Posts Tagged ‘MIT’

Pi Day is an annual celebration that takes place on March 14th (3/14) — since 3, 1 and 4 are the three most significant digits of π in the decimal form — around the world.  The first official celebration of Pi Day was organized by physicist, Larry Shaw, in 1988with staff and public marching around one of its circular spaces, then consuming fruit pies. In 2009, the United States House of Representatives supported the designation of Pi Day.

What is Pi?


Pi (Greek letter “π”) is the symbol used in mathematics to represent a constant — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159.  It has been represented by the Greek letter “π” since the mid-18th century, though it is also sometimes written as pi.  The calculation of π was revolutionized by the development of infinite series techniques in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Infinite series allowed mathematicians to compute π with much greater precision than Archimedes and others who used geometrical techniques.   Although infinite series were exploited for π most notably by European mathematicians such as James Gregory and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the approach was first discovered in India sometime between 1400 and 1500 AD.  

How is Pi Day Celebrated?

My office celebrated Pi Day today by holding a pie contest.  Over 25 employees and contractors each brought in a pie and all staff was called down to the cafeteria to have a slice.

  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has often mailed its application decision letters to prospective students for delivery on Pi Day.  Starting in 2012, MIT has announced it will post those decisions (privately) online on Pi Day at exactly 6:28 pm, which they have called “Tau Time”, to honor the rival numbers Pi and Tau equally.
  • The town of Princeton, New Jersey (and home to Princeton University,) hosts numerous events in a combined celebration of Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday, which is also March 14.  Einstein lived in Princeton for more than twenty years while working at the Institute for Advanced Study. In addition to pie eating and recitation contests, there is an annual Einstein look-alike contest.
  • Google had it’s own Pi Day doodle posted on the site in 2010.
  • National Public Radio created a Pi Day rap video in 2010.

In case you missed the celebration, mark you calendar now for Pi Approximation Day on July 22 (or 22/7 in day/month date format), since the fraction 227 is a common approximation of π.  Maybe you can share a fraction of a pie with a friend.

— Carole Gunst


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Jean-Claude Halgand, "Surf III," courtesy, Boston Globe

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of what came to be known as the New Tendencies movement of computer art. As has been previously noted here at High Tech History, the earliest iterations of computers adopted a monolithic, emotionless, almost Bauhaus-ian severity that emphasized simplicity over complexity, function over form, and utility over creativity. But it would be short-sighted to believe that computers were not capable of great feats of artistry and even humanity.

With regard to the latter of those anthropomorphic attributes, and the powerful human responses they can engender, author and MIT professor Sherry Turkle noted in her recent book, Alone Together:

“My first brush with a computer program that offered companionship was in the mid-1970s. I was among MIT students using Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA, a program that engaged in dialogue in the style of a psychotherapist … Weizenbaum’s students knew that the program did not know or understand; nevertheless, they wanted to chat with it. More than this, they wanted to be alone with it. They wanted to tell it their secrets.”

Computers were also capable of creating inventive and absorbing games, such as “Spacewar” that MIT students devised with Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1 mainframe. And in what was the first instance of interactive gaming, the PDP-1 was engaged to play a game of “Kalah” – where Harlan Anderson, the co-founder of Digital, operated a terminal in California, and through a primitive “modem,” played with his colleague, Alan Kotok, seated at an identical computer in Maynard, Massachusetts, where Digital was based.

As in these cases, art was also an area of considerable interest for creatively-inclined computer engineers. The so-called “New Tendencies” movement was a short but intense artistic experiment that took place in Yugoslavia fifty years ago but has been influential far beyond that time and place in the intersection of computers in art. With an exhibition mounted by Matko Mestrovic at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Zagreb, Yugoslavia in 1961, the New Tendencies movement advocated strongly that the “thinking machine” was adopted as an artistic tool and medium. Pursuing the idea of “art as visual research,” the New Tendencies movement embraced the medium of computer-generated graphics, film, and sculpture.

MIT Press' new book on the New Tendencies movement in computer art. Courtesy, MIT Press.

