Following its completion in 1907, Atwater Kent Laboratories was the first academic building in the United States totally devoted to electrical engineering. The success of electrical engineering at WPI was predominately due to the founding work of Professor Alonzo S. Kimball. In 1897, the number of electrical engineering majors equaled the number of graduates of all other departments. By the turn of the century, it was evident that the physics department could no longer support the demands of this subsidiary discipline. A consensus was reached that a new department must be created and a building to house it must be constructed.
Following Kimball's death, Professor H. B. Smith took control of rallying support for the new building. Smith was quite successful in winning the support of the Board of Trustees. However, at the time there were no funds for the new construction. Shortly thereafter, however, Stephen Salisbury III, (one of WPI's greatest benefactors), left the Institute a bequest of $200,000. Within two weeks, the Board of Trustees authorized President Edmund Engler, the Institute's third President, to proceed with plans for the new structure.
This new building, symbolically shaped in the form of an "E", officially opened with the commencement exercises of the Class of 1907. For many years, the new building did not have an official name (there was already a Salisbury Laboratories on campus). The building was known as both the "great laboratory" and the "EE building" until nearly 40 years later. In recognition of a gift of $109,300 following the death in 1949 of one of the Institute's most famous non-graduates, the electrical engineering building was named Atwater Kent. A. Atwater Kent, a radio pioneer, was a member of the Class of 1900, who left after only a year of attendance.
Atwater Kent Laboratories has played a significant part in WPI's history and traditions. Soon after its completion, all Tech activities centered around the new building. The first dances on the WPI campus were held there and the building's main laboratory served as an auditorium for guest lecturers on numerous occasions. As the focal point of student pride, it was not surprising that the Freshman-Sophomore Rivalry would encompass the building. The Salisbury Street steps became the place where every Freshman class had its class picture taken -- and every sophomore class connived to prevent this from happening. Another legendary event took place in Atwater Kent at the Alumni Dinner of 1913. Goat's Head had been missing, while actually the Class of 1884 had hidden it in Nova Scotia. During the dinner it came as a great surprise when the original Goat's Head was lowered to the Alumni Council via the traveling crane in the electrical engineering building.
Students studied the concepts of electrical engineering from large electrical equipment and power panel which ran the length of the floor. Teaching focused on the electric railway and the WPI test trolley. After World War II, Atwater Kent Laboratories received its first significant renovation. Smaller and more efficient equipment was now replacing the antiquated electrical devices. Smaller laboratories were also constructed. Renovations in 1961 and 1981 have brought Atwater Kent Laboratories to its appearance today. Atwater Kent Laboratories features a 200-seat lecture hall named after Hobart Newell, a long time WPI professor, a semiconductor processing laboratory, an ultrasound research laboratory, an intelligent machines laboratory, image processing facilities, VLSI design facilities, and several other significant laboratories.