On a foggy spring morning in 1868, Boston Harbor meets with catastrophe. Led off course by compasses mysteriously deranged, seven schooners and barks crash into one another and the piers of downtown Boston. “To the lifeboats!” is the order, as ships smash and sink to the sea floor.
The next week, all the glass on State Street’s office buildings suddenly melts away. Nobody can figure out how or why. The city trembles in fear of more of these bizarre attacks.
This is how Matthew Pearl begins his latest novel, The Technologists. Who can save Boston from devastation? The police consult Harvard University, which proves feckless. Just one group has the scientific skills to catch the culprit: the first students at the fledgling Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Pearl, author of the best-selling The Dante Club, has this time written a dramatized origin story for MIT. Among the heroes are William Barton Rogers, MIT’s founder, and students Robert Richards, Class of 1868, and his future wife, Ellen Swallow, Class of 1873—the Institute’s first female student and instructor, later a founder of environmental science and of home economics. The villains include faculty at Harvard and other troglodytes who oppose MIT’s grand experiment in teaching science by doing it.
In the book, these villains challenge the idea that MIT can help solve the mystery that began in the harbor; the “practically pagan” Institute is viewed with suspicion. “Technology will bring God’s wrath!” laborers shout. Louis Agassiz, the Harvard naturalist, criticizes Rogers for admitting “atheist machinists and the sons of farmers” to the Institute. “The knowledge of science in such individuals cannot fail to lead to quackery and dangerous social tendencies,” he fumes.
“When I started doing the research, one of the first things I came upon was the hostility that Harvard had toward the creation of MIT,” says Pearl, a 1997 Harvard grad. “And immediately I said, ‘Wow, I’ve got to do this.’”
Pearl breathes life into Ellen Swallow’s character by incorporating parts of her actual letters into her dialogue. Though he plays with the timing, the Ellen of the book reflects her real history: she is initially segregated from the male students and given separate lessons, and she comes across as a granite-hard New Englander determined to make her mark.
“The story is an underdog story, and MIT is an underdog,” Pearl says. “You don’t get a better underdog than Ellen, in terms of her completely unique situation.” When you picture her, a “young woman in this pretty large building, surrounded by men and kept stored away,” he says, “you really want to know, what was this like?”
Pearl says he hopes his novel will raise interest in the Institute’s early history. “My impression as an outsider to MIT is that the history of MIT is not very visible,” he says. “MIT is, and always was, oriented toward the future, and I don’t think sentimentality toward its own history is wired into it.”