This pioneering work has now been strikingly displayed and chronicled in a new tome published by MIT Press: A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International, 1961-1973, edited by Margit Rosen. The book includes new essays by Jerko Denegri, Darko Fritz, Margit Rosen, and Peter Weibel; many texts that were first published in New Tendencies exhibition catalogs and Bit International magazine; and historic documents. Including more than 650 black-and-white and color illustrations, this book offers testimony to both the exhibited artworks and the movement’s protagonists. Many of the historic photographs, translations, and documents are published here for the first time. Bit International magazine, the chief chronicler of this phenomenon, was a beneficiary of the participation of computer enthusiasts from the farthest reaches of the western and eastern hemispheres. And after only a few years, images from New Tendencies started to find their way into landmark exhibitions at museums such as the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Dushko Petrovich. Courtesy, GregCookLand.com

Though nowadays it is commonplace, at the time this movement began in 1961, computers were typically in university, corporate, and military domains; so for such an innovative and seemingly incongruous use for computer technology to arise was a monumental achievement, by any stretch of the imagination. And the power of these machines to evoke emotional and other very human responses through artistic expression is compelling, wondrous and dramatic. And writing in the Boston Globe, Dushko Petrovich, a painter and critic who teaches at Boston University, notes: “Peering into the age before computers is already tricky enough, but the New Tendencies art shows us something more disorienting: a time when the computer offered total respite from the political, the commercial, the social, and the everyday.” And MIT Press concludes about their publication on New Tendencies, “Taken together, the images and texts offer the long overdue history of the New Tendencies experiment and its impact on the art of the twentieth century.”

-Chris Hartman

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Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen’s “Mechanical Turk,” an elaborate hoax. Courtesy, GearLog.com

An “elaborate hoax”

In 1769 the Hungarian-born engineer Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804) built a chess playing machine for the amusement of the Austrian Queen Maria Theresa. It was a purely mechanical device – a chess-playing automaton later revealed to be a hoax. Its outstanding aptitude, it was later revealed, originated from a man hidden inside the device. Interestingly, it was described in an essay by Edgar Allan Poe, “Maelzel’s Chess-Player.”

In March of 1949, Claude Shannon (1916-2001), a research worker at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey described how to program a computer to play chess based on position scoring and move selection.  He proposed basic strategies for restricting the number of possibilities to be considered in a game of chess. In 1950, Shannon devised a chess playing program that appeared in the paper “Programming a computer for playing chess” published in Philosophical Magazine, March 1950. This was the first article on computer chess.

In 1950, Alan Turing (1912-1954) wrote the first computer chess program.  The same year he proposed the Turing Test that in time, a computer could be programmed (such as playing chess) to acquire abilities rivaling human intelligence.  If a human did not see the other human or computer during an imitation game such as chess, he/she would not know the difference between the human and the computer.

In 1951, Turing tried to implement his “Turbochamp” program on the Ferranti Mark I computer at Manchester University.  He never completed the task.  However, his colleague, Dr. Dietrich Prinz (born 1903), wrote a chess playing computer program for the Ferranti computer that solved simple mates-in-two moves.  The first program ran in November, 1951.  The program would examine every possible move until a solution was found.  It took about fifteen minutes to solve a mate in two moves.

In 1946 the Hungarian/American mathematician John von Neumann was given the task of designing a powerful calculation machine to speed up the task. In 1950 a giant machine called MANIAC I was delivered. It was filled with thousands of vacuum tubes and switches and could execute 10,000 instructions per second. It was also programmable.

By 1956, Univac’s MANIAC I computer was capable of playing chess using a 6″x6″ chessboard.  This was the first documented account of a running chess program. It used a chess set without bishops.  It took twelve minutes to search four moves deep.  Adding the two bishops would have taken three hours to search four moves deep. MANIAC I was programmed by Stan Ulam who designed the Hydrogen bomb with Edward Teller.

