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Gems from the Museum

MIT’s museum originally collected artifacts of teaching and research at the Institute. But today it offers some unusual bits of technological history you cant find anyplace else.
November 1, 2004

MIT has a museum?

Such was the surprised reaction of electrical engineer Dan Grunberg 82, SM 83, PhD 86, one weekend about 10 years ago, as he was looking for an interesting way to spend a Saturday afternoon with his wife and their two children. The whole family went to the MIT Museum soon after, and the kids loved it. The holograms and the Math Space, an area with puzzles, games, and books, fascinated them. It wasnt long before the Grunberg family became frequent visitors to the museum, which is known for its extensive collection of artifacts documenting the colorful history of science and technology at MIT. There are things there you just cant see anywhere else, Grunberg says.

Its not surprising that Grunberg had never heard of the museum; when he started his academic career at MIT, it didnt exist. Instead, the MIT Historical Collections functioned as an institutional archive. Its founding director, Warren Seamans HM, gathered materials used in teaching and research from the academic departments. The collection steadily grew in size and sophistication, and when Seamans garnered accreditation from the American Association of Museums in 1984, the museums statureand its claims on fundingimmediately jumped. It has been called the MIT Museum since 1980.

Unlike the Grunberg family, however, most alumni and students are barely aware of its existence. Of the museums 75,000 visitors last year, only about 20 percent had MIT connections, says acting director Mary Leen. The museum is now in the final year of a five-year plan to attract more visitors and to build awareness among alumni and the local community. A new faade and entry have made it easier to find, and inside there are new permanent exhibits that cover much of MITs history and a wide range of accomplishments. The museums public programs have also mushroomed. The best known is the Friday after Thanksgiving (FAT) chain reaction: participants build contraptions and then put them together to create a domino-like performance event.

Grunberg appreciated the museum enough to join its board of advisors, where he heads the membership committee, helps advise the museum on policies and procedures, and helps raise 40 percent of the annual budget. Grunberg delights in the unusual items in the collection and points proudly to the recent acquisition of nearly 600 slide rules and a radar tube from a German U-boat. Its a safe bet that few museums in the world can count such items among their holdings. TR brings you a selection of other gems from the museums collection.

The Pivotal Artifact

Its seldom that a single item in a museum collection so clearly represents the turning point in an institutions history, but theres no question that the cavity magnetron plays that role for MIT. When the palm-sized transmitter arrived in 1940, the Institute was a respected engineering school. By the end of World War II, that small instrument had turned MIT into the United States second-largest research and development operationafter the Manhattan Projectand its largest single wartime R&D contractor. By 1945, the Institute had become a renowned research machine, and it never looked back.

The British, who developed the magnetron, knew it could be the heart of a radar system that would help them track enemy planes and ships, but they did not have the research expertise or the industrial strength to develop its potential. So they sent one magnetron to the U.S., along with a group of researchers who began working with MIT engineers in the Radiation Laboratory, which was built solely to support radar development. By the end of the war, the lab had become a hothouse of creativity and interdisciplinary research. When it disbanded in 1945, a firmly entrenched ethos of national service existed at the Institute, as did the infrastructure to support future government research. Today MIT remains one of the countrys largest recipients of government-sponsored research contracts.

Photographing The Bomb at Impact

Electrical engineer Harold Doc Edgerton loved solving problems, particularly the problem of making the invisible visible through photography. When the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission came to MIT in 1946 and asked the Institute to take part in a classified experiment photographing an atomic explosion, Doc was ready to contribute his understanding of stop-action photography. But within a year, the Institute banned all classified research from campus, so Doc and two of his former students, Kenneth Germeshausen 31 and Herbert Grier 33, SM 34, formed the company EG&G to do the work. The camera they developed to photograph the blast sits in one corner of the museums permanent exhibit Flashes of Inspiration, which showcases Docs work.

