When Jane Lathrop Stanford and former California Governor Leland Stanford lost their only child to typhoid in 1884, they decided to build a university as the most fitting memorial. Leland Stanford Junior University — still its legal name — opened October 1, 1891 in Palo Alto, CA.
Stanford University’s School of Engineering has been at the forefront of innovation for nearly a century, creating pivotal technologies that have transformed the worlds of information technology, communications, healthcare, energy, and business.
In 1939, graduate students William Hewlett and David Packard developed the precision audio oscillator, the first low-cost method of measuring audio frequencies, and spun it into the company now known as HP.
In 1964, ophthalmologists Milton Flocks and Christian Zweng pioneered laser treatment for detached retinas.
Founded in 1965, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) devised the first interactive system for computer design as well as pioneered work on computer vision, robotics, laser printing, and automated assembly.
Stanford’s Dr. Norman Shumway performed the first U.S. adult human heart transplant in 1968.
SAIL installed the world’s first office desktop computer displays using television monitors in 1971. Computers were linked to ARPANET, the precursor of the Internet.
In 1973, Stanford alumnus Bradford Parkinson co-invented the Global Positioning System (GPS).
A team led by Dr. Bruce Reitz performed the world’s first successful heart-lung transplant at Stanford Medical Center in 1981.
In 1991, the first North American website went online at Stanford.
Stanford Engineering is comprised of the following departments.
Aeronautics and Astronautics – Research activities cover most aspects of aircraft and spacecraft design, structures, fluid mechanics, dynamics and control, and navigation, with strong emphasis on fundamental principles as well as on systems engineering. Research areas focus on aircraft collision avoidance, autonomous mapping and navigation in deep ocean and deep space, fleet coordination of autonomous vehicles, and unmanned aircraft traffic management.
The Aerospace Robotics Laboratory works on improving robotic performance through the application of feedback control, integrated sensing systems, and task-level autonomy. Systems include both mobile robots (land, sea, sky, and space) and a variety of fixed manipulators for space and factory applications. The Autonomous Systems Lab develops methodologies for the analysis, design, and control of autonomous systems, with a particular emphasis on large-scale robotic networks and autonomous aerospace vehicles.
Stanford engineers developed a rocket fuel made of paraffin wax, one of the most ancient fuels known to mankind. Currently, solid propellants combine their fuel and oxidizer into a single material that, once ignited, must burn continuously in a controlled fashion or the rocket may explode. The new hybrid motor can be likened to a large candle with a hollow core where the wick would usually be. Once an oxidizing agent is sprayed into the core and ignited, a thin layer of paraffin melts all along the inner surface, releasing waves of fast-burning liquid droplets. Turning off the oxidizer flow snuffs out the candle.
The Stanford Intelligent Systems Laboratory (SISL) researches advanced algorithms and analytical methods for the design of robust decision-making systems for air traffic control, unmanned aircraft, and other aerospace applications where decisions must be made in uncertain, dynamic environments while maintaining safety and efficiency. The Multi-robot Systems Lab (MSL) researches distributed controllers for the deployment of mobile sensor networks, agile coordinated multi-robot control, and multi-robot manipulation.
The Navigation and Autonomous Vehicles (NAV) Lab researches robust and secure positioning, navigation, cybersecurity, and timing technologies using machine learning, advanced signal processing, and formal verification methods. Applications include manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, autonomous driving cars, robotics, Internet of Things, and the future power grid.
Bioengineering – The Department of Bioengineering fuses engineering and the life sciences to promote biomedical discovery and the development of new technologies and therapies. Research also includes biomechanics, medical devices, medical imaging, molecular engineering, microscopy, biomaterials, tissue engineering, omics/genomics, gene therapy, microfluidics, agro-bio and planet health, frugal science, and bio-policy.
The bioengineering labs are engaged in projects to prevent, diagnose, and treat COVID-19. Using lab-on-a-chip technology, Stanford engineers created a microlab half the size of a credit card that can detect COVID-19 in just 30 minutes. The microlab test takes advantage of the fact that coronaviruses like SARSCOV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, leave behind tiny genetic fingerprints in the form of strands of RNA, the genetic product of DNA. If the coronavirus’s RNA is present in a swab sample, the person from whom the sample was taken is infected.
A Stanford researcher developed the Foldscope — a fully functional microscope that folds like origami and can be laser- or die-cut out of paper for about 50 cents. Foldscope was designed to be portable and durable while performing on par with conventional research microscopes (140X magnification and 2-micron resolution). The goal is to break down the price barrier between people and the curiosity and excitement of scientific exploration.
Chemical Engineering – The Department of Chemical Engineering uses knowledge of mathematics, chemistry, and other natural sciences to develop economical means of using materials and energy to benefit society. Research expertise is used to produce and manipulate chemicals to energy, medicine, electronics, and materials with new properties under the umbrella of three thematic research areas: life, energy, and the environment.
