Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical Engineering is intrinsically linked to the physical world surrounding us, and Houghton’s historical collection most certainly caters to the applied study of physics, chemistry,  and mathematics, as well as to engineering advancements that still aid in making progress on the field. However, the library’s archives and supporting infrastructure can also be used in a more practical manner, and thus Houghton can help Mechanical Engineering concentrators with theory and execution.

Starting with history and theory, the library contains a wealth of written and visual material that can be of use to Mechanical Engineering students exploring their concentration’s past. One of them is a set of seventeenth-century plates (FC6.T3444.665m, 014319243) depicting a “new machine” that is better known today as a level. The illustrations are somewhat rudimentary, but they are also extremely precise and scientific, and they are a testament to the spirit of innovation and progress that has always characterized the engineering disciplines. Houghton also holds an original copy of the volumes of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Typ 715.51.364, 002557192), a groundbreaking effort engineered to collect all of the world’s knowledge and a sure treasure trove for mechanical engineers seeking to learn more about their field’s past.

Other materials from the early modern period, most of them in French, are true treatises on materials science, another key component of the Mechanical Engineering concentration at Harvard. They include volumes concerning pyrotechny, called the “art of fire” by one (Chem 7205.56*, 004460244) and exhorted as a means of “spectacle” or “war” by another (Chem 7527.45, 002969778); gunpowder (Chem 7508.07, 003005969); gold and its alloys (Chem 7320.16, 003087760); and iron and cannon making (Chem 7237.75, 003024726). Another tract, a 1725 compendium titled A Compleat History of Drugs (Med 266.20.3*, 001777206), contains observations about plants, roots, minerals, and animals that can be of interest to students in the life and earth sciences, but it also has fascinating plates illustrating the workings of sugar and tobacco plantations in the New World—which, problematic as they were due to the question of slavery, which is present in the book’s diagrams, were primordial feats of engineering.

More modern Houghton materials even link Mechanical Engineering to concentrations such as Computer Science. W. V. Quine’s papers (MS Am 2587, 008937558) contain two pieces by D. C. Dennett, one titled “Exploring the Space of the Turing Test” (1629) and the other, “The Practical Requirements for Making a Conscious Robot” (1640), both of which tackle philosophical questions by alluding to the engineering and computer sciences.

Switching to the practical side of Mechanical Engineering, it is easy to forget that bookbinding is an engineering wonder on its own. As a rare books and manuscripts library that contains everything from Greek papyri to floppy disks, a trip to Houghton can also be a trip through the history of the book, and the library contains self-referential material about book engineering. The most significant examples are two sets of physical models, one that details the different stages of the book assemblage process (B 6205.767*, 003251075) and one that outlines the different types of bookbindings, from the Middle Ages to the present (Typ 2070.13.4475, 013688724). Mechanical Engineering students visiting Houghton should also attempt to pay a visit to the Weissman Preservation Center at 90 Mount Auburn Street, where conservators use physical and chemical processes that can only be classified as mechanical engineering to keep Harvard’s special collections in the best possible state at all times. (Tours of the Weissman Preservation Center must be scheduled through ; students may not drop in. The center’s event schedule can be accessed at

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