EG&Gs black-and-white images were captured in less than a millionth of a second from the top of a 23-meter tower 11 kilometers from ground zero. In the book Stopping Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton, Estelle Jussim says Doc and his associates rigged a series of mirrors, telescopes, relay lenses, wire-fuse shutters, mechanical capping shutters, and other devices needed to accomplish their task. Unlike the more typical images of the mushroom cloud following an atomic blast, Docs pictures show the bizarre events of the first few microseconds after detonation, with a fireball that looks more like a balloon from outer space hovering just above the ground. Seeing the explosion unfold in minute detail helped physicists understand other aspects of the deadly weapon.

Fly Me to the Moon

To the eyes of a hobbyist, the museums Apollo Saturn V launch vehicle model might seem a bit rough around the edges, but it was never meant to win beauty contests. Instead, the 1:25 scale reproduction was intended to help presidents, congressmen, and scientists understand how NASA would put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.

Bob Seamans, SM 42, ScD 51 (a distant relative of museum founder Warren Seamans), was at the heart of Americas love affair with space exploration, first as associate administrator and then as deputy administrator of NASA in the 1960s. Shortly after President Kennedy set the goal in 1961 of going to the moon, NASA model makers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, built a handful of models of the proposed spacecraft that could be pulled apart for explanatory purposes. The wood, plastic, and metal models traveled around the country in wooden carrying cases that are now plastered with stickers, reminiscent of a 1930s suitcase. Seamans used these models to explain the program to Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The MIT Saturn V model may be the only one of those original models on public display in a museum. One of them was given to John F. Kennedy Jr. shortly after his father was assassinated. The others are believed to be held by NASA.

MITs involvement with the Apollo program went much further than Seamans. His mentor, Charles Stark Draper, won the contract to develop the missions guidance, navigation, and control systems at MITs Instrumentation Lab. That lab eventually spun off as the independent Draper Laboratory in Cambridge.

The Peruzzi Puzzle

The museums oldest drawing, an unsigned 16th-century architectural perspective rendering, has seen better days. In the candid words of the official museum description, the 86-by-53-centimeter piece has numerous folds, tears, losses, repairs, and graphite restitutions. Its edges are tattered, its stained, and it was missing a chunk at dead center that was later restored. There are numerous patches on the back side and inscriptions on both sides that may take years to attribute and understand. Theres also no clear understanding of the drawings purpose. It could be a sketch of some unknown building, a set design, a study for a religious panel, or a rendering used to teach architecture students the principles of perspective. But its faults and mysteries are also its fascination.

The elegant drawing was a 2003 gift from architect Hugh Shepley 59. If its attribution is correct, its also one of the few works by the Sienese architect Baldassare Perruzi in the United States. Historians, scientists, and architects are scrutinizing it to unravel its mysteries in time for an exhibition next fall. Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the drawing is the six layers of patch repairs that have turned its back into a palimpsest, one that fascinates Gary Van Zante, curator of the museums architecture and design collection. What you have is a collage that shows [the drawings] history, he says. Various types of paper were used to make patches that either reinforce or restore parts of the original. The scraps of paper appear to have come from architecture or art studios. Two patches bear the faint outline of a ground plan; another includes part of a letter to an unnamed patron. Tests are under way to date the various scraps of paper, the ink, and the glue that holds the patches in place.

While Van Zante focuses on the forensic aspects of the work, Richard Tuttle, a professor at Tulane specializing in 16th-century Italian architecture, is providing the historical text for the exhibition and trying to nail down the drawings origins. Clues point to Peruzzi, a papal architect and contemporary of Michelangelo and Raphael. Two inscriptions mention him, columns are drawn with the finesse for which he is known, and the faade of a 16th-century Bolognese building he designed looks remarkably like the one in the drawing. Tuttle describes Peruzzi as a master of perspective drawing, perhaps the best in the last 500 years, and the museums piece, he says, is a tour de force in the genre.

