"The Founding of MIT: Persistence of Vision” - MIT150 Documentary (2011)

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PRESENTER: Today's Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a world class center for teaching and research. Faculty, students, and researchers are united in their goal to advance the frontiers of knowledge and solve contemporary real world problems, following the vision laid out for MIT 150 years ago. But the place itself has certainly evolved and flourished since those early days.


It's hard to imagine how much the scientific landscape has changed from when founder William Barton Rogers first started thinking about a new kind of Polytechnic Institute.


DOUGLAS: William Barton Rogers was born at the beginning of the 19th century. And that marks the beginning of an extraordinary time in US history. It's really the transition that we're going to witness over a century from an agrarian rural country into an urban and industrial country.


SMITH: We're beginning to see the emergence of large cities, factories, railroads, canals, all the early instruments of big-time industry in the United States.

MINDELL: There's surveying involved, there's mechanical engineering, there's geology, there's all kinds of civil engineering.

DOUGLAS: The sense of possibility of what this new technology would mean for the country was very much in Roger's mind.


PRESENTER: William Barton Rogers had a lifelong interest in education. And by 1835, he's a professor at the University of Virginia. He soon signs on to lead a geological survey for the state. Though he loves the project, he has a big problem finding qualified workers.

DOUGLAS: Roger's inability to hire workers for his survey that combines scientific knowledge and the ability to use technical apparatus was a great problem to his way of thinking. He wasn't the only person that needed an individual with that skill. The world was filled with new industries, and they all needed people that combined smarts and skill.

PRESENTER: Eventually, Rogers decides to leave behind the frustrations and political turmoil he's encountered in Virginia's slave society and moved north to the vibrant city of Boston.

SMITH: Boston was one of the leading commercial centers of the country. And the area surrounding Boston was, without question, the most developed industrially of any state in the Union.

ALLISON: There probably was not an American city that had more of a need for engineers than Boston. The city itself was being transformed by one of the greatest engineering projects of the 19th century, the filling in of the Back Bay.

SMITH: And then you have these reform movements, temperance movements, pacifist movements, and of course, the famous antislavery abolitionist movement-- this was the place. Boston was so radical in its reform spirit.

ALLISON: The wealth generated by all of this industry, Bostonians put into various philanthropic enterprises and [? down ?] schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, various institutions, which benefit the broader community.

SMITH: Rogers writes in his memoirs how much he likes these so-called enterprising spirit, and even uses the word, "knowledge seeking spirit" of this area.


PRESENTER: For decades, Rogers had been talking with his brother, Henry, about a new kind of Polytechnic institution.

MINDELL: At the time, the ideals of science really focused on fundamental principles, somewhat disconnected from the real problems of industry and the people who worked in industry.

SMITH: They began thinking about how to incorporate science into what they referred to as the useful arts. Today, we would call that technology.

ALLISON: It's a revolutionary idea that someone will go to school to get training to become an architect, an engineer, or a scientist. These are typically occupations that people would learn by doing.

DOUGLAS: This was experimental from the get-go. Even the word technology was new at that time.

KAISER: He wanted students who had a grasp of human nature, of basic sciences, of mathematics far beyond the requirements for making this or that machine work. He wanted to train students who would be able to guide the nation through industrialization, not just build the widgets.


MINDELL: Different players are coming together, trying to bring a bunch of different scientific and practical institutions together. And Rogers proves very skilled at taking that set of people and orienting their ideas toward his proposal.

DOUGLAS: They knew it was going to be in Boston, and the land in Back Bay was the place to put it. So they were going to have to convince the Massachusetts state legislature that not only was the school worth establishing, but that it was worth designating a piece of land for.

MINDELL: The proposal was bought to the state of Massachusetts. And the first step is to essentially incorporate it as a state corporation. And that's what we celebrate on the founding day of April 10, 1861, when the governor finally signs the MIT charter.





