Halvor Solberg (R) standing with students on the campus of the South Dakota College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now SDSU. All images courtesy of the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum, Brookings.
Halvor Solberg - 1917
From carpenter shop to professorship, Halvor Solberg developed the curriculum for the mechanical engineering department to create captains of industry. During his tenure of 43 years (1887-1932) at SDSU, he interwove the art of design with engineering and expanded the knowledge and innovation of steam engines. He not only taught classes but also designed the building that now bears his name. His work influenced students, such as Stephen F. Briggs of Briggs and Stratton engines, to develop world-renowned machines.
Solberg trained as a carpenter and cabinetmaker in Norway before immigrating to the U.S. In 1887, Solberg enrolled at SDSU to get a contractor’s license. In 1889, President McLouth, having difficulty finding experienced industrial arts and engineering instructors, decided to develop faculty from within the student body. President McLouth hired Solberg, while still being a student, as an instructor in carpentry and woodworking. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree at SDSU in 1891.
From 1891-1896, Solberg was the Professor of Practical Mechanics at SDSU. During this time, he developed coursework in mechanical engineering and established the first ever steam engineering short course. He also took a year sabbatical to assist North Dakota State University with establishing its engineering program.
Attending classes at Purdue University during the summers of 1895 and 1896, Solberg earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering.
Solberg’s research and experimentation for his master’s thesis involved determining the wind resistance of trains. During his experimentation, Solberg noted that the majority of wind resistance occurred at the end of the train regardless of the number of cars. To test his ideas, Solberg is credited with constructing the first wind tunnel used in any engineering school in the country.
From 1902-1932, he was the head of the Mechanical Engineering Department at SDSU. Even though students teased him and joked about his distinct Norwegian accent, Solberg was popular and well respected. His classes were tough and he pushed students to excel, which reflected in their thorough understanding of the fundamental principles of engineering. Solberg taught until his death in 1932.
Halvor Christian Solberg was the third of five children born to Kristian O. Solberg and Anne Larsdatter. He was born March 5, 1861, in Ringsacker, Norway. Halvor stayed in Norway until he was 17 years old, receiving training as a carpenter. He joined his father in Spring Grove, Minnesota, where he lived for three years. Moving to Fargo, North Dakota, he spent the next five years working as a carpenter and cabinetmaker. In 1886, Solberg was homesteading in Britton while continuing his carpentry work. He wanted to be a contractor but needing to further his education, Solberg enrolled at South Dakota College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts now SDSU.
Halvor Solberg met and later married Boletta Egberg, a fellow student at SDSU, in May 1897. They had four children—Harry L., Ada Elizabeth, Ruby L. and Clarence O.
Solberg, a life-long Lutheran, attended English services at the Presbyterian Church instead of the Norwegian services at the Lutheran church so his children would not pick up a Norwegian accent.
Solberg was active in community and professional organizations. He was a member of the Masons and Eastern Star and a member of The Modern Woodmen of America. He belonged to the National Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education. Holding the rank of Colonel, Solberg was the Chief of Engineering and Ordinance in the South Dakota National Guard.
Halvor Solberg died July 9, 1932.
Solberg took an interest in the well-being of his students and invested in their success. In 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, he saw many students struggling financially to stay in school. He established a $1000 loan fund for senior engineering students. This was the root of the Solberg family tradition of supporting SDSU engineering students. In 1998, the Solberg family established the Halvor C. Solberg Scholarship in Engineering.
Building the Department
Solberg not only built the Engineering Department’s early curriculum but also its first home. In 1897, when the department needed a building for classes and offices, Solberg went to the state legislature to request funding. The original bill called for $15,000 but, in the end, allocated only $5,000. Solberg found some old lumber, enlisted his students’ help, and set about building the Engineering Department’s first home which stood where the Armory is now.
The Engineering Department quickly outgrew this facility and began preparing for a new building. Professor Solberg designed and supervised building a new Physics and Engineering building in 1901. It was renamed Solberg Hall in 1966 to honor his dedication to developing the University’s engineering programs. Solberg and the other engineering professors also planned and supervised the building of several other buildings on campus.
Below: Engineering students at the South Dakota College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now known as South Dakota State University.