Fighting for the Nation's Future: The Founding of MIT in a Time of War

Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Boston Public Library Civil War Lowell Lecture Series

As I begin, I feel compelled to confess the glaringly obvious: I am not any kind of historian. I am a neuroscientist by training, but MIT’s Sesquicentennial celebrations last year deputized me as one of our official storytellers, so I have become a kind of accidental, entirely amateur historian – a dangerous pursuit. With that caveat, I very much look forward to your questions later on, and I am confident that, with all the expertise in this hall, together we can arrive at some very interesting understandings.

Let me ask that you briefly engage your imaginations with me. Imagine that you find yourself in the spring of 1861. In your career as a professor of natural history, you have spent more than 25 years developing a plan for an ambitious new kind of “polytechnic” school that you dream of launching in Boston. Imagine that after countless letters and meetings and petitions to the Legislature on behalf of your dream school, you finally secure a Charter with the Governor’s signature. Now imagine that, two days later, the Civil War breaks out.
If your world-view framed this as just a heartbreaking accident, a piece of rotten luck, we might regard your undiminished will to carry on as merely a reflection of some personal character trait. However, if the coincidence of these two events – the founding of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the descent of the United States into civil war – represented different expressions of the same tectonic forces, then we would view your tenacious pursuit of your academic vision quite differently.  
As argued elegantly by David Mindell, MIT’s Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, in founding MIT, William Barton Rogers was voting for a new future for America. Rogers envisioned a nation that had moved beyond a traditional, semi-feudal agrarianism powered by slave labor, to a new industrial economy. This new economy embraced a new social contract, one that rewarded not inherited privilege but curiosity, ingenuity and hard work. It also embraced a new economic foundation for America, one based on turning scientific knowledge into world-changing innovations. In effect, by establishing his new Institute, William Barton Rogers entered the struggle for the nation’s soul as surely as if he had joined the Union forces at Fort Sumter, and by every measure, he, and we, won the war.
I want to expand on this thesis by providing some historical context in terms of the educational, industrial and political forces shaping America in the first half of the 19th century. Then I will try to give a sense of the remarkable character and aspirations of William Barton Rogers himself, and of the impact of his vision and values even up to today. To start with, let me give you a sense of scale: In 1814, as the War of 1812 drew to a close, America had only about 7.7 million people. That number would rise swiftly, tripling by 1850 to 23 million Americans. About a million of them resided in Massachusetts. By 1860, the US population had reached 31.4 million, including about 4 million slaves.
From early on, education figured prominently in our young nation, with literacy emphasized and rising but far from universal. By 1850, about 43% of white American men could read; white men in Massachusetts fared substantially better, with a literacy rate of 55%. However, advanced education was rare. Just as one data point: Harvard’s graduating class of 1830 included only 38 students, all men. Not until 1860 did Harvard graduate a class of 100.  
Not until 1861 did a US institution award a PhD degree, the first conferred at Yale.
Through the early years of the 19th century, America hosted a remarkable growth in industrialization. To expand on one facet of that story: Eli Whitney secured the patent for his cotton gin in 1794. As this new technology spread across the South, it unleashed vast new supplies of cotton fiber, and northern industrialists seized the resultant opportunities.  
In 1813 the first factory where spinning and weaving were performed by power machinery, all under one roof, opened 10 miles from here, in Waltham, Massachusetts. By 1822, the nation’s largest and most advanced mills were already humming in Lowell, at the heart of a new community planned and built as a model factory town. By 1831, Massachusetts had emerged as America’s leading textile state. To stitch the last seam on this little tale: in 1846, in Cambridge, Elias Howe invented the sewing machine. By that time, you could have shared the news by telegraph.
I will not attempt to recount the complex national politics that shadowed the decades before the Civil War. We all know that volatile national arguments over states’ rights came to dominate the nation’s dialogue, from Missouri to Massachusetts.
