UCLA College of Engineering: The Beginning Years

Sep 28, 2010

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

by Paul Castenholz ’49 MS ’58

Paul Castenholz ’49 MS ’58 entered UCLA under the GI Bill after serving with the U.S. Navy in World War II. He was a member of UCLA Engineering’s first graduating class.  Following graduation, he started a long career in rocket propulsion systems at North American Aviation. He was program manager of the multiple engines of the Saturn program, and he was vice president and program manager of the team that developed the Space Shuttle Main Engines. Castenholz was named UCLA Engineering’s Alumnus of the Year in 1974. A few of this thoughts on his UCLA Engineering days are below.


In 1945, the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and World War II ended. Veterans from all the war zones were being shipped back to the United States; the country began the transition to peaceful activities, and a new era was beginning. Many of us who had been returned to the U.S. just prior to wars end to begin training and operations for a probably invasion of the Japanese homeland were now becoming eligible for discharge and were being sent to various centers for final military release.

Prior to this period, the Congress of the United States had enacted a piece of legislature that would have a great effect upon a majority of the released military veterans—the “GI Bill.” This law established funding and arrangements for every military veteran to be allowed to attend formal training in a very wide array of disciplines and specifically to open the nations colleges and universities to a massive number over veteran students who otherwise may not have had such outstanding educational opportunities.

A great majority of the veterans took advantage of the GI Bill and the schools across the nation were overwhelmed with the number of new students applying for entry and to achieve the college education and experience. Many facilities were unable to initially handle the transition with their existing facilities and teaching staffs and thus overcame this by adding quickly assembled “on site quonset huts,” “off-campus buildings,” extended classroom hours, and morning to evening weekend classes.

 UCLA Engineering (The first years)

Both the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses were heavy on applications from the returning veterans and in my case, I wished to stay as close to home in Los Angeles as possible after spending so much time away during the war. While I had not taken college preparatory classes in high school, I was told that admissions was being granted to veterans with similar experience so I did apply to the Engineering college with the requirement to take some special extension classes which upon satisfactory completion would establish my position in the new Engineering college. Looking back, I feel that this was a very fortunate series of events for me.

As a side note—due to the war, there were limited automobiles which had withstood the years of use and the production of new autos was just beginning, so local public transportation to the outlying communities (such as Westwood) was minimal if non-existent. However, for veterans, the ‘lame duck’ symbol that we sometimes wore was an excellent service indicator and very helpful to safe and effective hitch-hiking. As it turned out, for several years in the morning, I walked from home to Fairfax and Santa Monica Blvd and hitch-hiked to UCLA and then in the evening, I returned by the same method.

The dean of the UCLA College of Engineering was Llewellyn Boelter, a remarkable leader, and his insight into both the returning veteran students and the forthcoming scientific and engineering requirements of the country was reflected in his establishment of the curriculum for all the students in this early class.. He did not feel that extensive ‘specialized’ degrees were warranted at this time,  (‘mechanical engineering,’ ‘electrical engineering,’ etc) but that his students would be better equipped to handle the engineering problems of society by being capable of problem solving by analyzing and handling a wide collection of engineering basics and applying solid principles to a varied number of multi-discipline problems.

Thus, our first year classes for all students consisted of mathematics, chemistry, physics, basic mechanics, basic electrical fundamentals and circuits, basic civil elements (surveying and structures) and several fields of reading and history. It appears somewhat elementary today; however, I can vouch for its effectiveness in some very difficult problems that did occur when I was working later in the industry and was helped by having some cross discipline knowledge gained from the assigned classes. I also believe that having some basic information about the other required engineering disciplines took away some reluctance to tackle such problems.

Due to the influx of the increased number of entering students, the normal staff of the small school of engineering at UCLA was not adequate to handle the increased load, so both advanced graduate students and outside instructors were added to handle both laboratory and beginning subject classes. Some ‘special help’ sections were also included to assist special problems developed during this transition.

The proposed final curriculum for the UCLA engineering students was unique, interesting, and in my case, an outstanding opportunity. Specific advanced courses in mechanics, electrical circuits, materials, and mathematics were prescribed and in addition a wide variety of special projects were available to the students including several case studies of local industrial company projects. It was also proposed that students could establish some special research or projects of their own liking, which had to be approved and assisted by professors and graduate instructors.

I fortunately was able to get the approval for several applicable term projects which required some research into propulsion theory and some foreign results that had occurred with real applications. With the library help, in both finding some excellent reports and having these reports translated (thanks to the university librarian Dr. Lawrence Powell’s support), several of these led me to later propose and get approval to design a small air breathing subsonic ram jet device (which I named an Athodyd). I induced several of the new incoming classes to come and see the ramjet fired and the response was outstanding: plenty of noise, smoke and fire from the combustion, and the ramjet developed the planned thrust which was measured during the combustion tests.

Thank goodness for powerful foresight and staunch support through Dean Boelter’s emphasis and work, because the College of Engineering was thereafter formally granted acceptance, which led the way to the granting of an official undergraduate degree program for the engineering students at UCLA. Graduation occurred and we left with gratitude for our fortunate experiences.

Thanks must go to the many professors and instructors who supported all of us during this early period. Without their help and encouragement, we would never have succeeded.

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