In historical perspective, both the nature of and arrangements for the generation of engineering knowledge have evolved over the past 150 years. We examine the historical development of the search for ‘useful knowledge’ in agriculture, aeronautics and chemical engineering during the first half of this period and the evolving balance between public and private initiative in supporting this search. During this period, the US was engaged in the engineering knowledge was often empirical, practice oriented, and difficult to reconcile with the aims and structure of university teaching. As a consequence, private and public initiatives were often co-mingled and connections with users of the knowledge were essential both for funding (either directly or through the mobilization of political constituencies) and for the testing of designs and emerging theories. Incorporation of engineering knowledge into university curricula was uneven and benefitted greatly, but not exclusively, from the Land Grant Universities. We highlight the distinctions between this early period and developments following World War II, when engineering knowledge has become more theoretical, science-oriented and strongly embedded in universities. In this new era of engineering knowledge, we consider whether areas remain where pre-theoretical empirical knowledge might usefully be exploited and whether the earlier period might provide a guide to funding and organisational arrangements for doing so.