A Brief History of New Mexico Tech

by Kathy Hedges

In 1889, Socorro was a mining boom town, wild, raucous, and, at a population of about 4500, one of the largest towns in New Mexico. The Territorial Legislature, wanting to boost New Mexico's economy, decided to found a School of Mines to train young mining engineers, and Socorro was the ideal location. Silver and lead ores taken from the nearby Magdalena Mountains were processed at the smelter owned by German immigrant Gustav Billings, and the new School of Mines would allow young mining engineers to train near the eventual site of their work.

The New Mexico School of Mines (NMSM) proudly opened its doors on Sept. 5, 1893, with one building, two professors, and seven students. Courses offered included chemistry and metallurgy.

The college grew a bit, but remained small through the next couple of decades, with a curriculum that focused on mining, metallurgy, chemistry, and related fields. For a while, around the turn of the century, the School of Mines also served as Socorro's "prep school" or high school, for anyone who wanted more than the eight grades of education which the local school system then offered.

In 1927, a new division was added to the NMSM, called the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources. (The name has since changed to "New Mexico Bureau of GEOLOGY and Mineral Resources.") Functioning as the state geologic survey, the Bureau's job was to explore and map the resources of the state and make the information available to mining businesses and the general public. The Bureau now functions as a state geologic survey, with their main job expanded to include the investigation of geologic hazards, such as landslide and earthquake hazards, and the analysis of water resources.

During 1930s, NMSM enrollment increased as more people sought a college education during the Depression. Graduating classes now numbered in the dozens, rather than the handfuls. Petroleum engineering was added to the curriculum and quickly acquired more students than mining engineering. The college's president, Edgar Wells, was instrumental in obtaining funds from federal programs such as the WPA to increase the number of buildings on campus. Several of the campus' classic mission-style buildings with red tiled roofs date from this period.

In another landmark, the School of Mines had its first woman graduate, Irene Ryan, in 1939. The college had never had a "men only" policy and never had a formal date when it "went coed," but in the world of the 1890s, women didn't attend a college that called itself a "school of mines." By the 1930s, things had changed, and by the end of the decade, mining companies were anxious to hire female (non-draftable) mining engineers.

However, with the coming of World War II, enrollment at the School of Mines dropped precipitously, as potential students entered the military instead. Richard H. Reece, who was president of the school from 1942 to 1946, arranged with the military for an Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) at the School of Mines. This was a program designed to give special college training to young men already in the military. Many colleges and universities across the nation had similar units. The ASTP supplied the great majority of students to the School of Mines during the years 1943 to 1945. Under this program, the school’s traditional emphasis on engineering courses gave way to a greater focus on physics and mathematics.

After the war, the school’s enrollment jumped, with the return of veterans; in 1947, enrollment was 213. In 1946, the school acquired a dynamic new president, E. J. Workman, and its character changed.

Workman was a physicist, primarily interested in atmospheric electricity. During the war, like many physicists, he had worked on weapons development. On assuming the presidency of the School of Mines, he brought with him a research group which worked on weapons testing and analysis (the Terminal Effects Research and Analysis group, or TERA) and also the determination to build a research center for the study of thunderstorms, his primary peacetime interest. Out of Workman's dreams and labor rose Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, a mountaintop laboratory for the study of thunderstorms.

Workman brought a new emphasis on scientific research to NMSM. He added a Research and Development Division, recruited a more diverse faculty with a strong research bent, and, in 1951, altered the college's name to "New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology." TERA attracted defense research. Workman built faculty housing and began construction of a golf course in the desert. College enrollment remained steady, at about about 200 students per year during the 1950s, and many of those students were interested in petroleum engineering, which was then a booming area.

Also during Workman's time, a hydrology program was founded, which grew to be one of the foremost in the world. Workman added a graduate program, which produced Tech's first Ph.D. in 1956.

Workman retired in 1964, and under subsequent presidents the college began to grow in size and subject matter. Graduating classes went from about 50 people per year to over 200. A computer science department was founded circa 1965, one of the first in the country. The Tech Computer Center was started at about this time. Astrophysics joined atmospheric physics as a major interest, especially after the National Radio Astronomy Observatory built its Very Large Array 60 miles west of town. By the late 1970s, astrophysics was important business in Socorro. The proximity of the VLA helped attract astrophysicists to New Mexico Tech's faculty.

In 1977, Tech added another division, the Petroleum Recovery Research Center, whose mission is to study improved methods of recovering oil. The PRRC's home, Kelly Hall, and Jones Hall, home of the Chemistry and Materials Engineering Departments, were built during the late 1970s.

Macey Center, a theater/conference center, opened in 1982, adding to the cultural life of the campus. The Performing Arts Series also began at about this time.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, campus enrollment grew to about 1500, partly because high oil prices made a career as a petroleum engineer look attractive to many young people. But the field dried up in the mid-80s, and, to diversify the offerings, new programs were added under Dr. Laurence H. Lattman, who was president from 1983 to 1993. Electrical engineering and business administration departments were added, and growing numbers of students were attracted to environmental engineering, which also grew. Enrollment reached a high of 1700 in the 1993- 1994 academic year.

An active building program during the Lattman years added several buildings to campus, most importantly, MSEC (the Mineral Science and Engineering Complex) and the new Library. (The library was named after retiring U.S. Representative Joe Skeen in 2002.)

Dr. Daniel H. López became president of the university in 1994, and proved an effective leader for the further growth of the campus, in both academic and physical terms.

In terms of academic growth, some new majors and areas of study were added in the 1990s and early 2000s. Chemical, mechanical, and civil engineering have been added as majors. Two specializations have been added to the Master of Science in Engineering Mechanics: one in explosives engineering and one in engineering mechanics. The business department grew into a Management Program, offering master's program in engineering management, delivered off-campus via distance-education. Tech's offerings in the humanities have been expanded to include Hispanic studies, theater, poetry, and art history.

Increased offerings plus increased capabilities of Distance Education have boosted New Mexico Tech's enrollment to an all-time high of 1891 in the fall semester of 2005.

Research at Tech expanded enormously during the 1990s and early 2000s, with the acquisition of government contracts to support new divisions. With the ending of the Cold War, TERA changed its name to Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC), which is using its expertise to expand into areas such as anti-terrorism testing and training, land mine detection, and safety testing of explosives.

Two geophysics research centers, PASSCAL and EarthScope, have been added. Magdalena Ridge Observatory, in the design and planning stages, will be a state-of-the-art astronomical instrument. The Institute for Complex Additive Systems Analysis (ICASA) studies behavior, vulnerabilities and predictability of complex systems. The National Cave and Karst Research Institute facilitates speleological research, enhances public education, and promotes environmentally sound cave and karst management.

New buildings or additions have been added to house new research organizations. In addition, both academic and support buildings have been added to the central campus: new Workman Center (physics and electrical engineering), Jones Annex (biology, chemistry, environmental engineering), Altamirano Student Apartments (student residence hall), Fidel Student Services Center, and the Fine Arts Building (classes in art, jewelry- and pottery-making, photography, and other areas).