The mechanical engineering department at WPI holds a prominent position as one of the oldest departments on campus. Dating back to the beginning of WPI, mechanical engineering was one of the first courses of study to be offered. It accompanied the curriculum of civil engineering, physics, chemistry, drawing, French, German and English.
Until the 1940s the "old mechanical engineering building" or Stratton Hall contained the entire department. Eventually, the department became too large for the confines of Stratton Hall; a new building bearing Milton Higgins' name was erected in 1942. It housed new laboratories for experiments in heat transfer, lubricants, fuels, structure of metals, ventilation, heating, refrigeration, metallurgy, and internal combustion.
The interior of the building has changed greatly since it was built. Now the laboratories contain laser systems and a pair of wind tunnels in the basement. What once held design rooms now contain computer laboratories offering computer-aided design and other engineering essentials. Higgins Laboratories also houses one of the nation's few fire protection engineering programs. Yet, through all the changes, the physical building itself remains the same. The old brick exterior, granite steps, and shape are the trademarks of the mechanical engineering facility. The future presents a problem for the department as some of the facilities are becoming outdated. New efforts are being taken to upgrade what is available and expand the department in new directions.