With such tumultuous facts as backdrop, let me introduce you to MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers, who spent most of his life in Virginia, a crucial stress point in the nation’s political geography. Rogers was born in Philadelphia in 1804, the second son of a science-loving family. His father, an Irish immigrant trained as a physician and a scientist, passed to his four sons a passion for natural science, and he personally provided them with a sterling scientific and mathematical education that put them far ahead of their peers. Later, William Barton Rogers and his three brothers all attended Virginia’s College of William and Mary, where their father had taken a professorship in Natural Philosophy and Chemistry. When Father Rogers died of malaria in 1828, William was already so accomplished a scholar and speaker that he was asked to take over his father’s professorship, at the age of 24. Seven years later, in 1835, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Virginia, where he would teach for another two decades.
Rogers was such a brilliant, charismatic teacher that his lectures on astronomy would fill to overflowing an hour in advance. However, Rogers did not find academic or intellectual fulfillment in Virginia, for overlapping reasons. In the stale intellectual air of rural Williamsburg and Charlottesville, he felt isolated as a scholar and hampered by the lack of even basic chemicals and scientific apparatus. An intensely upright person, Rogers found the reality and politics of slavery appalling. The religious intolerance he witnessed on the University of Virginia campus repulsed him and alienated him from many of his students. He found the students on the whole a less-than-inspiring lot: vain, violent, drunken, entitled and prone to riot; the scions of Virginia’s plantations had made a mockery of Jefferson’s academic paradise. By 1844, after a summer geology trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Rogers began to appreciate more congenial places to settle and, not incidentally, on the same trip he met the delightful young woman that he would marry in 1849, Emma Savage, from a prosperous family of eminent Boston reformers.
Adding further fuel to his fire of discontent, Rogers also faced enormous impediments in his scholarship. In parallel with his academic work, in 1835 Rogers was appointed by the Virginia legislature to conduct the state’s first geologic survey. Think what that entailed: spending every summer for six years tramping the valleys, swamps and mountains of Virginia, chipping out samples as he went. For Rogers, an early devotee of the emerging field of geology, it was, nevertheless, a heaven-sent assignment, a chance to collect fresh data and form new theories on subjects no one had seriously explored before. No doubt he learned a great deal about the geological forces bearing on the landscape of Virginia.  Conducting the survey taught him important lessons in two other dimensions, too. First, as he tried to find competent assistants to join him in the work, he came face to face with the dearth of scientific understanding in the general populace. This searing frustration surely added heat to his argument, over the next two decades, that the nation needed a revolution in technical education.
Second, he learned important, unpleasant lessons about politics and their intersection with scientific goals. Rogers embarked on Virginia’s geologic survey as an expedition in search of truth. However, the legislature had a different idea, or, rather, two different ideas. The Virginia legislature divided into two camps. On one side, Western Virginians wished the survey to emphasize the potential for coal and iron mining, which would allow Northern-style industry to spring up and prosper. On the other side, slave-owning Eastern planters felt the survey should identify sources of minerals like gypsum to restore the soil of their depleted farmlands.i Given this divide, securing the funds to keep the survey going each year required endless, undignified lobbying. Rogers loathed it, but the experience would prove instrumental in his founding of MIT.
