Posts Tagged ‘William Barton Rogers’

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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