A Mecca Tradition: The Blarney Stone

MECCA Week was a tradition at the University of Iowa College of Engineering for many years.  This celebration took place around St. Patrick’s Day, due to St. Patrick being the patron saint of engineers.   One popular event was the search for the Blarney Stone. It is named for the Blarney Stone in Ireland which, when kissed by leaning backward from a parapet in Blarney Castle, is said to give the “gift of eloquence.”

During MECCA week, the students of the engineering college would compete in order to find the Blarney Stone, a 13”x11”x6” piece of granite that is supposed to come from Ireland, a tradition which began in 1910. The stone would be hidden by the graduating class, and they would then give the underclassmen clues in the form of engineering problems to solve. Eventually, this tradition was turned into a competition between the law students and the engineering students to see who could find the Stone first. If the law students found it before the engineers, the engineers would be “in disgrace” for the entire year. MECCA week was the peak of the rivalry between the engineering students and the law students, with creative pranks abounding.

Blarney Stone Found

The search for the Blarney Stone was not easy, however. In 1912, the instructions for locating the stone were lost, and the Stone was not found until 27 years later when they finally resurfaced. Ironically, the Blarney Stone was found hidden in the basement of the Engineering Building. The stone was not found in 1947, either, necessitating the purchase of a new Blarney Stone by the class who had failed. Further complicating the search was the enormous area in which it could be hidden—anywhere within a 25 mile radius of Iowa City.



Can you solve these problems to find the stone? How about the one written in German?

problem 2


Here are some articles written in the Daily Iowa about the search for the Blarney Stone:

new 2

news 1
From The Daily Iowan. 17 Mar. 1959.


Further Reading:



Celebrating Engineers

The College of Engineering celebrates E-Week in conjunction with National Engineers Week, February 16 – 22, 2014. During E-Week, a variety of student-organized activities help celebrate and recognize engineers and their contributions to society.

However, did you know that the College of Engineering founded a similar event more than 100 years ago? On March 17, 1910, the Associated Students of Applied Sciences organized a parade and a vaudeville show to honor St. Patrick, the patron saint and founder of engineering. Three years later, the event was renamed MECCA. The letters represented the five divisions of engineering (Mechanical, Electrical, Civil, Chemical, and Architectural) and spelled a word which denotes a place to which pilgrimages are made. For sixty years, MECCA Day was a lively annual homecoming for The College of Engineering students and alumni.

Blarney Stone
The Blarney Stone was the symbol of the MECCA celebration.

The Blarney Stone was the symbol of MECCA. The graduating class would hide a greenish colored rock, no larger than a baseball, for the underclassmen to find. Elaborate, mathematical calculations provided clues for locating the stone. In 1912, the Blarney Stone was hidden as usual but the directions were missing. Twenty-eight years later, the stone was recovered when the instructions were found.


Other traditions included parades, formal banquets and balls, satirical plays, beard contests and “Smokers.”

MECCA Queen, circa 1940
Crowning of the MECCA Queen, circa 1940

MECCA Smoker, 1939

A rocket on top of a MECCA Parade float
MECCA Parade Float, 1920
MECCA Parade Pallbearers, 1919
“Pallbearers” burying a bottle of whiskey during prohibition. MECCA Day Parade, 1919


“The Ninth Annual Engineers’ Banquet,” The Transit, Volume 16 (1911), p.85

“The MECCA Celebration – 1915,” The Transit, Volume 19 (1915), p. 63

“MECCA,” The Transit, Volume 25 (1921), p. 26

Iowa City Town and Campus Scenes, The University of Iowa Libraries Iowa Digital Library

Let the Spinning Wheel Spin

Ferris Wheel
Ferris wheel, 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago

What is more romantic than riding a Ferris wheel? Considering George W. G. Ferris, Jr. was born on Valentine’s Day in 1859, perhaps nothing. Ferris was an engineer who graduated from Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY) and founded the G.W.G. Ferris & Co. firm (Pittsburgh, PA) which tested and inspected metals for railroads and bridges. He is credited for creating the first large, steel amusement ride.

But was the Ferris wheel the first of its kind?

The 1893 World’s Fair was to be held in Chicago, and the fair’s organizers wanted to rival the Eiffel Tower which had been constructed for the Paris World’s Fair in 1889. Having recently ridden a fifty-foot wooden “observation roundabout,” which had been built and soon would be patented by William Somers, Farris was inspired to enter the competition with his paper-napkin drawing of an enormous park ride. The constructed 45-foot axle-wheel powered by two 1,000 horsepower steam engines was supported by two 140-foot steel towers and it carried thirty-six wooden cars, each car holding 60 passengers, 264 feet high into the air.

Because of its size, people were reticent to ride Ferris’ wheel. For safety measures, the enclosed cars were fitted with heavy iron screens, locked doors and fire equipment. Also, conductors rode in each car to answer questions and to calm nerves. During the World’s Fair, more than 1,750,000 passengers rode without incident.

Circles in the Sky
Circles in the Sky: The Life and Times of George Ferris
Engineering Library TA140.F455 W45 2009




W. Somers Roundabout
William Somers “Roundabout”
U.S. Patent 489238 (January 3, 1893)


In 1893, Somers filed a lawsuit against Ferris for patent infringement; however, Ferris and his lawyers successfully argued that the Ferris Wheel and its technology differed from Somers’ wheel, and the case was dismissed. The U.S. Patent Office has issued more than 100 patents for various vertical amusement rides, but Ferris never patented his invention.

Somers, William. Roundabout. U.S. Patent 489,238, January 3, 1893 (Google Patents)

Compiled list of U.S. Patents for Ferris Wheels (Penn State)




In 1978, the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) formed the F24 committee to create standards for the design, testing, manufacturing, and operation of amusement park rides.


