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MIT Alumni News: 1865

Editor of The Tech becomes president of MIT

In an unusual career progression, James R. Killian, Class of 1926, went from editing the student newspaper to the Institute’s top administrative job—with a stop along the way as editor in chief of Technology Review.

James Rhyne Killian Jr., seated in his namesake courtMIT Museum

James Rhyne Killian, Class of 1926, might have graduated with his class had he not spent so much time working on the MIT student newspaper. But it would have been a great loss for MIT.

Killian had transferred to MIT in 1923, after two years at Trinity College (now Duke University) in North Carolina. His plan was to study business management, get a degree in engineering administration, and follow his father into the burgeoning textile industry. Three years later, he had two job offers in hand but no diploma: he had failed to complete his required undergraduate coursework in mathematics.

Fortunately, Killian had friends within the MIT administration. He had been appointed to The Tech’s editorial board in March 1924 and then named editor in March 1925. His editorials lambasting the administration frequently resulted in invitations to speak with Harold Lobdell ’17, the assistant dean of students, who was eager to set Killian straight on what was really happening behind the scenes. “‘Lobby’ has mastered an amiably stern adroitness in handling student discipline, and without resorting to discipline, he usually left me fully aware that my diatribes were jejune, revealing an obvious ignorance of academic administration and the amenities of a company of scholars,” Killian related in his book The Education of a College President

Perhaps Lobdell took interest in the quality of student journalism at MIT because he himself had been The Tech’s managing editor in 1916. In 1920, after training at the National Army’s Officer Candidate School in Plattsburg, New York, and serving as a second lieutenant in the 10th Company 3d Battalion, Depot Brigade, Lobdell had returned to MIT to become assistant to the director of the Division of Industrial Cooperation, and in 1921 he assumed the assistant dean position. In the summer of 1922 he also dived back into journalism when he was named editor of the newly revitalized Technology Review. See “How Technology Review got its start,” January/February 2024.)

As for Killian, in 1925 he not only took the top position at The Tech but was also inducted into Osiris, a secret senior society at MIT—the Institute’s equivalent of Yale’s Skull and Bones club. Intended to bring together student leaders, faculty, and administrators to discuss issues relevant to the Institute, the club had included among its honorary members every MIT president since its founding in 1904, when President Henry Pritchett was inducted. This gave Killian an opportunity to engage in “free-for-all discussion of Institute affairs” (as he described them) after the society’s dinners, during which club rules required that members address each other on a first-name basis.

A headshot of Killian from his official student record

Aware that Killian would not be able to graduate with his classmates, Lobdell offered him the job of assistant managing editor of Tech Review so he could stay at the Institute and finish his required courses. Killian, who remained affiliated with the Class of 1926, also became its secretary, making him responsible for chronicling the lives of his classmates as they set off into the world. He was promoted to managing editor of the Review in 1927 and finally graduated in 1929, the year he married a fellow North Carolina native named Elizabeth Parks, whom he had dated during her four years at Wellesley. Lobdell was the best man at the wedding.

When Lobdell became Technology Review’s publisher, in July 1930, Killian became its seventh editor. “However, this change may not be perceptible, for Killian, as Managing Editor of The Review since 1927, has been responsible for the editorial content and make-up for the last three Volumes,” wrote Lobdell in the issue.

Killian also played a role in the creation of the MIT Press. After Die Wasserbaulaboratorien Europas (The Hydraulic Laboratories of Europe) was published in 1926, John R. Freeman, Class of 1876, sponsored its translation into English and its publication in the US. Freeman, a nationally recognized hydraulic engineer who had designed the Charles River Dam, then persuaded MIT president Samuel W. Stratton to pay for the translation and publication of several other important German texts on hydraulic engineering. Stratton put Killian in charge of the project, which eventually grew into the Technology Press in 1932. Renamed the MIT Press in 1961, it became a freestanding publisher in 1962.

Karl Compton became president of MIT in July of 1930. Shortly thereafter, he asked Killian to edit a series of brochures that would promote MIT to high school seniors and potential graduate students. This gave Killian a chance to meet many more people throughout the Institute. Compton also put him in charge of the Alumni Association’s annual fund—a logical choice, given that Killian was also the association’s treasurer.

Two years later, an instructor in electrical engineering came to Killian with stunning photographs that he had made with a new technique. The photographs seemed to stop time, revealing details not otherwise visible to the human eye. That instructor, of course, was Harold E. Edgerton, SM 1927, ScD ’31, who became well known for his work developing and popularizing the electronic flash and high-speed photography. 

Killian immediately saw the potential of using Edgerton’s photos to promote both MIT and the magazine: Technology Review became the first publication to show Edgerton’s wonders to those who were not readers of engineering journals. (Edgerton was concurrently promoted to assistant professor.)

The April 1932 issue of Technology Review published the first photographs of a drop of milk falling into a puddle of milk and then another drop rebounding upward—Edgerton’s now canonical demonstration of high-speed photography. “These pictures … were taken at a speed of 480 exposures a second,” the magazine stated. “The camera which was used has no shutter nor any clawing mechanism. The film is simply run through it continuously without stopping for each picture … The drop being photographed is illuminated by a powerful stroboscopic or intermittent light which lasts about 1/100,000th of a second or less for each flash. The instantaneous intensity is sufficient to expose a photograph in this short time and the time of the exposure is so short that there is no appreciable blur.”

