The Mechanical Engineering Department traces is roots back to 1840, when steam propulsion first came to the United States Navy. In 1845, the year that the United States Naval Academy (USNA) was established, instruction was offered in subjects of mathematics, languages, international law, and the theory and workings of a steam engine. In 1865, the Department of Steam Enginery was established under Chief Engineer W. W. W. Wood and in the following year, the Steam Enginery building was completed. Sixteen candidates, known as Acting Third Assistant Engineers, were admitted to USNA. In 1871, Chief Engineer King devised a new plan of appointing young men to the Academy as cadet engineers who would specialize in marine engineering, particularly in the last year of their course of studies. They would have a status comparable to that of the cadet midshipmen, particularly after 1874, when the engineers program was extended from two to four years. Cadet engineers made special cruises on steam vessels in 1871 and 1872. In 1874, the first course in Mechanical Engineering offered in the United States was established.
In 1882, Legislation was passed that designated the student officers as "naval cadets." The distinction between cadet engineers and naval cadets was abolished in both name and training. Some 135 cadet engineers had been furnished to the fleet up to this year. (In 1902, the designation of student officers reverted from "naval cadet" to "midshipman.")
In 1905, Isherwood Hall, one of the three engineering buildings, was completed. Griffin Hall and Melville Hall were completed in 1918 and 1937, respectively. All three buildings were razed in 1982. Mechanical Engineering is now housed in Rickover Hall, which was completed in 1975.
The Naval Academy received accreditation as an "approved technological institution" in 1930. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law an act of Congress providing for the Bachelor of Science Degree for the Naval, Military, and Coast Guard Academies. The Class of 1933 was the first to receive this degree and have it written in the diploma. (In 1937, an act of Congress extended to the Superintendent of the Naval Academy the authority to award the Bachelor of Science degree to all living graduates.)
In 1954, the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, was launched. In the early 1960's, Professor Wayne Eckley and Commander Norman Campbell, USN, developed nuclear engineering courses.
In May of 1968, twenty-seven midshipmen of the Class of 1968 took an Engineer-in-Training (EIT) examination under the auspices of the State of Pennsylvania, the first time such an examination was given at the Naval Academy. (The EIT examination, now called the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, is still offered each year to those midshipmen who are graduating with engineering majors.)
In 1969, the majors program began, with the Class of 1972 being the first class required to complete a major to graduate. In that same year, the first designated engineering degrees (Aerospace Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Naval Engineering, and Systems Engineering) were granted to qualifying graduates of the Class of 1969.
In December of 1967, a Command Inspection was held by the Bureau of Naval Personnel. One outcome was a recommendation that in the following spring the Naval Academy take steps to obtain approval of one or more of the engineering majors curricula by the Engineers Council for Professional Development (ECPD). In the following years, the Naval Academy did take steps towards accreditation. In August of 1970, the ECPD accredited the following majors: Aerospace Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Systems Engineering. In September of 1972, the ECPD accredited Marine Engineering, Naval Architecture, and Ocean Engineering. (Naval Engineering was no longer a designated degree). The Naval Academy now maintains six accredited engineering majors: Aerospace Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Naval Architecture, Ocean Engineering, and Weapons & Systems Engineering.
The majority of Marine Engineering majors selected a career path in the nuclear navy. Beginning in the late 1980's, Marine and Mechanical Engineering evolved into similar academic programs. In the 1990's, the Systems Engineering major introduced a nuclear engineering option. At about the same time, the number of midshipmen selecting nuclear power at service selection began to decrease. As a result, interest in the Marine Engineering major declined. The Class of 2000 was the last class to graduate designated Marine Engineering majors. For the Class of 2001 and beyond, the Marine Engineering program has been merged with the Mechanical Engineering major, which includes a Marine Propulsion Track and a Nuclear Engineering Track.
As of August 2000, the Mechanical Engineering major will include the following specialty "tracks": Energy Systems, Engineering Mechanics, Marine Propulsion, Materials Engineering, and Nuclear Engineering. Midshipmen who major in Mechanical Engineering are invited to designate a track, but are not required to do so. A minimum of three specialized courses is required to complete a particular track.
See thesis by Foley, B.P., "Fighting Engineers: The U.S. Navy and Mechanical Engineering, 1840-1905."