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Treasure Trove

Telling MIT’s story through its most evocative objects.
October 22, 2013

When Deborah Douglas began working on a book based on the MIT Museum’s 2011 exhibition of 150 objects marking MIT’s sesquicentennial, she thought, “This’ll be a piece of cake because we already have the content from the exhibit labels.” Douglas, the museum’s curator of science and technology and director of the exhibit, estimated it might take six months.

Countless Connecting Threads book cover
Countless Connecting Threads
By Deborah Douglas
MIT Museum, 2013, $55/$25

Instead, it took two years. She and her colleagues realized they “had an opportunity to tell more” about MIT’s history than the exhibition did. So they photographed the objects, unearthed some 1,350 images to add historical context (the exhibit had about 117), wrote and edited supplemental text, and documented hundreds of references and credits. “If we knew how long something would really take, we’d probably never do it,” Douglas says wryly.

The result, Countless Connecting Threads: MIT’s History Revealed through Its Most Evocative Objects, is a fascinating and beautifully rendered tribute to MIT. Douglas’s introductory essay chronicles MIT’s first 150 years, weaving in the social, cultural, technological, economic, and political forces that shaped the Institute. She calls the book “an unconventional history of an unconventional institution.” Like the exhibit, it frames MIT’s story through 10 themes, including “Entrepreneurial MIT,” “Artistic MIT,” “Analog/Digital MIT,” and “Problem-­Solving MIT.” That format reflects the many ways people experience or see the Institute, Douglas explains.

Each theme is illuminated through “evocative objects,” the subject of a book by Sherry Turkle, a professor in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society. These objects tell a story or represent a unique aspect of MIT and convey why MIT matters. They range from the familiar and iconic—like the Whirlwind Computer’s core memory unit—to the obscure or humorous, such as the Strain Gage Denture Tenderometer, a contraption that chomped on food with dentures to measure properties like texture.

Creating the book “crystallized my own understanding about the significance of the modern science and technology research university,” says Douglas. And it got her thinking about the challenge museums face in preserving the seminal achievements of the last 50 years, like software or the human genome database. She calls the project one of the most significant pieces of work on the history of technology that she’s done to date. “I hope it’s not the only thing I do,” she says.

It’s not. Douglas is known for her expertise in the history of aviation and wrote the book American Women and Flight Since 1940. And the Institute will continue to provide plenty to pique her “insatiable” interest in science and technology. “[MIT is] one of the most continuously fascinating communities of people making and doing stuff,” she says, referring to historian Brooke Hindle’s basic definition of technology. “When you’re around that, and you’re inclined to tell stories—boy, it’s great material.”

Recent Books from the MIT Community

Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia
By Manduhai Buyandelger, associate professor of anthropology, University of Chicago Press, 2013, $32.50

Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup
By Bill Aulet, SM ’94, senior lecturer, Sloan School of Management, Wiley, 2013, $32

The Routledge Guidebook to Galileo’s Dialogue
By Maurice A. Finocchiaro ’64, Routledge, 2013, $27.95

A Second Modernism: MIT, Architecture, and the “Techno-Social” Moment
Edited by Arindam Dutta, associate professor of architecture, MIT Press, 2013, $65

Sustainable Urban Metabolism
By Paulo C. Ferrão and John E. Fernández ’85, associate professor of architecture and director of the Building Technology Program at MIT, MIT Press, 2013, $35

Functional Differential Geometry
By Gerald Jay Sussman ’68, PhD ’73, professor of electrical engineering, and Jack Wisdom, professor of planetary sciences, MIT Press, 2013, $35

The Human Race to the Future: What Could Happen—and What to Do
By Daniel Berleant ’82, Lifeboat Foundation, 2013, $13.79

Thriving in the 21st Century Economy: Transformational Skills for Technical Professionals
By K. Subramanian, ME ’77, SM ’77, ScD ’78, and U. S. Rangan, ASME Press, 2013, $59

Please submit titles of books and papers published in 2013 and 2014 to be considered for this column.

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