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Early Presidents Collection

Identifier: UA004

  • Staff Only


The early presidents of Georgia Tech were influential in shaping the character of the institution and determining its future. Materials contained within this collection include correspondence, press releases, school records, maps and architectural drawings from the presidencies of Lyman Hall, Kenneth G. Matheson, Marion L. Brittain, and Blake R. Van Leer.


  • 1879-1957 (bulk 1930-1950)
  • Majority of material found within 1930 - 1950


General Physical Description note

(28 document cases, 5 flat files, and 1 oversized box)

Restrictions: Access


Restrictions: Use

Permission to publish materials from this collection must be obtained from the Head of Archives and Special Collections.


12.6 Linear Feet

Scope and Contents

Series 1. Lyman Hall Papers, 1879-1905, Hall's files from the period of 1879 through 1905. These files contain many newspaper articles about Tech from Hall's scrapbook, as well as personal correspondence, press releases, business papers, and ephemera from Hall's time at West Point and his death.

Series 2. Kenneth G. Matheson Papers, 1904-1905, date from 1904 to 1921 and include personnel correspondence as well as school financial and military records.

Series 3. M. L. Brittain Papers, 1920-1944, date from 1920 to 1944 and include correspondence, annual reports of academic departments, information regarding the activities of several engineering associations, papers relating to Tech's accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, military records, and information on budgets and audits. Post-World War II Planning Committee records, including correspondence and reports to Brittain, are also included in this series.

Subseries 1. These materials are related to the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents from 1932 to 1934. They were originally a part of the Board of Regents records (UA017). The sub-series consists of correspondence, meeting minutes, and statistics related to the schools within the University System. Topics discussed in these papers include new building on Georgia Tech’s campus, World War II’s effect on higher education, and student exams.

Series 4. Blake R. Van Leer Papers, 1909-1957, include a huge variety of subjects, most notably, information on Van Leer's Tech Expansion Program, including numerous maps, plans, and architectural drawings. There are also files on new courses, departments, and buildings, the budget, fraternity matters, the Engineering Experiment Station, the Southern Association, Georgia Tech Athletics, Southern Polytechnic, the library, the faculty, the military, women at Tech, and personnel correspondence. This series also includes papers of the acting president, Paul Weber, who served for about a year after Van Leer's death.

Subseries 1. These materials are related to the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents from 1944 to 1956. They were originally a part of the Board of Regents records (UA017). The sub-series consists of correspondence and meeting minutes covering topics such as coeducation, desegregation efforts, loyalty oaths, and the student protest surrounding the 1956 Sugar Bowl. Also present are documents referencing objections to certain textbooks, building on campus, and Georgia Tech’s response to World War II.

Biographies of the Early Presidents

Lyman Hall: Hall was born in 1859 in Americus, Georgia, attended Mercer College, and graduated from the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York in 1881. Health problems prevented him from serving in the Army, so he worked as a mathematics instructor at military academies and authored three books on algebra. In 1888 he was appointed Georgia Tech's first mathematics professor, a position he held until his appointment as president in 1896. He had a solid background in engineering due to his time at West Point and often incorporated surveying and other engineering applications into his coursework. He had an energetic personality and quickly assumed a leadership position among the faculty. As president, Hall was noted for his aggressive fundraising and improvements to the school, including his special project, the A. French Textile School. His goals included enlarging Tech and attracting more students, so he introduced a number of new degrees, including civil and electrical engineering. Hall also became infamous as a disciplinarian, even suspending the entire senior class of 1901 for returning from Christmas vacation a day late. His death, while still in office, during a vacation at a New York health resort in 1905, has been attributed to stress from his strenuous fund raising activities.

Kenneth Gordon Matheson: Matheson was born in Cheraw, South Carolina on July 28, 1864, the son of John F. and Mary (Graham) Matheson. He graduated from the South Carolina Military Academy (now known as The Citadel) in Charleston, and received a master’s degree in English from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. He arrived in Georgia in 1885 as commandant of the cadets of the Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, where he remained for three years. He also taught at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and was later head of the English department at the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Missouri. In 1897 he became professor of English at Georgia Tech and also served as chairman of the faculty until 1906, when he was elected head of the school. His particular interests as president included building a library at Tech, and eradicating the institution's image as a "trade school." Quiet and diplomatic, he accomplished much, expanding the curriculum g a graduate program, and supervising the "Greater Georgia Tech" campaign fund. But in 1921, wearied by the constant lack of money for the school, he resigned and accepted the presidency of Philadelphia's Drexel Institute. He continued to maintain close contact with Tech until his death from a heart attack in November 1931.