Before we get to the Boston part of the story, I should emphasize that the ideas that gave rise to MIT had been taking shape in Rogers’ mind for decades, as he watched American society struggle to adapt to its industrial adolescence. The first half of the century churned with deep disagreements about the proper nature and purpose of higher education, alternately reflecting and rejecting the reality of industrialization already shaping Americans’ everyday life and their economic prospects. Those inspired by the utilitarian spirit of the age pressed to replace the classical model of higher education with more “useful knowledge,” while forces on the other side, as articulated in the famous “Yale Report” of 1828, strenuously defended the classics as the only proper mold for the mind of a gentleman. Although the Yale point of view prevailed at the nation’s elite institutions for many decades, it was increasingly at odds with the tenor of the times. By 1851, the newly appointed president of the University of Michigan, Henry Tappan, observed that, “The commercial spirit of our country, and the many avenues of wealth which are opened before enterprise, create a distaste for study deeply inimical to education. The manufacturer, the merchant, the gold-digger, will not pause in their career to gain intellectual accomplishments.” Why? Because, Tappan continued, they feared that “while gaining knowledge, they are losing the opportunity to gain money.”ii In part as a result, by the 1850s, US college enrollment, even in bookish New England, was on the decline, both in absolute numbers and in proportion to the population.iii As historian Frederick Rudolph writes, “Nothing was as important to an American in these years as was his labor, for with it, he might transform a continent …and in so doing, transform his whole station in life.”iv
Unlike so many of his academic peers, Rogers had immense respect for what that labor could achieve, if only it were powered by the right scientific education. Unfortunately, in the antebellum era, America’s scientific elite had little interest in practical affairs. As a result, across this still-young nation, engineers and architects, mechanics and farmers, chemists and manufacturers were held back by their meager grasp of the science of the materials and forces they worked with. In dreaming of his new institution, Rogers saw a double opportunity: to make science more useful, and to make the “useful arts” more scientific – and thus to advance them both. The MIT motto, “Mens et Manus,” or Mind and Hand, still reflects that symbiotic ideal.
In 1844, with Rogers still bound to Virginia by his academic and geological duties, his brother, Henry, had already made the move to Boston. In 1846, Henry wrote to William in great excitement, to explain that he had befriended the great Boston philanthropist and champion of public education, John Amory Lowell, textile heir and sole trustee of the Lowell Institute, which provided free public lectures to the people of Boston (the same Lowell Institute sponsoring this lecture tonight). Henry believed that Mr. Lowell might consider a proposal for the kind of polytechnic school that the Rogers brothers had imagined for years. William rose to the occasion with his hurriedly drafted but surprisingly complete “Plan for a Polytechnic School in Boston.” Although Mr. Lowell ultimately did not fund it, this embryonic early plan developed into MIT. Already, in Rogers’ mind, it had majestic scope and possibility. In an 1846 letter to Henry, describing how the school might start, with just one scientific teacher and one practical one, Rogers wrote:
“In a word, I doubt not that such a nucleus-school would, with the growth of this active and knowledge-seeking community” – that’s Boston – “finally expand into a great institution comprehending the whole field of physical science and the arts, with auxiliary branches of mathematics and modern languages, and would soon overtop the universities of the land in the accuracy and extent of its teachings in all branches of positive knowledge.”v
With this bold idea in mind, Rogers felt increasingly compelled to bring it to life. All roads seemed to lead to Boston. As he wrote to Henry in 1846:
“Ever since I have known something of the knowledge-seeking spirit, and the intellectual capabilities of the community in and around Boston, I have felt persuaded that of all places in the world, it was the most certain to derive the highest benefits from a Polytechnic Institute. The occupations and interests of the great mass of the people are immediately connected with the applications of physical science, and their quick intelligence has already impressed them with just ideas of the value of scientific teaching to their daily pursuits.”
After having spent the first four years of their marriage in Virginia, by 1853 William and Emma Rogers were eager to leave. Boston was not only home to Emma’s family, it was in every sense “The Hub.” The city offered everything needed for Rogers’ idea to flourish: the appetite, the atmosphere and the opportunity.   
Boston offered the appetite for Rogers’ new ideas because the community’s fate was indisputably tied to the success of its industrial ventures. By 1840, Boston’s satellite cities “contained the greatest concentration of industrial workers in the nation” – and it was increasingly obvious, to them and to their employers, how much more they could achieve with the right technical skills.vi As Rogers put it himself,
“The great practical value of the results at which we aim – although freely admitted by the friends of genuine progress everywhere – must be recognized with especial heartiness in a community like our own, where material prosperity and intellectual advancement are felt to be inseparably associated.”vii
Boston also offered the atmosphere, because the city was the wellspring of new American ideas: In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison launched the single most important abolition newspaper, The Liberator, in Boston. In 1845, Margaret Fuller published “Woman in the 19th Century,” the first major feminist work in the United States, and she published it in Boston. The air must have fairly crackled with the new ideas unrolled with every issue of Boston-based publications like The Atlantic Monthly and The Dial. Perhaps most important, here in Boston, Horace Mann argued successfully for the establishment of the first free, universal common schools. He believed universal education was not only a safeguard of democracy but also an essential tool of social stability and social justice. In 1837, he put it this way:
“According to the European theory, men are divided into classes – some to toil and earn, others to seize and enjoy.…Our ambition… should…propose to itself a different object. Its flame should be lighted at the skies! Its radiance and warmth should reach the darkest and the coldest of abodes.…Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery.”viii
Rogers could not have asked for a finer overture for his polytechnic symphony.   
