Crowd pleaser: A mix of Duke community members and townspeople learned from student engineers, here in 1938. Courtesy of Duke University Archives.
The first Engineers Show was held in the only engineering laboratory, in the basement of the Asbury Building in the spring of 1927. People from all over Duke and Durham, including President William Preston Few, flocked to see demonstrations of the machines the students were learning to use. With every machine in full operation, the circuit blew, and an entire corner of East Campus darkened—not a pleasant surprise for participants in that evening’s family swim at nearby Alumni Memorial Gymnasium. Attempting to restore power, the engineering students found the breaker wouldn’t stay closed. They wired two bricks to the handle to hold it down, and the show—and the family swim—continued without further incident.
Ten years later, the tenth annual Engineers Show was a different story. Queen Techla the First (Mary Vickers ’37) welcomed guests to the Bivins building and the recently renovated Asbury Building, where displays by students in the electrical, civil, and mechanical engineering departments packed every space. (The Asbury Building, located on East Campus, was torn down in 1974.) In the new Mechanical Laboratory, a Ford Model “A” engine and dynamometer repeated a brake horsepower test. In the Communications Laboratory, amateur radio station
W4AHY conducted short-wave radio experiments. Students in the Sanitary Laboratory tested the local drinking water, and concrete and cement were put through their paces in the Bituminous Laboratory. An oscilloscope in the dark-room measured voice waves.
An ever-increasing crowd of Duke community members, townspeople, engineering alumni, businesspeople (the Vicks plant in Greensboro regularly sent a party), and, starting in 1940, specially invited groups of prospective engineering students passed through this hubbub each year. In praise of the students’ work for the 1959 show, Dean Walter J. Seeley sent a letter noting, “Outside of a football game, the Engineers Show attract[ed] more people to the campus than any other function.” He was right, too: That year’s attendance figures were approximately 8,000 guests over the two days of the show.
During the forty-plus years of the Engineers Show, the students experimented with the best ways to explain their schoolwork to the public. A report on the 1936 show states that visitors found the presentations to be “too long and technical, and thus boring” and concluded that