For centuries, the drawing most likely was used to teach students about architectural perspective. This fall it is teaching once again. Architecture assistant professor Larry Sass, SM 94, PhD 00, and graduate student M. Svea Heinemann are creating a three-dimensional model of the faade as it would have looked if it had been built. When you reconstruct a drawing, you start asking lots of questions that deal with the relationship between design and construction, says Sass. Constructing the model should reveal whether the drawing was intended as the plan for a real building. Sass also plans to have four Peruzzi historians review the model and, based on their knowledge of the architects work, fill in the details not shown in the drawing. Then four models representing the historians interpretations will be created.

Next years exhibit in the Wolk Gallery of the School of Architecture and Planning will mark the drawings first public presentation and will introduce it to a wider world of scholarly debate.

Saturday Morning Exercises

As the designated land grant institution for mechanical arts in Massachusetts, MIT was obliged to teach military tactics to its students. So every Saturday morning during the Institutes early years, students had to don waist-length wool jackets, one of which is on display in the museum, and devote several hours to military exercises. These exercises were the only university events that brought the entire student body together. Soon, however, students discovered their mutual interests outside of academics and formed sports teams and clubs and started the schools paper, the Tech. By the time MIT moved from Boston to Cambridge in 1916, it had developed its identity as a collegiate institution and established the foundation for the campus culture that exists today.

The Wizard of Bristol

Just about every day, curator Kurt Hasselbalch gets a call from a boat builder, yacht owner, model maker, or scholar requesting access to the Haffenreffer-Herreshoff Collection. The 13,500 construction drawings in the archive represent 93 percent of the steam and sailing yachts designed by the legendary Nathanael G. Herreshoff, a mechanical-engineering student at MIT in the late 1860s who became obsessed with building light, fast boats. The Herreshoff documents, a gift from Rudolph Haffenreffer 1895, are only a small part of a larger archive known as the Hart Nautical Collection. Although the Hart collection contains more than 100,000 yacht plans, Hasselbalch estimates that easily half of the calls he fields every year pertain to Herreshoff.

Captain Nat dominated the world of yacht design through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For nearly 40 years, Herreshoff designed and supervised the construction of every vessel built by Herreshoff Manufacturing of Bristol, RI, right down to the fittings. Generally acknowledged as a genius of the craft, the wizard of Bristol developed construction methods and fittings that are standard fare on sailing boats today. And his construction techniques were so sound that many of his sailboats are still in the water, regularly winning races.

Perhaps his greatest fame came from his Americas Cup winners. Five of his yachts successfully defended the cup six consecutive times between 1893 and 1920, a dominance of sailings most prestigious regatta that has never been duplicated. But it is Herreshoffs Reliance, the largest boat ever to defend the cup, that is most revered. The bronze and steel sloop that won the regatta in 1903 measured 43.6 meters. In the final race, it had built up so great a lead that its opponent, Shamrock III, withdrew without completing the course.

In 1997, the museum finished cataloguing the Haffenreffer-Herreshoff Collection in a database and moved the drawings to microfilm, making it easier to fulfill requests for plans. People from around the world use the drawings to restore original boats, build replicas, or create accurate scale models. Because the plans are so complete, its possible to exactly restore or replicate a boat even down to the rivets that hold it together.

With access to the archive simplified and interest in classic yachts growing, Hasselbalch expects even greater demand for the designs. Future plans include digitizing the drawings and linking them to the database to make it even easier to re-create a Herreshoff masterpiece.

Hot and Cold

Glass thermometers handmade and hand signed by French and German craftsmen were prized and necessary possessions of the physics department in the late 19th century. Every summer, when faculty members traveled to Europe, they purchased the instruments and carried them back to campus in individual brass, wood, or cardboard cases. Today, 50 of those mercury thermometers are among the few existing artifacts from the years MIT resided in Boston, 1865 to 1916. The Beckmann thermometer, a two-foot-long instrument that can be calibrated to measure temperatures within any range of five degrees Celsius, is considered the most accurate mercury thermometer ever made. Science and technology curator Debbie Douglas estimates that most of the thermometers in the collection were probably purchased in the 1880s and 90s.

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