In 1957, Alex Bernstein, an IBM employee, created the first really complete chess program. With three colleagues, Bernstein created a chess program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  It ran on an IBM 704, one of the last vacuum tube computers.  It took about eight minutes to make a move. International Master Edward Lasker played the program, easily defeating it, but he commented that it played a ‘passable amateur game.’

In 1958, Allen Newell (1927-1992), Herbert Simon and Cliff Shaw developed the chess program CP-1 at Carnegie-Mellon.  It was the first chess program to be written in a high-level language and took about an hour to make a move.  Their NSS (Newell, Simon, Shaw) program combined algorithms that searched for good moves with heuristics (rules of thumb for making a move) that captured well-known chess strategies.  The NSS chess program ran on a JOHNNIAC computer.

Artificial intelligence in computer chess

In 1962, the first chess program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was written.  It was the first chess program that played chess credibly.  It was chiefly written by Alan Kotok (1942-2006), assisted by John McCarthy (father of artificial intelligence) of MIT. The program ran on an IBM 7090, and was able to beat chess beginners. Kotok went on to become one of DEC’s leading computer designers (chief architect of the PDP-10), and created the first video game (Spacewar!) and the gaming joystick.

In 1965, McCarthy, who had been at Stanford University since 1962, visited the Soviet Union.  There, a group at the Moscow Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics (ITEP), led by Alexander Kronrod, challenged his chess program to a match with their own, later called KAISSA.  A match was held over nine months in 1966-67.  The Kotok-McCarthy program lost the match 3-1.  The Soviet chess program ran on an M-20 computer. 

MacHack (Mac Hack or Mac Hac) was a computer chess program written by Richard Greenblatt, an MIT expert in artificial intelligence, with Donald Eastlake, in the 1960s. MacHack VI was the first chess program to play in human tournaments.  It was also the first to be granted a chess rating, and the first to draw and win against a person in tournament play. Its name came from Project MAC (Multilevel Access Computer or Machine-Aided Cognition), which was a research project located at MIT.  The number VI refers to the DEC PDP-6 for which it was written.  DEC built the PDP-6 and gave the first prototype to Project MAC. 

Greenblatt added fifty heuristics to an older chess program written by Kotok.  MacHack was written in MIDAS macro assembly language on the PDP-6 computer that DEC donated to MIT.  Greenblatt wrote the chess program using only 16K of memory for the PDP-6 computer.  It evaluated about ten positions per second. Greenblatt was offered a B.S. degree from MIT if he would write a thesis about his chess program.  He never did write his thesis. Greenblatt later founded Lisp Machine, Inc., and is considered one of the founders of the hacker community.

On January 21-23, 1967, MacHack VI played in the Massachusetts Amateur Championship in Boston.  It was the first time an electronic computer played chess against human beings under regular tournament conditions.  The computer played all five rounds and ended up with a score of 0.5-4.5, one draw.  By the end of the year, it had played in four chess tournaments. It won 3 games, lost 12, and drew 3.  In 1967 MacHack VI was made an honorary member of the US Chess Federation.  The MacHack program was the first widely distributed chess program, running on many of the PDP machines.  It was also the first to have an opening chess book programmed with it.

Later, MacHack was available on all PDP-10 computers (400,000 instructions per second).  A version was made available on many time-sharing computer services using DEC PDP series computers.  This led to a rapid proliferation of chess programs.  Within three years of MacHack VI’s debut, at least eight new programs appeared.  This led to the first tournament for computer programs in 1970.  MacHack remained active in chess competitions through 1972.

Sargon Computer Chess

The original SARGON was written by Dan and Kathleen ‘Kathe’ Spracklen in a Z80-based computer called Wavemate Jupiter III using assembly language through TDL Macro Assembler.

The name “Sargon” was taken from either of the historical kings Sargon of Akkad (the first king to use his empire to try to conquer the known world) or Sargon of Assyria. (Ironically, neither ruler would have been able to play chess since it was not invented until long after their reigns.) One other possibility is that it was taken from a character in the original Star Trek series. The name was originally written entirely in capitals because early computer operating systems such as CP/M did not support lower-case file names.

