This story goes back to the early 1940s. My favorite teacher at MIT (“Memorable Mentors,” MIT News, May 2005) was Professor Frederick Morris, a tall and distinguished-looking elderly professor who moved about campus on extra-long crutches that permitted him to swing as he walked at a rate that no student could keep pace with. Professor Morris was a professor of geology and also the mentor of the honorary engineering fraternity Tau Beta Pi.
When World War II broke out, he initiated a course titled Topography in a World at War. In class he would analyze the effect of topographic features on the movement of the contending armies so that we obtained a remarkable perspective on the military actions taking place. I was in the midst of a Course X crash program at the time but managed to fit his classes in by forgoing lunch three days a week.
Professor Morris did another very special thing. He and his wife, Florence, lived in one of the apartment buildings on Memorial Drive. Every several weeks they would invite six or eight students to their apartment for dinner. They had spent their honeymoon in the Gobi Desert. The meals were always Chinese and had to be eaten with chopsticks, which I had never encountered before and found oftentimes very frustrating. The dinner discussions were always focused on abstract questions, such as “What would our society be like if man had descended from the cat family instead of the ape family?”
In those days professors were required to retire when they hit the ripe old age of 65! My classmates and I were extremely disappointed when that happened to Professor Morris. Many years later, however, after serving an extended stint in the U.S. Navy, returning to MIT for a master’s degree, moving to New York, and getting married, I looked up and subsequently visited Professor and Mrs. Morris. They were then living in Tuscaloosa, AL, and he was teaching army officers the art of arctic and desert warfare–a marvelous use of his vast knowledge of those extreme environments.
I managed to round out my memories of Professor Morris in 1989 by spending a week in the Gobi Desert (a huge, fascinating arena), having stopped in Beijing on my way and found myself at Tiananmen Square during the action there.
Ray Frankel ‘43, MS ‘47
Los Angeles, CA
The House of the Future’s Past
Thank you for reminding us of MIT’s contributions to Monsanto’s house of the future (“The House of the Future That Wasn’t,” MIT News, January 2005). Indeed, I believe the project represents very well the history of MIT and innovation, even more, perhaps, than your brief story could tell. I marvel at the original concept for the house, and it continues to testify to the creativity of architects Marvin Goody ‘51 and Richard Hamilton.
Missing from your story, however, and possibly missing too from the available records, is the parallel story of the house’s engineering. At the time, Frank Heger ‘48, SM ‘49, ScD ‘62, was an assistant professor in the Department of Building Engineering and Construction. With support in materials science from Fred McGarry ‘50, SM ‘53, then a graduate student in Frank’s department and now a professor emeritus of MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Professor Heger did the structural engineering that made Monsanto’s house of the future possible. Fred McGarry tested various combinations of glass fiber and resin, eventually developing the combination used for the structure. The late Professor Albert Dietz ‘32, SM ‘36, ScD ‘41, who served in three different MIT departments, was an overall consultant to the project. Later, Professor Heger collaborated to engineer the first large-scale realization of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. The result was the U.S. Pavilion at Expo ‘67 in Montreal. Disney’s Epcot Center has another, later realization of Fuller’s design, the sphere that houses the ride Spaceship Earth.
I believe that the quiet and frequently uncredited work of the Institute’s many talented engineers and scientists has provided the technical support necessary to realize many dreams and visions. Professor Heger’s work on the Monsanto house is part of a larger legacy of backroom work, a legacy that should serve always to inspire members of the MIT community.
This is not simply a community filled with prominent, visionary people. As this example demonstrates, it also includes people with the analytical and design skills to understand and interpret new visions, and others with the technical and scientific skills to develop new materials. Professor Frank Heger died in June 2003. His professional life was devoted to engineering and consulting, and he should be recognized for how well he represented that portion of the MIT community that continues to work behind the scenes and behind the headlines to make others’ dreams come true.