Posts Tagged ‘Karl Compton’

Relations with Industrial Firms

In the next several years after their move to Cambridge, MIT had established itself as a premier research institution. And with President Richard C. Mclaurin’s advocacy of the so-called Technology or “Tech” Plan (1919), the Institute pursued an ever-increasing number of collaborations with industrial corporations. Beginning at the turn of the 20th century and following the departure of MIT President Henry Pritchett, Acting President Arthur Noyes (1907-1909) pursued closer ties with industry to enhance the Institute’s reputation for superior science-based research.

The Research Laboratory of Physical Sciences, which Noyes, a chemist, established in 1903, was the hub of this “reformist” movement. Competing with Noyes was a group headed by chemist William Walker, who wanted even more extensive contacts with scientific corporations. Still another faction headed by the chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering, Dugald Jackson, founded the Research Laboratory of Applied Chemistry (RLAC) to even more directly involve industrial patrons. Ultimately this laboratory failed in its mission.

Enter President Mclaurin, who was able to bring in patronage from such corporations as Dupont, Eastman Kodak and General Electric, to name a few. Walker and Jackson supplemented this effort by creating the School of Chemical Engineering Practice. Here, MIT professors would instruct students in areas of study of particular interest to corporations. Controversially, however, the corporations claimed the results of the research. Professors could not publish results of their research, which was needed for the advancement of both their careers and their field. To administer relations between the Institute and Industry, walker set up the Division of Industrial Cooperation and Research (DICR). Noyes voiced opposition this plan and left MIT in 1919.

Vannevar Bush, who served as MIT Vice President and Dean of Engineering from 1932-1938

There was a prevailing feeling at this time that the Institute was moving from a research center to a technical school. Two reformists, Gerard Swope, president of General Electric and Frank Jewett, head of Bell Telephone Labs (both officers and advisers of MIT), brought in a new president, Karl Taylor Compton, who like them, believed in a strong science curriculum to prepare engineers to enter the world of industry. Compton and his vice president, computer engineer Vannevar Bush, ala Noyes’ position, supported close ties with industry, but they were determined to strike a balance between the needs of industry and the needs of academic research. By the 1930s, MIT had gone from a technical institute that trained scientists to a full-fledged research institution. It not only prepared scientists to enter scientific fields, but was increasingly involved in industrial research.

MIT at War

In September of 1940, Karl Compton and a number of American and British colleagues from the scientific community attended a “party” – in actuality a clandestine meeting where British officials unveiled a device called a ten-centimeter cavity magnetron. This instrument, which the British were willing to “give” the Americans – in exchange for developing the technology which the British government was not in a position to do at the time – was to be critical in the development of Radar technology. It was widely considered to have been of crucial importance in the British victory at the Battle of Britain earlier that year, and out of this meeting, the MIT Radiation Laboratory or “Rad Lab” was born. Coincidentally, there had already been a committee formed by the U.S. government, the National Defense Research Committee, or NDRC, which included Compton, who headed its “Division D” dealing with microwave technology; Wall Street financier and lifetime MIT Corporation member Alfred Loomis, Vannevar Bush (who had since become head of the Carnegie Institution and chair of the NDRC), and Ernest O. Lawrence of the University of California. Lawrence was asked if he might head the new radiation lab at MIT, but declined to continue to work on his own continuing projects at California. He did, however, become an instrumental adviser in the lab’s creation. The job instead went to Lee DuBridge, head of the University of Rochester’s Department of Physics.

The Birth of the Military – Industrial – University Complex

Charles Stark Draper, aeronautical engineer who headed MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory and later the lab that bore his own name

Charles Stark “Doc” Draper was an aeronautics expert who, at the MIT Confidential Instruments Development Lab (Building 33), presided over a group of scientists who contemplated how to control the firing of ammunition. With a partnership he entered into with Sperry Gyroscope, they were able to develop a revolutionary new gun sight that helped the war effort. This was an oft-copied template at MIT going forward: labs blended instruction with real-world problem solving.

Feedback control pioneer Prof. Gordon Brown, who started the MIT Servomechanism Laboratory, was the “glue” in the June, 1940 partnership of Sperry and Draper. And after he arrived at MIT, Brown’s student (and magnetic core memory designer) Jay Forrester proved so invaluable that he

Jay W. Forrester, pioneering engineer/manager of MIT's "Project Whirlwind"

was made assistant director of the “Servo” lab – where he would develop a new type of flight simulator that became “Project Whirlwind,” which in turn laid the groundwork for Forrester’s development of the first real-time digital computer. The war effort had shown that MIT could work with the military to create products that were invaluable for the comfort and wellbeing (not to mention efficiency) of our soldiers: gas masks, flamethrowers, freeze-dried foods, and aerial nighttime photography, to name just a few. MIT had become a true innovator in military technology.

War at MIT

By the arrival of the 1960s, MIT had numerous “special labs” (such as Lincoln Lab, the Instrumentation Lab, and MIT Research, or “MITRE”) which were devoted largely to national defense research efforts. And the war

Howard W. Johnson, MIT president from 1966 to 1971 during its volatile Vietnam War period. Courtesy, MIT Museum

in Vietnam brought the whole issue of how the military and science co-existed to a boiling point. Previously, the military had helped win World War II; but now, in the wake of the “Cold War” and political concerns over the rise of communism in Southeast Asia, MIT and other technical schools were being forced to face some hard political realities of their role in the military. Professors such as linguist Noam Chomsky and “Cybernetics” expert Norbert Wiener registered strong opinions about what MIT was doing for the military and in the case of the former, advised MIT faculty and administration that they had a moral and social as much as a patriotic obligation in all their research. The so-called “special” laboratories that carried out much of that research were particular targets of the dissenters’ ire.