DOUGLAS: Just two days after MIT's founding on April 10 in 1861, the first shots are fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. And with the start of the Civil War, it meant that classes at MIT could not start right away. This proved fortuitous for MIT because it allowed them the opportunity to raise additional funds to acquire the land to start construction to hire faculty.


ALLISON: One can imagine that when Rogers tried to raise money, it's war time and energies are being devoted to other things. Yet, on the other hand, if we have optimism about the outcome of the war, we can see the necessity for young men and women to become engineers and scientists to be able to solve these other problems.

MINDELL: When the moral act is passed in Washington in 1862, it grants every state some land that then they can either use or sell to found an agricultural or mechanical institution.

DOUGLAS: Rogers and his colleagues won support from the state legislature that a portion of the funds from the Land-Grant Act would be dedicated to this new school, assuming that they could raise the other funds successfully. And then they had to go out house by house, factory to factory, and convince people one at a time to donate funds to support this enterprise.


PRESENTER: As the war is ending in 1865, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology holds its first classes in rented space in downtown Boston's Mercantile Building, while constructing its own buildings near Copley Square. Rogers' vision for a new kind of education with its emphasis on hands on learning made it crucial to establish cutting edge laboratories.

KAISER: Rogers had a very strong reaction against what he considered rote learning. And so from the beginning, MIT was a great innovator in getting laboratory work right down to the earliest levels of the curriculum. Entry undergraduate students would be entitled to do a lot of work in the laboratories with their own hands, not just seeing something else demonstrate some effect.

DOUGLAS: Rogers needed faculty who were going to be willing to invent a new kind of curriculum, that they were going to have to cobble together for the first time ever laboratory exercises.

SMITH: He allowed his professors to basically experiment with it, tinker with it, adjusts it, and build the program. I think of pickering in physics, for example, Professor Storer, who was one of the early chemists at MIT. And both of them become very famous. And they're producing textbooks to accompany the lab-oriented educational process.

MINDELL: If you look at the curriculum offered in that very first set of classes at MIT in 1865, it looks a lot like what we call the GIRs today-- the General Institute Requirements-- that still, every freshman has to take-- mathematics, chemistry, physics. Those were all required at MIT from day one.

KAISER: There was an emphasis on combining basic science with applied things in the field. Students took field trips to all kinds of working places, where with the technological world was being built. And Barton Rogers wanted all that right in the curriculum for his undergraduates, right from the start.


PRESENTER: As a young startup, MIT had its share of hurdles-- ongoing money troubles, takeover attempts by neighboring Harvard. But with every passing year with every successful student who went on to make his or her mark in the world, MIT's reputation grew and the school's standing became more and more secure. By 1894, President Francis Amasa Walker was able to declare in his annual report that the battle of the new education is won. Proclaiming that the influence of MIT and its innovative ways are now recognized far and wide.

HASTINGS: In the early years, the MIT way of doing business with a great deal of emphasis on hands on and doing things in reality contrasted very substantially with a more classically oriented education. With today, even for those institutions, which are more classically oriented liberal arts, they have moved actually towards MIT.


PRESENTER: By the time operations moved across the Charles to the brand new Cambridge campus in 1916, MIT's ongoing future seemed assured. Over the decades, the roadmap Rogers laid out for his school has proved flexible enough to stay true to his founding ideals, while incorporating new fields as they emerge.

SMITH: There have been a lot of continuities in the history of MIT, especially around the type of curriculum that students are required to follow. There's surely a greater range of choice today, but the emphasis on combining science with practice is still an important dimension of what is happening around the Institute today.

HASTINGS: That idea of mind and hands-- Mens et Manus-- that goes right back to the beginnings of MIT and its coincident with the idea that the learning takes place by doing, as well as just by seeing.

DOUGLAS: MIT today shows remarkable commitment to the original vision articulated by William Barton Rogers of a place that solves great problems, that educates students who have the capacity to be independent in their thinking. Those commitments are timeless and stretch across 150 years.