It Happened at Michigan — Making waves with engineering innovation


When a new engineering building opened on campus in 1904, it featured an innovation never seen on a college campus: a naval tank.

Built into the foundation of the building (today, West Hall), the basin stretched the length of a football field and was 22 feet wide with 10 feet of water. Its purpose was the research and development of ships’ hulls.

A photo of the West Engineering Building in 1905
The West Engineering Building in 1905, a year after its opening. (Bentley Historical Library)

Designing a ship’s lines and determining required horsepower was equally exciting and frustrating for a naval architect, said Herbert C. Sadler, the professor of naval architecture who oversaw the tank’s construction. The experimental tank allowed engineers to mechanically tow models of ships at different speeds to measure their performances against surface friction and waves. Research findings could affect ship design, engine performance, fuel usage, and more.

“Thus Michigan became the first school in the country which could carry on researches relating to ship resistance, shallow water effects, streamline flow, wave profiles, wake and rolling in a full-sized tank,” reported the Michigan Technic, a student engineering publication.

At the time of the tow tank opening, domestic shipbuilders had been sending their models to Scotland for testing. “There is no other ‘naval tank laboratory’ of any great dimensions in this country,” said the Detroit Free Press, “and Michigan will have a monopoly in the test work from private shipbuilders.”

A photo of students in the tow tank in 1994.
Students test yacht hull prototypes in the tow tank in 1994. (Bentley Historical Library)

Not only did the revolutionary tank provide hands-on experiments for students, but the results were also shared broadly.

“Up to the present time, most experiments of this character have been carried out in government tanks, and a great part of the results obtained have necessarily been kept secret,” Mortimer E. Cooley, dean of engineering, said as the building was under construction.

“Except in special cases, the results of tests conducted here would, of course, be available, and in time the ship-building industry of the country should profit thereby.”

Cooley was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and only the Navy had a better towing tank.

Now part of the College of Engineering’s Aaron Friedman Marine Hydrodynamics Lab, the tank continues to be used by naval architecture and marine engineering students and faculty as they test ship hulls, propulsion systems, and overall hydrodynamics.



  1. Jonathan Sell
    on December 5, 2023 at 3:38 pm

    The hydrodynamics Lab was our first stop on orientation day in 2016. My son was fascinated. Today he’s a surveyor with the American Bureau of Shipping covering Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. I’m so envious! Thanks, Michigan NAME.
    Jon MA ‘78

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