Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

Tech to the Rescue

A new novel (written by a Harvard grad) mines MIT’s origins for dramatic purpose.

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.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting

With plans to create realistic synthetic embryos, grown in jars, Renewal Bio is on a journey to the horizon of science and ethics.

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.

This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine

Ending the covid pandemic might well require a vaccine that protects against any new strains. Researchers may have found a strategy that will work.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.