The Department was established in 1868, when Osborne Reynolds was appointed to the first chair of engineering at Owens College. The Department was generally known as the Department of Engineering or Mechanical Engineering, although its scope included civil engineering, and latterly nuclear and aeronautical engineering.
Reynolds (1842-1912) was the dominant figure in the Department for the next three decades, and he succeeded in building a nationally important university department. This owed much to his personal reputation as a researcher, especially in the field of fluid dynamics; he devised the Reynolds number to help predict flow pattern in different flow situations, and Reynolds' work had many practical applications, including in the design of ships.
Reynolds retired from the Department in 1905, and was succeeded by Stanley Dunkerley in 1905, whose research specialism was the vibration of crank shafts. Dunkerley resigned in 1908 and was succeeded by Joseph Petavel in 1909. Petavel (1873-1936) was known mainly for his work on measuring pressures within exploding gases, but he also did important work on designing plant for chemical reactions under high pressure, and he took an interest in meteorology, supervising the University's kite station at Glossop for several years. Petavel left Manchester in 1919 to become director of the National Physical Laboratory. From 1920 to 1949, the Department was headed by Arthur Gibson (1878-1959), an expert in hydraulic engineering.
During the postwar period, the Department like others in the Faculty of Science expanded. By the early 1960s, there were almost four hundred undergraduates studying engineering, and a growing number of research students. New areas of research developed, such as nuclear engineering, and geotechnics. A separate department of fluid motion/fluid mechanics, based at the Barton aerodrome, undertook aeronautical engineering (it was absorbed by the department of engineering in the mid-1980s). From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Department was dominated by a group of professors who included J L Matheson, professor of mechanical engineering and head of department, 1950-1959, William Bateman Hall (1923-2003), professor of nuclear engineering from 1959 to 1986, who established the Manchester-Liverpool joint research nuclear reactor in 1964, Michael Rex Horne (1921-2000) professor of civil engineering from 1960 to 1983, Jack Diamond (1912-1990), professor of mechanical engineering 1953-1977, Alan Morton professor of mechanical engineering 1967-1991, Donald McDowell professor of hydrodynamics/civil engineering, 1966-1983 and Peter Rowe, professor of soil mechanics (1922-1997), 1963-1982.
The increasing size and complexity of the Department meant that what were essentially sub-departments developed for civil, mechanical, nuclear engineering and geotechnics. The Department was noted for its research work in hydraulic engineering, including the hydrodynamics of complex structures, fluid mechanics (a specialism which dated back to Reynolds' time), including the flow of liquids and gases in industrial and environmental situations, internal combustion engines, thermodynamics, elasticity and strength of materials, vibrations, nuclear reactor physics, especially reactor safety, soil mechanics and geotechnics. By the late 1980s, distinct research groups had been set up for aeronautical engineering, environmental and industrial fluid mechanics, geotechnics, structures, management research, solids, dynamics and control, thermal power, and nuclear technology. In the 1970s, a special unit, the Wolfson Motor Cycle Research Unit, was created. In 1994 the Manchester School of Engineering was established with divisions for mechanical and nuclear, aeronautical, civil and electrical engineering. This involved a merger with the University Department of Electrical Engineering, which had been an independent department since 1913 [and originally known as Electro-technics].
The Department operated on several sites during its existence. From 1887, it occupied specially designed engineering laboratories, behind the John Owens building. These were endowed by Sir Joseph Whitworth. In 1909, a new building opened in Coupland Street, like its predecessor known as the Whitworth Engineering Laboratories. The Department remained here until the early 1960s, when it moved to the Simon Engineering Building, facing Oxford Road, and where it remained until 2004. By the 1990s, the University department and its UMIST equivalent were working closely together, and the departments merged to form a new School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (MACE) following the creation of The University of Manchester in 2004.