The Open House is the result of over a century of evolution. At the dawn of the 20th century, it became the policy of various departments to sponsor shows and open houses at which time the students and faculty would collaborate on demonstrations and lectures. In 1906, the Department of Physics held its first annual Open House, becoming the precedent and inspiration for the present-day Engineering Open House. This showing of departmental equipment was held in the laboratories of Engineering Hall, where the Physics Department was located at the time. The exhibits centered around light, sound, wireless telegraphy, and other electrical operations, featuring lectures on the principles involved.
The next spring, in 1907, the Department of Electrical Engineering organized the Electrical Engineering Show. Its purpose was to raise funds for the construction of a memorial in honor of steamboat builder Robert Fulton, which was to be erected in New York City. This show was a modest affair that required only a week of preparation at virtually no expense and for which a small admission fee was charged. The results took the originators by surprise, as the sixteen hundred visitors who attended enabled $250 (equivalent to $5,930.74 today) to be donated to the memorial fund. Encouraged by the success, the originators held subsequent shows, each a little more elaborate than the last. The proceeds were at first used to improve the furnishing of the Electrical Engineering Society reading room in the E. E. Laboratory. By 1913 the attendance had grown to about three thousand, a crowd which taxed the facilities of the Laboratory to its limit.
In 1915 an important precedent was established by the use of exhibits donated by outside companies as a distinct feature of the show. Because this addition required additional space for the extra equipment, the show was extended over three days and several buildings besides the E. E. Laboratory. Subsequent shows up to 1922 followed the same plan. By this time the show had become so enlarged that it involved over 450 student workers and demonstrators operating on a $4,000 budget. The show continued to be successful and return a profit, which was being used to aid the Technograph (a student publication) and other university interests.
In 1927 such national recognition had been gained that commercial organizations and utilities were eager to exhibit their products. Thus the subsequent shows from 1924 until 1942 were able to present many unusual and spectacular demonstrations. Among these, some worthy of note were automatic dial telephone systems, model hydroelectric plants and power transmission lines, radio broadcasting and receiving equipment, television, talking movies, and a list of others too long to enumerate. The proceeds of these shows were placed in an E. E. student loan fund, which still exists today. Also worthy of mention is the interest which the shows had created among the people of the entire state. Started on a campus-wide scale, by 1936 and 1938 they were attracting crowds that ranged from four to six thousand people. A large percentage of the guests were high school students and teachers, which enabled the show’s directors to obtain reduced rates on the Illinois Central and Big Four Railroads in 1936. Such groups were also assigned student guides who led them on tours of the University’s campus before taking them through the show.
In the later years, from 1938 to 1942, the tendency was to demonstrate more of the University’s equipment and student work, thereby diminishing the commercial flavor. In so doing, students devised many interesting exhibits. Most had a serious purpose, seeking to illustrate some of the latest advances in electrical engineering (though a few were purely for the purposes of showmanship). In the fall of 1914, a few years after the first E. E. show, members of the Student Branch of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers acted as hosts at the first annual Mechanical Engineering Open House. Some two thousand people representing all departments of the University passed through the displays of student work and demonstrations of machines in operation, and heard talks on subjects concerning the popular machines of the day.
Exhibitions held in the following years proved to be even more successful. The attendance reached nearly five hundred people by the fourth and last Mechanical Engineering Open House, held in the spring of 1919. During these events, the practice of distributing ashtrays, paperweights, and other mementos as well as the showing of movies had been adopted. The last year nearly twenty thousand people viewed displays demonstrating subjects ranging from arc welding to fluid flow studies.
Inspired by the success that these several shows had enjoyed, the first regular all-engineering open house was held in the spring of 1920, commemorating the centennial of the birth of James Watt. The Physics and Mechanical Engineering Open Houses were discontinued at this time to give greater chance for success to the all-college venture. The public was invited to inspect the facilities of the Engineering College and to see the displays, which had been set up in the laboratories, drafting rooms, and shops. The first Open House Program appeared at this time in the form of a twenty-page pamphlet. It briefly described sixty-odd experiments and contained a map of the engineering campus with a suggested itinerary.
Other open houses, later called Illinois Student Engineering Exhibitions, were held throughout the years. Students in all departments participated and were guided in their efforts by the Engineering Council. In 1928, the Open House was scheduled so as not to conflict (in year) with the Electrical Engineering Shows. The policy was also adopted of inviting state high schools and nearby colleges.
As was true of the Electrical Engineering Show, the all-engineering show was discontinued during the years of World War II. During the immediate post-war period the Electrical Engineering Show was reorganized and became a definite part of the newly named Engineering Open House.
Starting in 1948 and carrying through 1952, the Open House was held biannually. However, following the 1950 show, it was suggested that the Open House be planned as an annual affair. This proposal was accepted by both Engineering Council and the Executive Committee of the College of Engineering as an experiment in 1952 and 1953. Hence, the 2011 Open House will represent the 60th Annual Engineering Open House.