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.
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.
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.
(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.)