Brief History

Early History

Stevens Institute of Technology is named for a distinguished family who perpetuated a tradition in American engineering, beginning in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. John Stevens, a colonel in the Revolutionary War, purchased the site of the present-day 55-acre campus of the University in 1784 from the newly American state of New Jersey. Col. Stevens became a pioneer in the development of the steamboat, and by 1825 he had also designed the first American-built steam locomotive.

Engineering and technological know-how apparently ran in the family: Robert Stevens, one of Col. Stevens' sons, invented the T-rail, the predominant form of railroad track still in use today. With his brother Edwin, Robert Stevens built and operated the first commercial railroad in the United States. Edwin, meanwhile, was active in the design and construction of ironclad vessels for the U.S. Navy. With a third brother, John Cox Stevens — first commodore of the New York Yacht Club — Edwin joined the syndicate that built and raced the yacht "America," which defeated all the English contenders in 1851 to become the first winner of the famed trophy now known as the America's Cup.

When Edwin Stevens died in 1868, his will provided for the establishment of the University that now bears his family’s name. Two years later, in 1870, Stevens Institute of Technology opened its doors. The original University trustees determined that Stevens should offer a single rigorous engineering curriculum leading to baccalaureate degree they designated "Mechanical Engineer," a course of study firmly grounded in scientific principles and the humanities.

In 1907, all classes at Stevens adopted an Honor System, which eventually became the cornerstone for all student self-government at Stevens.

Over subsequent decades, the University grew and changed by leaps and bounds, evolving from a relatively small four-year undergraduate college of engineering into a much larger, multifaceted institution of significant cross-disciplinary research activity and a variety of graduate and undergraduate programs stressing not only engineering but also science and management.

In 1971, for the first time, Stevens opened its doors to women and in 1982 Stevens became the first major educational institution in the U.S. to implement a personal computer requirement for its students. In addition, a pioneering technology project resulted in the networking of the entire Stevens campus, creating one of the nation’s first Intranets.

Stevens Today

Educating leaders who create, apply and manage innovative technologies while also maintaining a deep regard for human values has been a consistent mission of the University since the Stevens family founded it. New initiatives continue to support this goal and advance innovations in science, engineering and technology management. Stevens is well known for its distinctive partnerships with business, industry and government, which have been recognized with three National Centers of Excellence designations from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the Office of Naval Research. We are also home to several Nobel Prize Winners.

Stevens seeks to develop leaders who possess the skills and insight needed to renew American innovation, competitive spirit and productivity. As Stevens moves forward into the next century, its commitment to academic excellence will become ever stronger as the University becomes an even greater force for technology and science education regionally, nationally and globally.

The Stevens Family

Colonel John Stevens III

The Stevens story begins with John Stevens, III (1749-1838), who purchased the land upon which the University now sits. Stevens came from a family of landed gentry who first came to America in 1699. With income from extensive real estate holdings in New Jersey and a merchant fleet plying the Atlantic trade routes, the family married with wealthy New Jersey and New York families and immersed itself in the pursuits typical of upper-class life in the 18th century: education, natural philosophy, architecture and civic activism.

John Stevens, III, was educated at King’s College (the forerunner of Columbia University), then followed the example of his father by joining the patriot party during the Revolutionary War. When his father was appointed secretary to New Jersey Governor William Livingston in 1776, John was appointed a captain in Gen. George Washington's Continental Army.

Promoted to colonel, he collected taxes as treasurer of New Jersey. After the war in 1784, John bought the land that includes the Stevens campus at a public auction from the state, which had confiscated it from a Tory landowner. The land, described simply as "William Bayard's farm at Hoebuck," comprised approximately what is now the city of Hoboken.

John Stevens was always interested in steamboats, and after the war he became an especially enthusiastic and active supporter of steam navigation, envisioning both public benefits and personal profits from steamboats that could link cities by water. It was natural that Stevens would enter entered the field given his wealth and his family's experience in transportation. In addition to owning a merchant fleet, his own father had previously been commissioner of turnpikes for the colony of New Jersey before the war, and John Stevens had been first a planner, and later president, of the Bergen Turnpike Company.

Great things lay ahead.