SARGON was introduced at the 1978 West Coast Computer Faire, where it won the first computer chess tournament held strictly for microcomputers. This success encouraged the authors to seek financial income by selling the program directly to customers. Since magnetic media were not widely available at the time, the authors placed an advert in Byte Magazine and mailed photocopied listings that would work in any Z80-based microcomputer. Later they were contacted by Hayden Books and a book was published.

In 1985, three doctoral students created the chess-playing program Chiptest. This would develop into Deep Thought, a program that shared first place with Grandmaster Tony Miles in the 1988 U.S. Open championship and defeated the brilliant sixteen year-old Grandmaster Judit Polgar in 1993 in a thirty-minute game.

Deep Blue

In May of 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue, a chess program running on a high-powered computer, defeated world champion Gary Kasparov in a six-game series. The computer was designed to consider several billion possibilities at once. But it also uses a series of complicated formulae that take into consideration the state of the game. These formulae, among other factors, weigh the relative material value of pieces (e.g. queens are more useful than knights) and position (e.g. can you attack more squares than your opponent?), safety of the king and the pace of the game.

Deep Blue also kept a record of several past matches to see how it could make best use of what was available. Kasparov found this out – the hard way. On the other hand, when he played some unorthodox moves, he had the computer totally flustered.


“Mastering the Game: A History of Computer Chess” Computer History Museum, current exhibition.

“MacAttack” Chess.com, May 13, 2008.

“IBM Deep Blue vs. Gary Kasparov,” Quantum Gambits, Ocbober 8, 2009.

Friedel, Frederick: “A Short History of Computer Chess.” Chessbase. N.d.

Surendran, Dinoj. “A Brief History of Computer Chess.” Zimaths, Vol. 2, Issue 1, October, 1996.

IBM Deep Blue website.

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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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William Barton Rogers (1804-1882), the son of a College of William and Mary professor who himself later matriculated (and taught) there, concentrated in the study of geology. Later, as a geologist at the University of Virginia, Rogers was engaged to prepare a geologic survey of the commonwealth, but after an unpleasant experience where competing political interests attempted to taint his study, he moved to Boston in 1853. However, this was not the only reason for his leaving. He had already met and fell in love with a Boston woman, Emma Savage, and his brother Henry had moved there in 1844.

William and Henry had corresponded about the idea of creating a “Polytechnic School of the Useful Arts,” and William further discussed the matter with a confidante, John Amory Lowell, son of the famous textile manufacturer. In 1859, Rogers joined a group interested in petitioning the state legislature for land for an institute of technology in Boston’s Back Bay. Due to Rogers’ tireless lobbying, the proposal passed the legislature and was signed by Gov. John A. Andrew on April 10, 1861.

William Barton Rogers (1804-1882), founder of MIT

Two days later, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, so the timing was both ominous and propitious.

Though MIT was founded as and remains a private institution, state support was critical to its early development. The Civil War was going poorly in its early years, so raising private capital was extraordinarily difficult. A lifeline came when President Lincoln signed the “Morrill Land Grant Act” in July of 1862. 30,000 acres of land for each congressman in a state was permitted to be sold – conditional on either a mechanical or agricultural college being created. In lobbying Gov. Andrew, Rogers was able to secure 1/3 of the land grant income for MIT – making them one of the first “land grant” colleges in the nation. This netted them approximately $200,000 between 1865 and 1900.

Francis H. Storer established the first laboratory at the Institute in 1867, concentrating in chemistry. In 1869, Assistant Professor Edward C. Pickering established the first physics lab, which proved an outstanding success. And under the supervision of Boston architect William R. Ware, a Department of Architecture was soon created.

Although “plagued by chronic financial problems,” the Institute grew from fifteen students in 1865 to three hundred by 1881. The three presidents who had steered MIT during this critical period: Rogers, John D. Runkle and Francis Amasa Walker, each possessed critical skills for cultivating both public and private support.

