In selecting the first president of the Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science, as WPI was originally known, the Board of Trustees faced a momentous task. The Institute was like no other existing educational institution, and its idea of balancing the study of science with its practical application was a bold new concept. On the advice of highly respected educators, the trustees chose Charles O. Thompson, the 31-year-old principal of Arlington (Mass.) High School, a Dartmouth College graduate, and a civil engineer.
At the Institute's opening ceremonies, President Thompson gave life to the school's mission, saying it "...is intended to furnish an education based on the natural sciences, mathematics, and the modern languages. It is not a place where boys can learn a trade, nor is it to be regarded as an easy road to knowledge."
In the model factory known as the Washburn Shops, students were taught principles of manufacturing as they worked with journeymen tradesmen in producing commercial products. And though sale of the products benefited the Institute, the proper role of the shops on campus would be hotly debated long after Thompson's departure.