By 1806, when John Stevens began building a 100-foot steamboat known as the Phoenix for passenger and freight service, he was in a race with steamboat inventor Robert Fulton, who was building a rival boat, the Clermont. Fulton's boat sailed the length of the Hudson in 1807. the world's first full-sized serviceable steamboat. Meanwhile, Fulton's backer obtained a new state law giving the Fulton enterprise exclusive rights to service on New York waters, including New York Harbor.

So Stevens sailed the Phoenix by ocean and river to Philadelphia and began operating passenger and freight service between Philadelphia and Trenton on the Delaware River. The Phoenix was thus the first steamboat in history to sail the ocean.

Col. Stevens also dreamed of developing his wooded estates in Hoboken into a profitable weekend resort for city dwellers in Manhattan. But first, he needed to build a reliable steamboat ferry link to the city.

In 1811 he purchased a commercial ferry license in New York and operated a horse-powered ferry while he built a steam ferry, the Juliana. When the Juliana was placed into service connecting Hoboken with New York, it was probably the first commercial steam ferry in the world. The Hoboken Ferry Company would become a primary conduit for New Jersey commuters traveling daily to work in New York City; a fleet of ferries, including the Stevens-designed “screw” ferry Bergen and the luxurious Netherlands crossed the Hudson dozens of times a day. The ferry company remained in the Stevens family for nearly a century, until 1904, when it was sold to the Erie Lackawanna Railway.

Interestingly, most of the innovative breakthroughs in the ferries had not been made by John Stevens, who was neither a mechanic nor a machinist. Instead, it was his son, Robert Livingston Stevens (1787-1856), who would become the designer, innovator and transportation entrepreneur spearheading the Stevens family ferry and railroad empire.

Robert Livingston Stevens

Like his father and brothers, Robert had attended Columbia, but unlike them he had left before graduation to in machine shops in Hoboken. His enthusiasm for the practical aspects of engineering had been encouraged by his father, who had fostered the use of tools and the instruments of mechanical drawing from an early age. A marine engineer of the first rank, Robert lived in Hoboken all his life, first at a villa on Castle Point, and then at the Castle, which he built only three years before his eventual death. Robert never married, choosing instead to immerse himself in the design, experimentation and implementation of inventions for the improvement of his family's transportation companies.

Often overlooked in popular accounts of the family are Robert’s technical improvements to steamboats and ferries of the era. He designed the first concave waterlines on a steamboat (1808), the first supporting iron rods for projecting guard beams on steamboats (1815), the first skeleton walking beams for ferries (1822), the spring pile ferry slip (1822), the placement of boilers on guards outside the paddle wheels of ferries (1822), the hog frame or “truss” for stiffening ferry boats longitudinally (1827), spring steel bearings of paddle wheel shafts (1828), and improved packing for pistons (1840). He was also the first to successfully burn anthracite coal in a cupola furnace (1818).

The Stevens Brothers' Railroad

Amtrak and New Jersey Transit passengers traveling by train through New Jersey likely do not realize they owe the ease of their journeys to the Stevens brothers. It was Robert Livingston Stevens, as the innovator, and his brother, Edwin Augustus Stevens (1795-1868), as the business administrator, who realized their father's dream of establishing a commercially successful railroad — the first in the United States.

The plan was to build a rail line from Trenton to New Brunswick, connecting the railroad with the ferry service in Trenton. Though that was slow to happen, Col. Stevens and his sons built a prototype locomotive in 1826 on a circular track on the site of the present-day Stevens land, the first American-built locomotive.

From that point on, the sons vigorously entered the railroading business, establishing the Union Line transportation company, which ferried passengers from Manhattan to Perth Amboy; from there, an overland stage ran to the Trenton terminus for steamboat service to Philadelphia. The trip took only 10 to 11 hours instead of the days it had previously taken.

By then, a rival route had been established by ferry to Jersey City with connections to an overland stage to Trenton. The Stevens brothers wanted to capture this market by building a fast and comfortable railroad over the shortest possible route, from Perth Amboy to Bordentown, to connect with their steamships.

Teaming up with Robert F. Stockton, the Stevens brothers worked out of a hotel in Trenton while lobbying and negotiating for a new charter. Stockton was a politician, entrepreneur and adventurer whose flamboyant personality complemented the Stevenses' talents in engineering and business. After two years of effort, a charter was granted in 1830, giving exclusive rights to transportation in return for taxes on traffic. The Stevens brothers were granted the Camden and Amboy (“C&A”) Railroad and Transportation Company, and Stockton was granted the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company, which was to run along the same route as the railroad. The state would receive a tax on all passengers and freight.