Harvard and questions of both cooperation and independence

MIT professor Bruce Sinclair writes in Becoming MIT that MIT and Harvard had histories that were “tangled in strange and interesting ways.” In fact, during 1914 and 1917, they graduated engineering students with joint degrees. Charles W. Eliot, Harvard’s president from 1869-1909, proposed merging the two institutions no fewer than three times. Eliot himself had taught chemistry at MIT. Looking at technical schools such as the Sheffield Scientific School allied with Yale, or Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School, it was evident that even association of a technical school with an established universities was not in itself the answer to a “well-rounded” education. However, Eliot believed that MIT provided the ideal form of technical education. His “fusion schemes” always seem to have the latent idea that engineering might become a professional course of study – like law or medicine.

If Eliot were a champion of merging, then the Lawrence School’s dean, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler was anything but. In an August, 1893 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, he employed age-old prejudices about “trade” schools, invoked “academic culture” and asserted that in its ability to incorporate applied science training and a liberal arts education under one roof, Harvard had shown the way to eliminate “prejudices of caste.” Though MIT was not mentioned by name in the article, it was clear that they were the target of Shaler’s attack.

In reply, MIT’s president Walker was emphatic in his assertion that if technical schools under the umbrella of universities were so superior, how was it that the Lawrence School had such an unfortunate history? Walker then went on to contrast the aimlessness and frivolity of the college lifestyle with the industry of technical students. Walker’s systematic dismantling of Shaler’s shallow argument did much to hearten the faithful at MIT; but still there was to be no partnership with Harvard. Shaler, it was widely believed, had written his Atlantic article to persuade a large donor, Gordon McKay – himself a self-made inventor and manufacturer – to add financial ballast to Harvard’s technical program, and thereby discourage Eliot’s efforts to partner with MIT.

In 1905, Henry Pritchett, MIT’s fifth president, made yet another overture. It seems to have been fueled by McKay’s gift to Harvard. Pritchett was concerned about having a serious challenge to their Institute springing up practically next door – better financed, better housed, better equipped, better staffed, and therefore able to draw the best technical students away from MIT. Not only that, there were technical schools springing up in the American Midwest and West that could also draw on MIT’s talent pool.

The 1905 merger proposal was accelerated by financial realities. As of 1903, MIT’s balance sheet showed a deficit of $34,000, and their Back Bay property was appreciating in value. John Ripley Freeman, an 1876 graduate of MIT and self-made hydraulic engineer who was working toward a union of the schools, spearheaded the damming of the Charles, which was hoped would lend the bucolic appearance of Oxford and Cambridge. Though there was a very vocal minority who opposed the union, Presidents Eliot and Pritchett aggressively pursued a complex negotiation for their partnership. However, in the end, it was a legal roadblock that scuttled this. A donor to MIT had given Back Bay property for MIT’s facility; but this was a restricted gift, which could not be sold. This resulted in MIT’s Pritchard resigning and taking a position with the Carnegie Foundation.

George Eastman (1854-1932)

Enter President Robert C. Mclaurin, a New Zealander and Columbia-trained physicist who, in addition to his superior fundraising skills was artful in diplomacy, forged a new alliance with Harvard’s Eliot and also secured funding in the tens of millions of dollars from, among others, George Eastman, which facilitated MIT’s moving from Boston to Cambridge in 1916. Mclaurin, in discussing MIT’s collaborations with Harvard, emphasized the Institute’s desire to be a great national school based on natural science. Mclaurin was so successful in his aims, in fact, that when courts ruled in 1917 that yet another attempt to bring Harvard and MIT together would violate the terms of McKay’s will, it barely caused a stir. Future collaborations between the schools would be of the organic kind Eliot and Rogers had imagined: cooperation arising out of circumstances that would reinforce the basic character of each institution.

The seal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with their motto, "Mens et Manus" (Mind and Hand)

(Next in Part 3: MIT goes to war, “war” on the MIT campus, MIT and the military-industrial complex, gender issues, and the making of a great knowledge center.)

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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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