A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT

By Mifflin, Jeffrey | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview
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A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT

Mifflin, Jeffrey, Historical Journal of Massachusetts

A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT By Philip N. Alexander. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011. 508 pages. $29.95 (hardcover).

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was incorporated in 1861 to provide training in the practical arts and serve as an alternative to the primarily classical education offered by Harvard College. The burgeoning economy of the post-Civil War era needed men trained in architecture, shipbuilding, manufacturing, mining, and other industries, and the founders of MIT envisioned a school that would keep the United States prosperous and strong by supplying its enterprises with qualified personnel. The Institute's first students enrolled in 1865 and graduated in 1868. From its struggling early years fraught with financial difficulties, the school grew over the course of its first century from a small polytechnic institute to a world-renowned university specializing in science and technology. MIT's varying fortunes and the controversies that influenced its academic priorities are effectively recounted by Philip Alexander in A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT.

Alexander is a research associate in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT. His highly readable new book is remarkable for the human interest that colors the institutional history. He sketches the history of MIT by exploring the personal and intellectual biographies of MIT's first nine presidents, ranging from William Barton Rogers (born in 1804) to Karl Taylor Compton (who died in 1954), with special emphasis on ways in which background, character traits, and personal circumstances affected the evolving priorities of the school. The author has an uncanny knack for unearthing and encapsulating telling details. The book achieves exactly the right blend of technical explanation and anecdote.

MIT's motto, "Mens et Manus" ("Mind and Hand"), signals the Institute's overarching philosophy that book learning, laboratory research, and practical experience are the cornerstones of education in science and/or engineering. While giving a commencement address in 1882 (only moments before his sudden collapse and death), Rogers reminded his authence that: "Our early labors with the legislature . . . were sometimes met not only with repulse but with ridicule. . . . Formerly a wide separation existed between theory and practice; now in every fabric that is made, in every structure that is reared, they are closely united into one interlocking system, - the practical is based upon the scientific, and the scientific is solidly built upon the practical" (45).

Important episodes in MIT's history, as described in the book, include the following: Rogers's yeoman efforts to obtain a charter and suitable real estate from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; recurrent takeover attempts (1870-1905) by Harvard, which was eager to bolster its position in technological education; Francis A. Walker's campaign in the 1880s to revamp the curriculum; the financially embarrassed Institute's timely rescue ca. 1912 by the mysterious "Mr. Smith" (later revealed to be Kodak tycoon George Eastman); the 1916 relocation, overseen by Richard C. Maclaurin, from Boston's Back Bay to a more spacious campus on the edge of the Charles River in Cambridge; the strengthening of programs in pure science by Karl Taylor Compton in the 1930s; the mobilization of MIT for warrelated research during World War II; and the growth of sponsored research in the post-war years. During the war, the atomic bomb was developed at the University of Chicago, Los Alamos, and elsewhere, while radar was simultaneously perfected at MIT's "Radiation Lab" (a misnomer devised to guard against espionage). "Rad Lab" employees bragged ever after "that while the atomic bomb ended the war, radar won it" (416).

The book makes no attempt to whitewash unsavory aspects of the Institute's history. President Walker, we learn, was a racist. The inclusion of women was hesitant, slow, and far from equal.

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