This legislation for the Stevens’ rail monopoly was strengthened in 1832 by a new act that prevented the building of competing railways between New York and Philadelphia without the consent of the Stevens and Stockton companies. In return for this act, the state of New Jersey received considerable stock grants and transit taxes.

A Business Trip to Europe

Meanwhile, a month after the British railroad engineer George Stephenson ran his famous pioneering locomotive, the "Rocket," on tracks between Manchester and Liverpool, Robert Stevens sailed for England to buy a locomotive from Stephenson and railroad tracks made of wrought iron from English mills. While crossing the Atlantic, Stevens pondered designs for his tracks and conceived of the “T” rail or flange rail, which later came into universal use.

In England he bought the locomotive "John Bull," which would become the first passenger locomotive in the United States. By the spring of 1834, the John Bull — which now resides in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington — was running from Perth Amboy to Camden (across the Delaware River from Philadelphia), cutting the travel time from New York to just nine hours.

And Robert continued to innovate. While laying tracks, Robert invented the hook-headed spike. To ease the passage of trains through the wildlife-filled open American countryside, which was very different from enclosed fields of England, he invented the first cowcatcher for the front of trains. The cowcatchers also doubled as guiding mechanisms when the John Bull was rounding curves.

The C&A rapidly grew. By 1837 the C&A owned 15 locomotives (nine built in the Stevens machine shops in Hoboken), and had purchased coal fields in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania to fuel their engines. The company merged with a railroad running from Trenton to Philadelphia and linked with another line running from Jersey City to New Brunswick. Through service from New York to Philadelphia was now reduced to just 5 1/2 hours. The C&A’s investments were worth millions, and the empire included 8 steamboats, 17 locomotives, 71 passenger and baggage cars, and 65 freight cars. By 1870, C&A trains carried 6 million passengers a year.

The Stevens brothers spent their money lavishly, and one of their very favorite pursuits became yachting.

John Cox Stevens' Yacht Club

The oldest of Col. John Stevens's sons, John Cox Stevens (1785-1857) was a sportsman and founding member of the New York Yacht Club. The organizational meeting of the club, in fact, was held on his yacht Gimcrack in 1844.

The first clubhouse of the New York Yacht Club was built on Stevens family land just north of Castle Point in 1848, and John Cox Stevens was the first commodore of the club. With his brother Edwin, a later commodore of the club, and others, John Cox Stevens built the yacht America according to the designs of yachting architect John Steers. The yacht sailed to England in 1851, and, with John Cox and Edwin aboard, defeated the field of the Royal Yacht Squadron in the Cowes regatta around the Isle of Wight — receiving an elegant silver cup as a trophy. Later, the New York Yacht Club dedicated the cup to a perpetual international challenge open to competition from premier foreign yacht clubs wishing to challenge the best yachts from the United States: the America's Cup. And it all began with the Stevens family.

Hoboken and Stevens

The Stevens family also impacted Hoboken in ways far beyond the University. While Col. John Stevens built a Georgian-style mansion at the top of the cliff in 1784, he continued to reside with his large family at 7 Broadway in New York City during the winters. For much of the summers, when passage over the Hudson was safer, the family stayed at the "Stevens Villa," as it came to be known. In 1802 the Colonel became president of the Bergen Turnpike, which terminated at the boat docks on present-day Sinatra Drive.

In 1814, Col. Stevens and his family moved permanently to Hoboken thanks to the ready access to New York his steam ferry provided. Stevens now began selling off his properties throughout the remainder of Hoboken for farmland and residential development. He created a scenic "river walk" winding from the ferry around the cliffs to the northernmost section of Hoboken. He built a hotel and pavilion with Greek columns, the Colonnade, where visitors and guests could dine and lodge. He cleared some of the woods and fields stretching westward beyond the hotel and his home; upon these "Elysian Fields," as he termed them, he built a primitive Ferris wheel and a demonstration locomotive on a circular track.

