MIT is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its charter, which was granted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1861. But it did not actually open its doors to students until 1865 (hence the name of this column). In the intervening four years, the fate of the Institute—and the fate of country—hung in the balance.
William Barton Rogers had spent almost 30 years thinking about starting a technological institute (see “Speaking of Science,” p. M12). He tried in Philadelphia in the 1830s and again in Boston in the 1840s; both times he failed. In 1859, when Massachusetts announced it would release newly filled land in Boston’s Back Bay for educational and cultural purposes, his luck began to change. The next year—following two unsuccessful proposals for a “conservatory” housing societies of art, agriculture, industry, and natural history—he mobilized a broad base of allies and went to the state legislature with a plan for a Society of Arts, a Museum of Arts, and a School of Industrial Science. On April 10, 1861, the legislature granted MIT its charter.
Two days after the charter was signed, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter. Rogers knew that the country’s attention would be drawn toward the war, and young men would be enlisting for battle rather than enrolling in classes. What’s more, the commonwealth had made the release of Back Bay lands contingent on the establishment of a $100,000 endowment (approximately $2.5 million today) within one year. Rogers understood that the prospect of raising that much money during peacetime was difficult enough; with the war on, the dream of MIT grew dimmer by the month. As the deadline approached, Rogers and his circle had collected only a fraction of the required amount.
Rogers managed to persuade the state to grant a one-year extension, but the financial difficulties only increased, and soon new threats appeared. Eager to attract federal support for agricultural and mechanical studies through the Land Grant Act of 1862, Governor John Andrew and Louis Agassiz, the director of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, proposed to merge the university with the nascent MIT. Rogers would have none of it. “The institute had from the beginning determined to stand alone,” was his reply to Andrew, “that its independence was essential to its success, and that it would accept no grant … which should in the slightest particular interfere with this independence.” With that, the merger plan fizzled. But in preserving MIT’s autonomy, Rogers faced the very real possibility of losing it all.
By April 1863, with the one-year extension about to expire, MIT supporters had made no substantial progress toward raising the necessary funds. It looked as if Rogers’s gamble for independence wasn’t going to pay off. But just hours before the deadline, William J. Walker, a Boston-area physician and philanthropist, pledged $60,000, allowing the Institute to clear its final legal hurdle.
With the charter, land, and endowment in place, Rogers could begin thinking concretely about opening the Institute. He still lacked a definite program of study—not to mention a faculty, a student body, and buildings. But he had a good idea of what he wanted.
In the summer of 1863, he began putting his ideas on paper. The resulting document established the founding curriculum and proposed evening lectures for the “public at large.” MIT would offer degrees in architecture, chemistry, geology, two kinds of engineering, and general science and literature. Courses would be taught in laboratories equipped for each concentration. The public lectures, meanwhile, would cover a wide range of introductory topics in mathematics, zoölogy, physics, chemistry, geology, and botany. With this program of study in hand, Rogers began recruiting innovative professors who would be willing to set new standards for laboratory-centered science instruction. One of MIT’s first chemistry professors, Charles W. Eliot, would become one of Harvard’s best-known, most reform-minded presidents.
The Institute broke ground on its new Back Bay building in the fall of 1863. Although the building—and, more important, its laboratories—would not be complete until 1866, Rogers was eager to get classes under way. So on February 20, 1865, MIT began offering a “Preliminary Course of Instruction in the School of Industrial Science” in rented rooms at the Mercantile Building on Summer Street in Boston. On that opening day, Rogers breathed a sigh of relief and recorded in his diary: “Organized the School! Fifteen students entered. May not this prove a memorable day!”
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