Purdue Has Been Around Longer Than the NCAA — Why Are They Called the Boilermakers?

The Purdue Boilermakers are not named after the drink combo, but quite a few more of those are sold during March Madness.

Brandon Charles - Author

Mar. 25 2024, Published 5:57 p.m. ET

Purdue Pete at a basketball game
Source: Getty Images

Many sports fans will tell you that March Madness is one of the best times of year. For a few weeks during an otherwise quiet time in American professional sports, 68 men’s and 68 women’s basketball teams compete for a chance at NCAA glory. Regardless of your feelings toward basketball or the NCAA or sports in general, there’s always a few teams that’ll get you wondering about their nickname.

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Purdue have been a NCAA powerhouse for more than a hundred years. Since 1891, four years before the Big Ten Conference was even formed, Purdue University has used the nickname Boilermakers. Before that they were known as the eleven (the football team; they didn’t have a basketball team until 1896, and basketball wasn’t even invented until 1891), grangers, pumpkin-shuckers, railsplitters, cornfield sailors, blacksmiths, and foundry hands before finally finding the perfect nickname with boilermakers.

Purdue Pete at a football game.
Source: Getty Images
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Why is Purdue called the Boilermakers?

The better question may be, got any idea what a boilermaker is? How about a boiler shop?

From the Purdue History page: “Under accusations of recruiting athletes from boiler shops, the 'Boilermakers' name is adopted for Purdue’s athletic teams. An 85,000-pound Schenectady No. 1 Locomotive engine is purchased.”

Per Merriam-Webster, a boiler shop is "a shop for the manufacture or repair of boilers."

With that out of the way, what’s a boilermaker? Also per Merriam-Webster: “A worker who makes, assembles, or repairs boilers.”

The Purdue Boilermakers are nicknamed the Boilermakers because in the late 1890s, actual boilermakers were very large men that worked on steam locomotives. Another applicable nickname could have been the Purdue Big Dudes.

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A 2018 article on Purdue Sports explains how the name "boilermakers" made even more sense for the Indiana school.

“That same fall of 1891, Purdue had acquired a working railroad engine to mount in a newly established locomotive laboratory," it reads. "It was one more step in the development of Purdue as one of the world's leaders in engineering teaching and research. For athletic adversaries and their boosters, this specialty in engineering education — and the other concentration at the founding of the institution, agriculture — served as fodder for name-calling.”

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Purdue Pete at a basketball game.
Source: Getty Images

The first Boilermaker mascot wasn’t as people-pleasing as Pete.

The first Purdue mascot, the Boilermaker Special, was a locomotive mounted on an automobile chassis. The 1940 mascot didn’t last very long. In 1944 the school’s yearbook, Debris, first used the image of a barrel-chested, mallet-welding boilermaker named “Pete.” Purdue Pete is the current mascot. He’s still barrel-chested and still wields a mallet.

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Don’t forget about the other definition of boilermaker.

Sure, boilermakers are people who worked on locomotive boilers, but there’s another definition of boilermaker: “whiskey with a beer chaser.” While Purdue isn’t a party school, March Madness is definitely a time to party, regardless of whatever school you’re rooting for.

According to WalletHub, March Madness 2024 will see corporations lose $17.3 billion due to unproductive workers, $4 billion bet illegally, $2.72 billion bet legally, and a 23 percent increase in chicken wings and 19 percent increase in beer and pizza sales. Quite a few more boilermakers will be sold too.

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