Employing the best gardeners and horticulturalists, the colonel also manicured the land around his villa according to English theories of landscape gardening. During holiday weekends during the 1820s and 1830s, thousands of Manhattan residents crossed the Hudson to view real estate or to enjoy these amusements. Some, like John Jacob Astor, bought property of their own, and others, like William Cullen Bryant and Robert Sands, came to write romantic prose and poetry about the rural beauty of Hoboken.

Hoboken’s population grew to nearly 7,000 and the city was incorporated in 1855, around the time John's sons, Edwin and Robert, began replacing the Stevens Villa with a new mansion, the Castle. The new residence was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, a premier architect of the time, based on sketches and designs made by Robert and others. It was Italian-style, with a coach portal, campanile, piazzas and a hanging staircase. The Castle was completed in 1859.

By the 1860s, the population of Hoboken soared to nearly 20,000, and the personal holdings of the Stevens family still extended from Washington Street eastward to the river and northward through a rural section of the Elysian Fields. By 1900, however, the family had divested itself of much of these estates, holding onto only the land and buildings between Seventh and Tenth streets.

It was here that the Stevens campus was born.

The Stevens family were Hoboken's main benefactors in the community’s early days, and many exammples of their largesse are still centerpieces of the city today.

In 1887, for instance, Martha Bayard Stevens established an Industrial Education Association dedicated to teaching young Hoboken women home economics and the principles of saving. In 1896, the Stevens family donated land and funds for the establishment of the Hoboken Public Library at Fifth and Park streets. They also established Church Square Park. across from the Library; Hudson Square; and Elysian Parks. They founded the Martha Institute for training boys in industrial skills, the Hammond Home for Children, and the Robert L. Stevens Fund for Municipal Research.

Although the Stevens family never served in elected offices in Hoboken, Edwin Stevens served as tax commissioner, public works commissioner and trustee of the local Episcopal church. In addition, he served the State of New Jersey as chairman of the commission that established the Interstate Palisades Park and also served as state commissioner of highways.

And they founded Stevens Institute of Technology, which opened its doors in 1871. The idea of using part of the Stevens patrimony for an educational institution originated with Col. John Stevens. In his letters, he wrote "Good morals and good government in a republic are only attainable and maintainable by knowledge and information pervading the whole mass of society." Stevens hoped part of his estate would one day be used for the founding of an academy for teaching a variety of scientific subjects.

Edwin A. Stevens was the son who ultimately made his father’s wish come true, creating a provision in his will for an "institution of learning" in 1867, one year before he died. The will entrusted Edwin’s wife, Martha; her brother, Samuel Bayard Dod; and long-time business associate, W.W. Shippen, with the task of establishing an academy. The trustees were provided with a block of land between Hudson and River streets. running from Fourth to Fifth streets, as well as a building fund and endowment to build and hire faculty. The trustees also used some of this endowment to open the Stevens School, a preparatory school made necessary by the lack of scientific training given to secondary students.

The trustees originally dedicated Stevens to educating mechanical engineers - the first institution of its kind in the United States to do so.

The University has since continued to foster a broad-based education. Samuel Bayard Dod, the son of a Princeton mathematics professor, did extensive research on the top French and German technical schools and consulted forward-looking scientists such as Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian before choosing Stevens’ first president, Henry Morton. Morton, a professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, was a physicist and journal editor. He, with the trustees, hired the original Stevens faculty and designed the components of the first curriculum.

Edwin A. Stevens' creation was supplemented by other members of the Stevens family, who continued to donate toward its expansion. Martha Bayard Stevens gave two plots of land and a house for the institute's president. Her sons, Edwin Jr. and Robert Jr., jointly bestowed a tract of land on the southwest corner of River and Seventh streets (to the left of the gates and gatehouse of Castle Stevens, near the Babbio Center). In 1911 the family sold the Stevens Castle and its grounds to the University for far less than market value.

The Stevens brothers continued to own various properties in Hoboken through their Hoboken Land and Improvement Company until the Great Depression, when the company began liquidating its real estate. Rollbacks in rent and the mass bankruptcies of the companies that leased their properties made the Stevens family’s stock in the company less profitable. By 1946, the liquidation was completed and the company was formally dissolved.

But the Stevens stamp on Hoboken remains unmistakable. Nearly all the city’s parks, its public library, the layout of its streets, much of the housing in the upper part of the city, the docks for the Hoboken ferries, the site of the train station, and Stevens Institute of Technology all owe themselves to Stevens money and efforts.