A second problem was finding a way to give graduates experience with industrial processes. “Science by itself,” Walker told a colleague, “produces a very badly deformed man who becomes rounded out into a useful creative being only with great difficulty.” MIT could not afford to buy and maintain an inventory of up-to-date industrial machines. An education centered on unit operations would therefore need some kind of internship program to allow students direct experience with the cutting-edge machines of the day, wherever they were. Walker, with Little’s help, set to work.
As Walker and Lewis hammered the new curriculum into shape, they realized that they had done more than find a new way to teach an old subject; they had revolutionized the field. Industrial chemists had always gotten their professional identities from their particular industries. Somebody who worked with soap was a soap guy. He would no more think of crossing over to acids or paints than to poetry. But a graduate in unit operations was sector independent. He or she could work, quite literally, anywhere. A text on the unit operations of distillation, The Elements of Fractional Distillation, written by MIT professor Clark S. Robinson, became a handbook for the bootlegging industry during Prohibition.
Another change sparked by the unit operations approach was that where industrial chemists optimized the performance of individual machines, the new engineers designed entire production processes from beginning to end, from loading dock to loading dock, to any desired scale. The old system favored “batch production,” stop-and-go processes in which optimization was defined at the level of the machine. Unit operations stressed gearing the entire production cycle to a single speed and allowing it to run continuously.
The name “chemical engineer” had been in use for some decades – MIT had initiated its chemistry curriculum under the title chemistry and chemical engineering in 1888 – but tying the term to unit operations gave it a new and specific meaning. Walker named the internship program the School of Chemical Engineering Practice. In 1920, Chemical Engineering became a separate department at MIT, with Lewis as its first chair. And in 1923, Walker, Lewis, and William H. McAdams (another new hire), published Principles of Chemical Engineering, which would become the foundational textbook of the new field.
Meantime, out in the world, immense changes were buffeting the profession. After the outbreak of World War I, the U.S. seized all German-owned patents and began licensing them to American companies. This was a huge event in the chemicals world, unseating Germany from its near total domination of industrial chemistry. (By 1912, 98 percent of all the patent applications in industrial chemistry registered at the U.S. Patent Office belonged to German firms.) The confiscation of German patents opened immense opportunities for chemistry-related industries and therefore for chemical engineers. Students began to pour into the field. Lewis was there to make sure only those who made the grade got through, although he was known to give struggling students extra help. Despite the high standards he helped set, quite a few students met them. Between 1905 and 1909, MIT awarded 65 bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering, between 1920 and 1924, 419.