MIT Linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky (ca.1970), who led MIT faculty in questioning MIT's military research efforts during the Vietnam War

On November 5, 1969, protesters’ verbal protests became more animated. On that day, some 350 student protesters (some waving Viet Cong flags) approached Draper’s Instrumentation lab. Draper pre-empted their demonstration somewhat by inviting them into the lab, and though there was some shouting, Draper’s actions calmed things down to where the protesters eventually left. The eventual decision to close the Instrumentation Lab and along with Draper’s departure for Cambridge’s Technology Square – where he opened his own lab – struck many as appeasement to the protesters, who were largely seeking MIT’s divestment from military research activities. Several of these special labs sought to wean themselves from federal defense projects with limited success. More recently, debates have centered such controversial projects as the “Strategic Defense Initiative” (SDI), an anti-missile shield project advocated by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and presently with the “War on Terror.” But the protests that were held during the 1960s – resulting in, among other developments, the formation of the Union of Concerned Scientists – began a cultural sea change in how institutions like MIT balanced the need to perform national defense research with larger political and societal questions.

In the fourth and final installment of Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, an examination of gender issues regarding MIT faculty and a summary.


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This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From its founding by William Barton Rogers in 1861, MIT’s prominence as an institution for educating the world’s foremost scientists, engineers, economists and entrepreneurs is unquestioned; though along the way it has experienced numerous challenges – commencing with its founding, its mission and at more than one juncture, its very independence.  But throughout its existence, faithfulness to its motto, “Mens et Manus” (Mind and Hand) has embodied its core philosophy.

In the late 1960s, the War in Vietnam presented a serious dilemma for the Institute, whose “Special Laboratories” (those entities that were engaged in military research and development) provided the flashpoint for vigorous student protests – both peaceful and violent. These entities, such as Lincoln Laboratory and the Instrumentation Laboratory, brought in significant amounts of public and private investment for the Institute, but were pilloried by many for their contribution to the war effort. The administration’s handling of this contentious period would alter the direction of the Institute to this day.

The musical group The Grateful Dead performing at MIT in 1970, at the height of anti-Vietnam War protests on the campus. Courtesy, MIT Museum

Editor David Kaiser, in his Introduction to Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, notes that among its distinguished alumni are fifty Nobel laureates, thirty-three MacArthur “genius award” fellows, and four Pulitzer Prize-winners. But arguably just as provocative has been MIT’s approach to broader trends within education and how it’s studied its own history in order to determine how the Institute will tackle future challenges and opportunities. The history of MIT is in so many ways intertwined with the history of high tech that it deserves the kind of lucid and authoritative narrative Kaiser and his fellow technology historians such as Merritt Roe Smith, Christophe Lécuyer and Deborah Douglas provide. Though each has had a relationship of varying extent with MIT, the book is very even-handed in its analysis and for that its editor deserves high praise. The book is a centerpiece of the Institute’s sesquicentennial celebrations, which are presently being held on its campus throughout 2011.

Alexander Graham Bell used MIT’s physics laboratory in the 1870s, and during the decades of the mid 20th century was a pioneer in diverse fields such as information theory, cybernetics and artificial intelligence. They were innovators in the development of silicon chips, digital computation and time-shared computing. And the Internet, along with many of its important components, including encryption technology, has strong ties to MIT.

In aeronautics, MIT students’ experiments with wind tunnels predated those of the Wright brothers, and Charles Stark Draper (the namesake of Cambridge’s Draper Laboratories) and his crew later designed the guidance and navigation systems for both ballistic missiles and the Apollo moon landing crafts. Additionally, several of MIT’s alumni have served in top positions at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

During the 1970s, MIT’s efforts in the “war on cancer” paved the way for the now extensive biotechnology industry, and more recently, MIT scientists headed the “Human Genome Project.” Such advances have been followed by significant private investment and financing, which in turn has resulted in numerous industry-leading facilities on the MIT campus – including the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Karl Taylor Compton, MIT president (1930-1948). Courtesy, MIT.

MIT has been at the forefront of such disciplines as economics, human cognition and behavior, media studies. And likewise, it has been a leader in formulating and implementing science policy. Several of MIT’s presidents, such as Karl Compton in the 1940s and more recently, President Emeritus Charles M. Vest, have served in advisory capacities with federal agencies and for U.S. presidents. In this and many other ways, the vision of the Institute’s founder, William Barton Rogers, has been fulfilled. The establishment of a laboratory-based system of instruction that employed training in the natural sciences paired with practical application has made it a model for science teaching throughout the world.

More complex – and at times, troubling – has been MIT’s historic partnerships with private industry. From the turn of the 19th/20th century and the Institute’s collaboration with defense firms, MIT has secured defense contracts which dwarfed its academic rivals; but this has also resulted in internal and external criticism. The latter was more than evident during Vietnam; but the former originated with its own faculty, who while appreciating the facilities and security private investment could provide, were similarly appreciative of how industry constricted academic freedom to both publish findings and collaborate with other colleagues.

Richard Cockburn Maclaurin, MIT president (1909-1920). Courtesy, MIT.

President Richard C. Maclaurin (1909-1920) in initiating his so-called “Tech Plan”, was well-intentioned, but was also a prime originator of this tension. His successor, Karl Compton, who ironically served as a board member at American Research and Development Corporation (the first public venture capital company), worked hard to mediate this antagonism – attempting to maintain autonomy for the Institute while still cultivating patronage from private industry.

(Next in Part 2: The founding of MIT, and Harvard as rival, doppelgänger, and for a brief moment, degree-conferring partner).

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