Civil and Environmental Engineering – The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering comprises construction engineering, environmental fluid mechanics and hydrology, atmosphere and energy, design and construction integration, and architectural design. This research uses technologies from materials science, physics, biology, mathematics, and computing to best design and manage buildings and cities, dams and water systems, highway networks, and energy grids.
New technology from Stanford scientists finds long-hidden earthquakes and possible clues about how earthquakes evolve. Tiny movements in Earth’s outermost layer may provide a way to decipher the physics and warning signs of big quakes. New algorithms that work a little like human vision are now detecting these long-hidden microquakes in the growing mountain of seismic data.
Computer Science – Research exists in the areas of systems, software, networking, databases, security, graphics, foundations of computer science, artificial intelligence, robotics, and scientific computing.
Algorithms developed by Stanford researchers could one day help people with disabilities intuitively control robot arms to help with everyday tasks. A new controller blends two artificial intelligence algorithms. The first enables control in two dimensions on a joystick without the need to switch between modes. It uses contextual cues to determine whether a user is reaching for a doorknob or a drinking cup, for example. Then, as the robot arm nears its destination, the second algorithm kicks in to allow more precise movements, with control shared between the human and the robot.
In another project, researchers have reconstructed the movements of individual particles of light to see through clouds, fog, and other obstructions. The team developed a kind of X-ray vision without the X-rays. Working with hardware similar to what enables autonomous cars to “see” the world around them, the team enhanced their system with a highly efficient algorithm that can reconstruct three-dimensional hidden scenes based on the movement of individual particles of light (photons). In tests, the system successfully reconstructed shapes obscured by 1"-thick foam. To the human eye, it’s like seeing through walls.
Electrical Engineering – Research includes the device technology and circuit fabric of future electronic and photonic systems, nanostructures, semiconductor devices, integrated circuits, power electronics, and electronic system engineering. Other topics are communications and networking, signal processing, remote sensing machine learning, biomedical imaging, energy systems, transportation systems, and computational imaging and display systems. Hardware/software systems research looks into new ways to design, architect, and manage energy-efficient systems for emerging applications ranging from the Internet of Things to big data analytics.
Stanford engineers developed the Photoacoustic Airborne Sonar System that could be installed beneath drones to enable aerial underwater surveys and high-resolution mapping of the deep ocean. The airborne method images underwater objects by combining light and sound to break through the seemingly impassable barrier at the interface of air and water. The researchers envision the hybrid optical-acoustic system one day being used to conduct drone-based biological marine surveys from the air, carry out large-scale aerial searches of sunken ships and planes, and map the ocean depths with a similar speed and level of detail as Earth’s landscapes.
Another team has demonstrated a practical way to use magnetism to transmit electricity wirelessly to recharge electric cars, robots, or drones. The technology could one day be scaled up to power a car moving down the road; in the nearer term, the system could wirelessly recharge robots as they move around in warehouses and on factory floors. The prototype can wirelessly transmit 10 watts of electricity over a distance of two or three feet. There aren’t any fundamental obstacles to scaling up a system to transmit the tens or hundreds of kilowatts that a car would need — the system is more than fast enough to re-supply a speeding automobile. The wireless transmission takes only a few milliseconds — a tiny fraction of the time it would take a car moving at 70 miles an hour to cross a four-foot charging zone.
Management Science and Engineering – This department aims to promote research and education related to the information intensive, technology-based economy. Research covers the knowledge, tools, and methods required to make decisions and shape policies, configure organizational structures, design engineering systems, and solve operational problems.
Materials Science and Engineering – This department is concerned with the relation among processing, structure, and properties of materials, with the goal of developing new materials and processes. It brings together physical metallurgy, polymer science, ceramics, biology, and the physics and chemistry of solids.
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept around the world, shortages of protective equipment such as N95 masks left healthcare workers little choice but to reuse the masks they had — increasing the risk of infection for both them and their patients. Stanford researchers used a combination of moderate heat and high relative humidity to disinfect N95 mask materials without hampering their ability to filter out viruses. What’s more, it should not be too difficult to turn the process into an automated system that hospitals could use in short order — because the process is so simple, it might take just a few months to design and test a device.
Mechanical Engineering – Programs include energy and thermal sciences; propulsion; solid mechanics, fluid mechanics, and biomechanics; design and manufacturing; sensing, control, and robotics; and computational and simulation-based engineering.
Researchers developed a low-cost emergency ventilator for COVID-19 patients when more advanced ventilators are too expensive or not available. It is based on a simple model but adds a mechanism that automatically squeezes the self-inflating bag. The system also incorporates modern, inexpensive electronic pressure sensors and microcomputers with sophisticated software that precisely controls the squeeze. The microcomputers also drive a small control panel and operators can control the system with that or with a laptop computer. The rest of the parts are standard parts that cost less than $400. The team is giving their invention away for free.
The Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) receives invention disclosures from Stanford faculty, staff, and students. These disclosures are evaluated for their commercial possibilities and when possible, they are licensed to industry.