History and Traditions
On October 1, 1872, Addison “Add” Caldwell walked 26 miles from Craig County to enroll as the first student at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. Ever since then, Virginia Tech has been fulfilling its role as a leading land-grant university. The tiny college, originally housed in the old Olin and Preston Institute near what is now Alumni Mall, has grown into a world-class university.
Duncan Lyle Kinnear, author of The First 100 Years, the centennial history of Virginia Tech, wrote in the introduction about how he was approached by Dr. Wilson Bell (’34), director of university development, with the suggestion that he write “a ‘brief history of VPI, popular in nature, for the upcoming Centennial.’” Kinnear resisted but after a meeting with a group of administrators he gave in, persuaded because “Dr. G. Burke Johnston, former dean of the college of arts and sciences, and currently Miles Professor of English, had agreed to edit the manuscript if I wrote it.” Kinnear still expressed trepidation about the project because the number of living alumni, retired faculty, and “the thousands of descendants of earlier staff and alumni” would have their own versions of VPI history. Kinnear was concerned about how those remembrances and interpretations of events would be different from anything he might write. “A moment’s reflection, however, quickly reminded me that such differences would exist no matter who wrote the history. With this consoling thought in mind I have recorded what Dr. Burke Johnston says might be called ‘a partial history of VPI.’”
It is coming up on 50 years since Kinnear’s 500-page volume was published, wrapping up partway through the presidency of T. Marshall Hahn and marking the act to change the name of the institution to “Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.” Much has transpired since then, adding to the long history and traditions of the institution. This site is but a small attempt to collect “a partial history of VPI.”
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University officially opened on Oct. 1, 1872, as Virginia’s white land-grant institution (Hampton Institute became the commonwealth’s first black land-grant school). During its existence, the university has operated under four different legal names. The founding name was Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. Following a reorganization of the college in the 1890s, the state legislature changed the name to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute, effective March 5, 1896. Faced with such an unwieldy name, people began calling it Virginia Polytechnic Institute, or simply VPI. On June 23, 1944, the legislature followed suit, officially changing the name to Virginia Polytechnic Institute. At the same time, the commonwealth moved most women’s programs from VPI to nearby Radford College, and that school’s official name became Radford College, Women’s Division of Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The Commonwealth dissolved the affiliation between the two colleges in 1964. The state legislature sanctioned university status for VPI and bestowed upon it the present legal name, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, effective June 26, 1970. While some older alumni and other friends of the university continue to call it VPI, its most popular—and its official—nickname today is Virginia Tech.