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When freshman Yan Zhu flew from St. Louis back to Boston after winter break, she overheard two people bandying about seemingly random numbers a few rows in front of her seat. “Suddenly, I realized, ‘Wow, I know exactly what you’re talking about!’” she says–they were MIT students talking about classes. By then she was well versed in this unique number-speak. But even before she matriculated, she says, “I had heard about our numbering obsession through the Internet.” In fact, that “obsession”–MIT’s penchant for numbering classes, buildings, and “courses,” or majors–began when the Institute was just a fledgling school in the Back Bay.

In 1865, MIT offered six courses of study, each assigned a number: mechanical engineering (1), civil and topographical engineering (2), practical chemistry (3), geology and mining (4), building and architecture (5), and general science and literature (6). Over the years, course numbers have been added, deleted, or reassigned as the need arose. For example, when MIT separated the food technology program from the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering in 1945, the distinction was formalized a year later by assigning a new number, Course20. Food technology retained that numeric moniker as it morphed into nutrition and food science and, later, into applied biological sciences. When MIT discontinued the program in 1988, the number was retired for nearlytwo decades and then reassigned to biological engineering in 2006.

The practice of numbering buildings began when contractors Charles A. Stone and Edwin S. Webster, who had graduated from the Institute in 1888, drew up construction plans for the Cambridge campus that would be completed in 1916. Using numbers or letters for buildings was common among factories at the time, observes the MIT Museum’s science and technology curator, Deborah ­Douglas: “That’s part of industrialization–keeping track of numbers.” Stone and ­Webster identified each sector of the main building by number, assigning odd numbers to the left of the dome (as viewed from the Charles River) and even numbers to the right–a pattern that remains today on the main campus. (In fact, they numbered every piece of stone and equipment in each building.) The Institute embraced the idea from the start. “MIT anticipated the need for a numbering system,” says O. Robert Simha, MCP ‘57, a research affiliate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, who directed MIT’s planning office from 1960 to 2000. The practice of referring to spaces by building number followed by floor and room number was convenient and flexible; as buildings were added or interior spaces altered, the numbers could just be modified as needed.

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Credit: Courtesy of the MIT Archives

Tagged: Computing

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