Albert Miller Lea, a prominent chief engineer of the State of Tennessee, was born in Knoxville in 1805. Lea learned his engineering skills in the army. He entered West Point and graduated fifth in a class of thirty-three in 1831. In 1836 Lea assumed the newly created post of chief engineer. His first, and only, report shows that Lea and his staff ran long lines of precise interconnected altitude determination. Such data were essential in planning transportation routes. When the state published Lea's report, it also published a dissenting opinion written by the assistant engineer, C. W. Nance. Nance questioned Lea's judgment and skills. Perhaps as a result of the disharmony, the office of state engineer was not continued.
After his stint as state engineer, Lea worked for the federal government, determining the boundary between Iowa and Missouri. Next, he became an engineer for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and served as a general in the Iowa militia and chief clerk for the U.S. War Department. Lea returned to East Tennessee University (now University of Tennessee), where he earned a master's degree in 1844 and joined the faculty as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. In 1850 he declined reappointment but taught for part of 1851 before leaving the university. From 1849 to 1854 Lea served Knoxville as city engineer, perhaps the first city engineer in Tennessee. From 1851 to 1853 he also managed an East Tennessee glass manufacturing business. About 1855 Lea moved to Texas, where he served as an engineering officer in the Confederate army. In 1874 he bought a farm at Corsicana, Texas, and died there in 1891.
Lea's service as city and state engineer demonstrates the public recognition of the need for government-sponsored engineering services. Today Lea is known chiefly for work done in the 1830s in the Upper Mississippi Valley. He was probably the first to use the name Iowa to designate a portion of the American Midwest. The city of Albert Lea, Minnesota, is named in his honor. He is esteemed in Texas and many other states, and in Tennessee he should rank as a major figure in the development of science and technology.
James X. Corgan, “Notes on Tennessees Pioneer Scientists,” Journal of the Tennessee Academy of Science 53 (1978): 2-7; Stanley J. Folmsbee, “East Tennessee University: Pre-war Years, 1840-1861,” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications 22 (1950): 60-93