A Brief History of the Ralph M. Parsons Laboratory

by Prof. Donald R. F. Harleman

In October 1945, Dr. Arthur Ippen was appointed to the department faculty as professor in charge of the hydrodynamics and hydraulic engineering program.  By coincidence, I arrived as a graduate student on the same day as Ippen and was assigned as his teaching assistant.  In 1945, there were no research assistants in the Civil Engineering department.  There was only one other faculty member in the water area, Allan Gifford, whose pre-MIT experience had been with the TVA.  In 1946, Ippen recruited James Daily, his former Cal Tech colleague, to assist him in revitalizing the water program which had been dormant during the war years.

The laboratory facilities in 1945 consisted of a dilapidated, one-story, 40' x 80', garage-type structure, located at the corner of Mass.  Ave. and Vassar streets, where the Sloan laboratory, Building 35 now stands.  The facility, known as the River Hydraulic Laboratory, had been founded in 1930 with funds provided by John Aldred, a member of the MIT Corporation.  Kenneth Reynolds was director and served until he left MIT in 1944.  Of historical interest is the fact that the first hydraulic model in the U.S. involving tidal motion was constructed in this laboratory in 1931 to study the proposed enlargement of the Cape Cod Canal.  Its noteworthy feature was the electronic control and registration of the continuously changing water levels.

In the 1945-50 era, the majority of the graduate students (about 15 per year) were Army Corps of Engineer officers who were sent to MIT to obtain a one-year-Master's degree as part of the Army's civil works re-orientation program.  All had to do a thesis and the pressure on the meager experimental facilities was enormous.

Ippen began a campaign for a new laboratory, and in 1948 the funds ($225,000) for a 60' x 190' two-story, plus basement, building were included in MIT's first post-war development campaign.  The building was completed in 1951, named the Hydrodynamics Laboratory, and Ippen was appointed director.  I completed my doctorate and became an Assistant Professor the same year, and this brought the water area faculty to four.  In 1950, the total sponsored research budget was $65,000.

During the 1950's the major emphasis of the teaching and research program was in fluid mechanics and coastal engineering.   Peter Eagleson joined the faculty in 1955 upon the completion of his research on beach erosion.  In the early 1960's, new faculty were added in the hydrology and water resource systems area.  By 1965, there were eight faculty, including Frank Perkins, whose doctoral thesis was one of the first to deal with the numerical solution of unsteady flow problems.  The number of graduate students had increased to 30, but further growth was impossible within the constraints of the two-story building.

In 1965 Ippen began to press the administration to capitalize on the fact that the foundations of the 1950 building had been designed for four floors.  Dr. James R. Killian, who was President of MIT at the time of the 1948 fund raising, was now chairman of the MIT Corporation.  He persuaded Ralph M. Parsons, founder and chief executive officer of the California consulting firm bearing his name, to donate the funds to double the size of the laboratory.  At that time Parson's firm was promoting a grandiose scheme for transporting water from the Canadian-northwest to California.  The enlarged building was dedicated in 1970 as the Ralph M. Parsons Laboratory.  That same year, Peter Eagleson became department head, a post which he held until 1975 when Frank Perkins replaced him.  Perkins later became Associate Provost and is currently Dean of the Graduate School.

The new laboratory facilities were utilized to expand the teaching and research programs into the aquatic sciences and environmental engineering areas.  David Marks joined the faculty in the latter area in 1969.  Arthur Ippen retired in 1973; unfortunately, he died only a year later.  I was appointed director, and by 1975 the laboratory faculty had increased to 15, and there were 65 graduate students.

During the early 1970's, the laboratory began a close cooperation with the MIT Energy Laboratory in the area of environmental impacts of energy generating facilities, large scale field programs were undertaken under MIT Sea Grant sponsorship, and many research links were formed with staff members at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  Rafael Bras, who entered MIT as a freshman in 1968, completed his doctorate in 1975 and was appointed to the faculty a year later.

In 1983, I stepped down after ten years as director and was succeeded by Bras.  Marks became Department Head in 1985.