Reflecting Killian’s interest in both the arts and the useful application of technology, the caption continued: “The stroboscopic method is finding a great variety of uses in industry, particularly for observing the operation of high-speed machinery, and in making motion studies.” 

Indeed, a full-page advertisement offering Edgerton stroboscopes for $290 (approximately $6,500 today) appeared a year later, on the back cover of the April 1933 issue. “You, too, can use it for studying and demonstrating machinery behavior in slow motion at speeds as high as 20,000 or 30,000 r.p.m.,” the advertisement read. Three years later, Edgerton and Killian published their first book together, Flash! Seeing the Unseen by Ultra-High Speed Photography.Their second book, Moment of Vision, was published four decades later by the MIT Press. Killian, writing in that book’s introduction, called it “an unconventional Festschrift honoring Edgerton in which the tribute includes an array of the scholar’s own work with a commentary by me and others.” 

When MIT vice president Vannevar Bush left to become president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1939, he suggested that Killian, then 34, join President Compton’s office to take over some of the vice-presidential responsibilities. Killian wrapped up the January 1939 issue, stepped down as Technology Review’s editor, and become Compton’s assistant, although he continued to write the 1926 Class Notes.

“Dr. Compton’s choice of me to join his staff was a startling one to many of my associates and above all to me,” Killian wrote in The Education of a College President. “I was ‘magnificently unprepared.’ I was not a scientist. I had not sought the job. And my previous career could best be described as idiosyncratic preparation for university administration.” His formal appointment to the position gave him a six-month term, starting January 1, 1939.

The April 1932 issue of Technology Review included Harold Edgerton’s iconic photographs of milk droplets.
A year later, Edgerton stroboscopes were advertised for sale on the back cover of the magazine.
Killian appeared on the cover of the December 1957 issue after being named President Eisenhower’s special assistant for science and technology.

“Clearly I was on trial,” he later wrote. His first act was to reform MIT’s budgeting process, a move that ultimately resulted in the creation of the MIT Academic Council.

In October 1940, Compton agreed to allow the National Defense Research Committee to establish a new laboratory at MIT that would continue the development of the microwave radar technology that had been invented in England and then secretly brought to the US. This marked the beginning of MIT’s involvement in the Second World War, more than a year before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. 

In 1942 Killian was drafted, but Compton intervened. He informed the draft board that Killian had been actively involved in the “national preparedness” program for two years. With Compton devoting three-quarters of his time to the government’s Office for Scientific Research and Development, Killian had taken over “a much greater share of the executive responsibilities of [MIT].” Furthermore, wrote Compton, “among Mr. Killian’s administrative duties at MIT a considerable amount of his attention is even now being devoted to the war in connection with the administration of war contracts for research, or for the training of personnel.” 

The draft board agreed and allowed Killian to serve his country as a member of MIT’s administration. He was elevated to the position of executive vice president in 1943 and joined the MIT Corporation as its vice president in 1945.

Killian addressing a crowd in the Great Court at his inauguration in 1949.

When the war ended, Killian published two significant articles in Technology Review charting MIT’s course in the postwar era: “Research for Education” (November 1947), in which he explained why all research at MIT must advance educational objectives, and “MIT Redeploys for Peace” (May 1948), in which he outlined a series of initiatives that the Institute would need to undertake, such as readmitting all the students who had served in the war. 

Killian was named MIT’s 10th president in 1948—when he finally stopped writing the 1926 Class Notes. Perhaps because he wasn’t a scientist or an engineer, he was especially interested in supporting the humanities at MIT as a way of providing some kind of framework to guide its technological pursuits. At his inauguration in April 1949, he described MIT as a “university polarized around science, engineering, and the arts … A university limited in its objectives but unlimited in the breadth and thoroughness with which it pursues these objectives.” Both the School of Humanities and Social Studies and the Center of International Studies were established under his watch.

In his first President’s Report, Killian advocated for “better linkages between science and the humanities, with the object of fusing the two into a broad humanism that rests upon both science and the liberal arts and that does not weaken either.”

In January 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Killian the first chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and in a live television and radio broadcast on November 7, 1957—a month after the launch of Russia’s Sputnik satellite—he named Killian his special assistant for science and technology. Killian went on leave and moved to Washington, where he chaired the President’s Science Advisory Committee. He wrote about the experience of being Eisenhower’s science advisor and point man on science and technology in his book Sputnik, Scientists, and Eisenhower (MIT Press, 1977). Given his duties in Washington, Killian stepped down from the MIT presidency at the end of 1958, becoming chair of the MIT corporation—a position he held until 1971. He was also the founding chair of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, where he served from 1965 to 1967, and chaired the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1973 and 1974, leading the New York Times to call him “the father of public broadcasting.” 

As Killian observed in The Education of a College President, “It is not fantasy to conclude that my election to the editorship of the triweekly undergraduate newspaper, The Tech, proved to be a long drop kick into the territory of the Institute’s presidency.” 

In 1974, MIT’s Great Court was rechristened in his honor, and each spring, barring truly bad weather, a new crop of MIT graduates ventures off into the world from the iconic courtyard that now bears his name. 

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