In October 1881, a few modest attempts having flared up and failed, a handful of MIT students decided it was time to get serious about starting a newspaper. Under the care of 10 editors (including representatives of each current class year) and a board of directors, the first issue of the Tech appeared on November 16.
“The Institute has never been rich in papers,” reads an introductory article from the first issue. “Although we tremble at the thought of the work before us, we begin it gladly. We believe the same public spirit that founded the tech will sustain it to the end.” Indeed, that spirit has sustained it. The Tech has become, as its tagline now reads, “MIT’s oldest and largest newspaper”–run entirely by students and, thanks to advertising revenue, financially independent.
Initially, the paper was 12 pages long and came out every other Wednesday; a copy cost 15 cents, an annual subscription two dollars. The paper provided coverage of campus and world news, but its general tone was one of charming amateurism. Cartoons and jokes adorned its pages, as did poems about such topics as “Janitor John.” The puns–for instance, “Professor: ‘Mention an oxide.’ Student: ‘Leather.’ Professor: ‘Oxide of what?’ Student: ‘Oxhide of beef, sir’ ”–were real groaners.
Yet the loose, tongue-in-cheek style of the paper gave students a way to playfully raise serious concerns. Complaints about campus fire hazards came up early on. In issue 5, the editors claimed that fire buckets were used to catch roof leaks instead of being left in their proper places. In the following issue, they added, “We have discovered still another use for the fire buckets. The architects are using one for a wash-basin.” In issue 8, a cartoon captioned “The only fire escape from the fifth story” showed troll-like creatures laboriously lowering themselves, by use of a pulley, in a giant basket.
The newspaper quickly became invaluable to an Institute still in its formative years. In issue 2, one writer earnestly pushed for a society to improve MIT students’ debating skills. “It is a notable feature of our graduation exercises that enunciation is very indistinct, and lack of confidence universally shown,” wrote T.B.C., who argued that “quickness and ready reply … are gained only in a stubborn debate, which being won, leaves one a step higher in self-confidence and forms the nucleus of the future successful man of the world.” In issue 5, the Tech reported that the Mechanical Debating Society had been founded in response to that piece.