Edward Robinson Schwarz ’23 was undeniably something of a showman. As an undergraduate, he performed an exhibition of magic for MIT’s Mechanical Engineering Society; when he joined the faculty, he drew on his sleight-of-hand skills to enliven his lectures and labs.
But Schwarz viewed his academic specialty, textile microscopy, with the same sense of wonder he evoked in others through his arsenal of magic tricks. As he once wrote in Technology Review: “The textile technologist is the smallest of dwarfs when he penetrates into the world within the fiber itself and strolls about among the cells—yes, even the atoms and molecules of its structure.”
The thread connecting textiles and the Institute had been spun well before Schwarz’s time. At MIT’s founding in 1861, Massachusetts was a textile production powerhouse. With entire cities, such as Lowell and Lawrence, built around these factories, it’s no surprise that MIT’s original planning document mentioned education in textile manufacturing. The Institute offered courses in textile design as early as 1872; by 1903, students could learn about the engineering of machines for textile mills. When MIT moved from Boston to Cambridge in 1916, the Institute set up a laboratory to study, for the first time, the physical properties of the fabrics themselves. Schwarz, a native of Lawrence and the son of an MIT graduate, came to his father’s alma mater shortly thereafter, completing his studies in mechanical engineering at a time when the Institute’s president, Samuel Wesley Stratton, was keenly interested in textile research. In 1924, Stratton lectured on the subject at a textile school in Fall River, and soon after he invited cotton fabric manufacturers to meet at his house to discuss collaboration.
In 1927, MIT set up a graduate program for students from the nation’s leading textile schools (including three in Massachusetts) to satisfy “a continually increasing demand … for technically trained men in textile manufacturing plants.” An instructor in mechanical engineering at the time, Schwarz helped develop and teach a curriculum of lectures and labs that was later copied by schools around the country.
Schwarz, who became a professor in 1937 and director of the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Textile Division in 1939, was an expert at what he called “romancing with the microscope.” He pioneered the use of polarized light to probe the physical characteristics of fibers, and the techniques he developed were soon adopted by industry.
With his students, he built new machines to test the tensile strength of fabrics. This equipment made frenetic scientific work possible; he wrote of fabrics “being burst open, rubbed to pieces, roasted, stewed, stared at by electric eyes, lighted by artificial rainbows, faded by ultraviolet light, sliced open by microtomes, and torn apart by testing machines.” These advances at MIT improved the industry’s ability to gauge the quality of its starting materials and the durability of its final products, leading to a 1935 report declaring that “progress in textile research at Technology was greater during the last four years than during the twenty years preceding them.”
As with many areas of research at MIT, World War II offered new opportunities for both Schwarz and his laboratory. He conducted research on parachutes and body armor and served on a special committee to provide the Army with technical expertise on synthetic fabrics that led to the development of improved materials for military use. He eloquently described in Technology Review how textiles, from blackout curtains to parachutes, were important to national defense. As the war drew to a close, the success of Schwarz’s military-related research led to his appointment as head of MIT’s newly established Samuel Slater Memorial Research Laboratory, a high-tech upgrade of the Textile Lab named for the industrialist who brought the textile industry to America.
After the war, Schwarz continued to guide research on parachutes, impact testers (which could stretch fabrics the equivalent of 1,500 feet per second), and more until his death in 1961. Without him at the helm of the Textile Lab, the Department of Mechanical Engineering folded the Textile Division into the Fibers and Polymers Division in 1962. While the study of textiles’ physical properties was not completely abandoned, the research focus shifted more heavily toward bioengineering.
The rooms that once held the microscopes Schwarz and his students peered into now house the Laboratory for Regenerative Biomaterials and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. But the legacy of his textile lab has endured. In 2013, MIT accepted an undergraduate thesis on polymers in space suits. “Our thread of destiny is spun,” Schwarz once wrote, “and the loom of time weaves on.”