Dr. Marion Luther Brittain: M. L. Brittain was born in Wilkes County, Georgia on November 11, 1865, and graduated from Emory College at Oxford, Georgia in 1888. He became principal of Crew Street School in Atlanta, and later served as head of the language department at Boys School. In 1898 he pursued his graduate studies at the University of Chicago, and upon his return in 1900 became principal of the Fulton County Schools. In 1910 he became Georgia state superintendent of schools. Dedicated to the cause of education, he was famous for standing up to corrupt politicians, and was credited with a dramatic improvement in the Georgia school system. Brittain was elected president of Tech in 1922. Gentle and well liked, he accomplished much for the school, including the establishment of the ROTC unit (the first in the South), the creation of the School of Aeronautics with a prestigious $300,000 gift from the Guggenheim Foundation, and the addition of a ceramics engineering course. Under his leadership, funding for Tech improved and the school was accredited by the Southern Association. An ardent supporter of Yellow Jacket football, he rarely missed a game, even traveling with the team to bowl games. He was also active in the community, a member of many service organizations, and regularly taught Sunday school. Brittain retired in 1944, became President Emeritus, and wrote a history of the school called The Story of Georgia Tech. He died in 1953 at the age of 87.

Colonel Blake Ragsdale Van Leer: Colonel Van Leer was born August 11, 1893 in Magnum, Texas (now Oklahoma). He graduated from Big Springs High School in 1911, received a B. S. in electrical engineering from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana in 1915, and then joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley. He served in World War I from 1917 to 1919 as 1st Lieutenant of the 316th Engineer Corps of the U. S. Army in France. After studying at the University of Caen, he was released from active duty and returned to Berkeley where he received an M. S. in mechanical engineering in 1920. In 1927 he was awarded a scholarship for study in Europe, and on his return was appointed assistant secretary of the American Engineering Council. In 1932 he became Dean of Engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and in 1937 assisted in the consolidation of the engineering colleges at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University in Raleigh. During World War II he served as colonel as Chief of the Facilities Branch, Army Specialized Training Division. In 1944 he was again released from active duty to become the fifth president of Georgia Tech, initiating a period of dramatic change at the school. Van Leer’s goals included furthering graduate education and research, and making the school a major technological university. He presided over an extensive program of building and development at Tech and instituted important changes in the administration. In 1948, to emphasize Tech's new standing, its name was changed from the Georgia School of Technology to the Georgia Institute of Technology. He was also a strong proponent of science education for women, and under his supervision the first female students arrived at Tech in the fall of 1952. Van Leer, despite his stern military bearing, proved to be a president willing to communicate with the students and faculty, and was well liked. However, in 1955 and 1956 his health declined, and he died while still in office after suffering a heart attack in January 1956. Paul Weber filled the position of president until Edwin Harrison was elected in 1957.


Lyman Hall Robertson, grandson of Lyman Hall, donated Hall's scrapbook (Accession #1986.0402; old #86-04-02). The remainder of the collection was transferred from the President's Office (Accessions #1987.1104 (87-11-04), #1985.1011 (85-10-11), #1985.1101 (85-11-01), #1985.0805 (85-08-05)). One certificate belonging to Blake R. Van Leer (2006.125), which was added to this collection in July 2011, is of unknown provenance; the Post-World War II Planning Committee records (1992.1206), added to the collection in June 2012, is also of unknown provenance.


Photographs have been removed to VAM004, Early Presidents Photograph Collection.

General Physical Description note

(28 document cases, 5 flat files, and 1 oversized box)

Processing Information

Laura Massey processed these records in 2002.

Inventory of the Early Presidents (Georgia Institute of Technology) Collection, 1879-1957 (bulk 1930-1950)
Laura Massey
Copyright 2002.
Description rules
Finding Aid Prepared Using Rlg Best Practice Guidelines For Encoded Archival Description
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid is written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the Archives and Special Collections, Library, Georgia Institute of Technology Repository

Georgia Institute of Technology
266 4th Street, NW
Atlanta 30332-0900 USA