Theory of Evolution and …. Earthworms?

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin is known for his work on the theory of evolution but did you also know he spent time researching earthworms? Each year on Feb 12th, we celebrate Darwin Day as a celebration on the anniversary of the birth of the historical scientist Charles Darwin, who was born on February 12, 1809. Darwin is most well-known for his publication On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. This publication was the first to rigorously describe biological evolution through natural selection (1).

In addition to being the founder of the theory of evolution, Darwin also began and ended his career with publications on earthworms.   His work with earthworms was also very controversial and was seen unfavorably in scientific circles.  Darwin experimented to show the intelligence and value of earthworms for crop production in a time when they were seen as pests that were dumb, blind, unpleasant, and slimy creatures. (2)

Man is But a Worm joke


Darwin’s work with evolution along with Gregor Mendel’s work with genetics laid the ground work for modern biotechnology, genes, and heredity.  Bioengineers, today, hope to use the foundations of these works to cure certain hereditary diseases. (3)

Historic and current books on Darwin and the theory of evolution:

Books on Darwin and Earthworms:

  • Darwin, Charles. 1838. On the formation of mould. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London. 2, 574-576.
  • Darwin, Charles. 1881. The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms, with observations on their habits. London: John Murray. Special Collections Stein Collection QL394 .D3 1896 
  • Brown, George G., et al. 2003. With Darwin, earthworms turn intelligent and become human friends. Pedobiologica. 47, 924-933. Electronic Access through ScienceDirect
  • Feller, Christian, et al. 2003. Charles Darwin, earthworms and the natural sciences: various lessons from past to future. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment. 99, 29-49. Electronic Access through ScienceDirect



  1. “About Darwin Day.” International Darwin Day Foundation. http://darwinday.org/about/
  2. Schils, Rene.  2012. How James Watt invented the copier: forgotten inventions of our great scientists. New York: Springer. 71-76. Engineering Library T15 .S35513 2012
  3. Marx, J.L. (ed.) 1989. A revolution in biotechnology. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 2-4.
  4. Charles Darwin by Lock & Whitfield. 1877. National Portrait Gallery, London.  http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/use-this-image.php?mkey=mw62368

Happy Birthday, Thomas A. Edison!

The world today would be a very different place without the inventions of Thomas A. Edison.  He was known as the Wizard of Menlo Park.

Edison had obtained 1,093 US Patents over 63 years from 1868 to 1931 (1,084 utility patents and 9 design patents).  Only 2 people hold more patents in the United States.  (1)

His research provided notable contributions to telegraphy, telephony, sound recording, electronic lighting, electric power generation and distribution, and the motion picture. (2) Edison’s first invention, in 1869, was an electric vote-recorder.  It was to allow Washington congressmen to vote “yes” or “no” but they were not interested so the invention proved unsuccessful.  (http://www.google.com/patents/US90646)

Edison's First Patent


Other notable inventions include: (3)

STENCIL PEN: The stencil pen was the predecessor to tattoo pens.

STENCIL PEN: The stencil pen was the predecessor to tattoo pens.

PRACTICAL ELECTRIC LAMP: Edison’s carbon filament light bulb was the first commercially viable electric light. Previous versions were not as durable and used expensive materials such as platinum.

PRACTICAL ELECTRIC LAMP: Edison's carbon filament light bulb was the first commercially viable electric light. Previous versions were not as durable and used expensive materials such as platinum.



FRUIT PRESERVER: Edison designed a fruit preserver that sucked the oxygen out of the glass jars, producing vacuum-sealed jars of fruit.

FRUIT PRESERVER: Edison designed a fruit preserver that sucked the oxygen out of the glass jars, producing vacuum-sealed jars of fruit.

KINETOGRAPHIC CAMERA: The camera showed successive photos in a rapid speed so as to make them appear to be moving.

KINETOGRAPHIC CAMERA: The camera showed successive photos in a rapid speed so as to make them appear to be moving.



A complete listing of all of Thomas A. Edison’s 1,093 patents:  http://edison.rutgers.edu/patents.htm


In addition to the patents issues in the United States, Edison also was issued 1239 patents by foreign governments. (4) 

Country No. Country No.
Argentine 1 Mexico 14
Australia 6 Natal 5
Austria 101 New South Wales 38
Belgium 88 New Zealand 31
Brazil 1 Norway 16
Canada 129 Orange Free State 2
Cape of Good Hope 5 Portugal 10
Ceylon 4 Queensland 29
Cuba 12 Russia 17
Denmark 9 South African Republic 4
France 111 South Australia 1
Germany 130 Spain 54
Great Britain 131 Sweden 61
Hungary 30 Switzerland 13
India 44 Tasmania 8
Italy 83 Victoria 42
Japan 5 West Australia 4
Total of Edison’s Foreign Patents——1239




To Learn More:



  1. Love, Dylan. 2011. The 10 Greatest Inventors in the Modern Era.  Business Insider. May 6, 2011.  http://www.businessinsider.com/most-prolific-inventors-2011-5?op=1
  2. Jenkins, Reese V. and Keith A. Nier.  1984. A Record for Invention: Thomas Edison and His Papers.  IEEE Transactions on Education. 27 (4): 191 – 197. http://proxy.lib.uiowa.edu/login?url=http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?arnumber=4321702
  3. Aquino, Judith. 2011. Thomas Edison’s 31 Greatest Inventions. Business Insider. April 7, 2011. http://www.businessinsider.com/thomas-edison-inventions-light-bulb-and-30-more?op=1
  4. Dyer, Frank Lewis, and Thomas Commerford Martin. 1910. Edison, his life and inventions. Volume 2. New York, London,: Harper & Brothers. Electronic Resource (NetLibrary).