922, a faculty of 12, with five assistants was doing Extension teaching. Extension work was formalized in 1920 as Project 18 under the Smith-Lever Act. By 1932, 12 faculty members supported by nine assistants were teaching 24 courses in addition to a sizable extension program involving 1/3 of the faculty and staff.

Research began to flourish in the growing department with early work on dairy and poultry house ventilation (Fairbanks and Goodman), electric fence controllers and milk house design (Jennings), concrete use on the farm (McCurdy) and spray nozzle and boom design for fruit and vegetable sprayers (Turner).

In 1942, early in World War II, the faculty of 15, with 16 support staff, (many who were undergraduate teaching assistants), was dramatically enlarged by the addition of 15 District Agricultural Engineers in an Emergency Farm Machinery Repair Program. District Engineers were assigned 3 to 5 counties each and lived and worked in the field with support from the faculty in Ithaca. Twelve of these District Agricultural Engineer positions continued with a central core of four faculty in Ithaca until 1955 when the district approach was abandoned in favor of 10 extension positions centralized in the department at Ithaca.

Howard W. Riley was Head of the department until 1945 when Byron B. Robb assumed the position. Orval C French became Head in 1947 and held that position through 1971 when E. Stanley Shepardson became Head. Norman R. Scott was Chair from 1978 to 1984. Gerald E. Rehkugler became Chair in 1984 after Norman R. Scott became director of the Office for Research for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. In July 1990, Gerald E. Rehkugler assumed the responsibilities of Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs in the College of Engineering. Ronald B. Furry was Chair of the department from 1990 to 1994, when Michael F. Walter was appointed Chair. Michael F. Walter spent 14 years at the helm. Daniel J. Aneshansley took over in 2008, stepping down in 2011 to make way for Beth A. Ahner, who was appointed Senior Associate Dean in CALS in 2015, with Walter returning as Chair. John C. March took over as Chair of the department in 2016 and is currently in his second term. 

A Rural Roads program of research and extension, the only one in the country, was started in 1951 and continues as the Local Roads Program with research, teaching and extension functions. A joint engineering degree program for agricultural engineering undergraduates, in cooperation with the College of Engineering and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was started in 1954. Faculty in Biological and Environmental Engineering are members of both the College of Engineering and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculties.

Extension and teaching programs have always been strongly supported. The early teaching programs were primarily for student majors in the College of Agriculture: Agricultural Engineering I reached enrollments of 240 students per year; Farm Machinery, 185, and Farm Power 140; Structures attracted 90; and Farm Shop, over 150 students. Since 1954, courses have been taught for students majoring in engineering and Agriculture and Life Science.

The Department's graduate student program is a world leader in graduate education and registers over 60 students annually. The first Ph.D. in Agricultural Engineering was awarded at Cornell to E.A. White in 1917.

Where the Department is Headed

The department is continually evolving to adjust to current and future needs for engineering in agricultural and biological systems. One benchmark in the evolution is the change of the department name to Biological and Environmental Engineering. This name confirms the trend in the engineering practice of the department toward a stronger integration of engineering with the biological sciences.

Recent years have brought a renewed vigor and resurgence of activity dealing with solutions to environmental problems. Waste disposal and treatment, recycling and reuse of residuals, water quality maintenance and protection of the environment from chemicals have become major departmental thrusts. In addition, bioprocessing of materials for environmental enhancement and the production of food and fuels has become a major activity.

The teaching, research, and extension programs continue to grow in both quality and activities through the excellent cooperation and strong support of the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Engineering. A study in 1978 by an independent institution, as well as the 1984, 1989, and 1993 Gourman reports, gave the department a number 1 ranking in the nation. In 1991, a separate evaluation of U.S. graduate programs gave ours a number one national ranking. We are pleased with those recognitions. However, we are but one of the leading departments in our field, thus we join hands with our colleagues to maintain vigor and strength in facing future challenges of engineering in agriculture. We are also rapidly moving into the new "age of biology" and will continue growth in integrating biological sciences into engineering practice. Agricultural engineering may well become enveloped in the broader mission of biological engineering; however this department will continue to serve the needs of the agricultural systems of the world as well.

Professor Emeritus Ronald Furry's book, A Pioneering Department, Evolution from Rural Engineering to Biological and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University, 1907-2007, is published and available in eCommons. Also available at this website are various historical pictures and documents, including a taped interview with Professor Howard Riley, Chair of the department from 1907 to 1945 and one of our building's namesakes. A video of the construction of Riley Robb Hall is available there, too. To order printed copies of the book, please e-mail digital [at] cornell.edu (digital[at]cornell[dot]edu).

Watch Professor Emeritus Gerry Rehkugler's presentation on BEE's Rau ModelPlow collection, "5,000-year history of the plow". and the evolution of tillage and plow design across the world. Cornell University President Andrew D. White and founder Ezra Cornell purchased the Rau model plow collection from Germany in 1868. The 187 model plows, beginning with those used in ancient Egypt, were made at the Academy of Agriculture and Forestry of Hohenheim, Germany under the direction of Professor Ludwig Rau, and displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1867.