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MIT Technology Review

Alumni Letters

October 20, 2015

Changes in Kendall Square
Just read the articles about Kendall Square (“The Past and Future of Kendall Square,” September/October 2015).Very good.It looks very positive for both MIT and Cambridge.I was sorry, however, to see no mention of the old Nestlé factory behind East Campus, about where the Media Lab is now.For any of us living there, the smell was always unmistakable!

Tom James ’68
Mathews, Alabama

When I was finishing grad school in chemistry, almost all of the biomedical research opportunities were in big pharmaceutical companies between New York and Philadelphia. Today, the center of such research is in and around Kendall Square, whose phenomenal growth was accelerated by two laws.

The Bayh-Dole Patent Act of 1980 and the Small Business Innovation Research Act (SBIR) of 1982 provide financial incentives for universities and hospitals—including MIT and Mass. General Hospital—to seek ways of commercializing their research.Until 1980, ownership of patents from government-funded research resided with the government;Bayh-Dole gave ownership of such patents to universities and associated hospitals.As a result, they licensed small businesses to commercialize the patents, giving both the university and the researcher a financial stake.The SBIR program frequently provides the early-stage funding to demonstrate that the technology has commercial potential, which makes angel investors, venture capitalists, and large companies more likely to invest in the technology.

Having founded Moleculon Research in Kendall Square, I helped Senator Ted Kennedy initiate and secure the passage of these laws. My congressional testimony in 1978 stated that this “could potentially be the most significant government program of this century in the field of science and technology.” Indeed, these laws have provided a critical linkage between academic research and commercialization. Recently I was inducted at the White House into the SBIR Hall of Fame for my contributions many decades ago.

Arthur S. Obermayer, PhD ’56
West Newton, Massachusetts

Your article on Kendall Square mentioned the old days with the smells from the gasworks and the rubber plant.For those of us who lived in the area at that time, the high point was when a low fog kept smells close to the ground, such as the mixture from the rubber plant and the chocolate factory.
The new exotic restaurants may be good, but do they compare to the F&T Diner?

Michael T. Field ’61
Farmington, Maine

Grounding the Boeing SST
Popular belief is that various environmental movements led to the cancellation of the Boeing SuperSonic Transport (SST) plane (“The Man Who Grounded the Boeing SST,” September/October 2015). This is not true. The project imploded.

In 1963, Boeing announced the start of its 747 jumbo jet program. It was the largest private venture (self-funded, no government money) in history, with a commitment of over a billion Boeing dollars, mostly borrowed money. In late 1966, Boeing won the design competition for the American SST. It should have been an obvious conflict-of-interest situation.

In late 1968, I was working as the aerospace industry financial analyst for a major Wall Street investment banking firm. I discovered that with the SST contract, Boeing was heading for a huge financial train wreck. To recover its billion-dollar investment in the 747, Boeing needed to deliver 500 airplanes. The SST contract required Boeing to put up 25 percent of the development costs, which would soon require billions more dollars. If the SST succeeded, it would kill the 747. If the SST did not succeed, Boeing would lose more than a billion dollars that it would have invested in the SST. Either way, Boeing would lose big. The trick would be to find some way to wriggle out of the SST contract.

There was great political pressure to go forward with SST prototypes in early 1971. But things were going bad technically. They were in their third complete redesign of the aircraft. The variable-sweep wing was gone (too heavy). There was not adequate documentation of the new fixed-wing configuration to justify prototypes.

The final congressional hearing on the SST was on March 1, 1971, and I was the only technically qualified expert witness against it. Fortunately for Boeing, the subcommittee voted to cut off SST funding.

Duane Yorke ’53
Bethpage, New York

Dr. Sheehan’s Chemistry Exams

I read in your september/october issue the letter by William Rice, who was traumatized by John Sheehan’s 1952 final exam in organic chemistry.I was grading papers for Dr. Sheehan about that time as a grad student, and I thought that his exams were quite reasonable.He was also a very fine gentleman.

Ken Drake, PhD ’55
Charleston, West Virginia