The Bent: A Different Kind of Key
Edward J. Williams, Jr. isn’t a household name, but the impact of his work is undeniable to generations of engineers. In the latter half of the 19th century, academic America witnessed the dawn of Darwinism, the development of political science and anthropology as disciplines of study, and a nascent confidence that higher education in general was a means for individuals to transcend social barriers and improve their prospects in life.
At the time, the nation’s only honor society, Phi Beta Kappa, had developed into an organization celebrating excellence in the pursuit of knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences, largely to the exclusion of any recognition for academic achievement in science, technology, and engineering. Dr. Williams, himself a member of Phi Beta Kappa, set out to redress the lack of acknowledgement for scholarly achievement in Engineering. In 1885, Williams, chair of the Mining department at Lehigh University and an exemplary overachiever in his own right, outlined a constitution and by-laws, selected the Greek letters Tau Beta Pi, by which the society would be known, drafted conditions for membership, enlisted inductees, and designed the society’s symbol, the Bent, complete with an intentionally ornate inscription, meant to engage the attention of all who saw it. Little could he have imagined how successful his efforts to honor and inspire engineering students would be.
Similar to a Phi Beta Kappa key, Tau Beta Pi’s symbol was initially intended as a device to wind pocket watches. But for today’s Tau Bates, the Bent’s symbolic meaning has eclipsed its initial purpose. It’s structure is modeled after a design that has been used in the supporting structure of bridges for centuries, and holds dual roles as a practical symbol as well as a reminder of past and hopefully future successes. Penn’s Delta chapter of Tau Beta Pi distributes the keys to initiates, and now, thanks in part to the efforts of Tau Beta Pi members, all who visit campus can view a statue of the Bent, which sits just east of the Towne Building’s main entrance on Smith Walk.
Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “Tau Beta Pi,” by Catherine Von Elm.
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