Finally, Boston offered the opportunity, because of the sudden “invention” of the centrally located, unencumbered new acres known as the “the Back Bay.” I know you probably think of MIT as located on its prominent site in Cambridge, and we have resided across the river for almost a century, but the Institute spent its first half-century on Boylston Street, between Berkeley and Clarendon, about two blocks from where we sit this evening. 
In 1859, as Boston got serious about filling in the Back Bay and creating a vibrant new neighborhood, Massachusetts Governor Nathanial Banks proposed devoting a portion of the emerging land for educational purposes. Launching a fleet of serious cultural and educational institutions would allow Boston to hold its head high next to the great urban centers of Europe. Immediately, the Boston Society of Natural History, the Horticultural Society and similar groups took up the idea. Together they petitioned the Legislature for “a reservation of State land in the Back Bay for a conservatory of arts and science.” This first bid failed outright. The next year, they tried again, this time with William Barton Rogers on the team; they made it past the House but not the Senate. 
Undaunted, Rogers spent the summer of 1860 preparing a pamphlet called the “Objects and Plan of an Institute of Technology.” He also spent countless hours lobbying: speaking and writing and persuading every potential supporter he could find. Beyond his skill and prominence as a scientist, Rogers owned another very sharp tool: his eloquence, his ability to make his vision come alive in words. In fact, his persuasive powers were so well known that as the last of the three petitions went before the Legislature, Rogers received a personal letter from Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, who also wanted the proposal to succeed. To make that happen, the Governor insisted that Rogers – and only Rogers – should speak on its behalf. As he wrote, “My Dear Professor… I hope you will [speak]... but no one else…. Be thou the advocate!” Rogers did make the case for his visionary proposal, and on April 10, 1861, the Governor signed into law the new Charter for MIT. The simple act of the signing of MIT’s charter sent a shot across the bow of the vessel of entrenched power and conventional thinking. It was a catalytic volley in the battle for a new American future. 
Of course, the eruption of the Civil War two days later presented serious obstacles, especially because the Charter stipulated that MIT raise no less than $100,000 in one year, or about $2.4 million in today’s dollars. In the dire atmosphere of war, MIT had to petition for a one-year extension and still struggled down to the wire, only to be rescued by a benefactor eight days before the extended deadline. Rogers and his supporters persevered. By 1863, they had begun construction of their new building. By February 20, 1865, about six weeks before General Lee surrendered his forces at Appomattox Courthouse, MIT admitted its first 15 students.   
From the perspective of the 21st century, it can be hard to appreciate the radical newness of Rogers’ educational ideas. It comes alive, however, in this account from a student of the MIT Class of 1868, Robert Richards:
“The method of teaching was completely new to all of us. We found ourselves bidding goodbye to the old learn-by-heart method, and beginning the study of observing the facts and laws of nature. We learned from experiment and experience what might be expected to happen if a given set of forces started to act. 
“In short, our feet were set at last in the way of real knowledge. We learned, perhaps falteringly at the outset, the four steps that mark the only route to true science: how to observe, how to record, how to collate, and how to conclude. The effect on the classes was totally different from anything that I had seen in any school before.”ix
Now, I should be clear that Rogers was hardly alone in seeing value in scientifically grounded, technically directed education, and he studied the existing models closely, from West Point to the great polytechnic and trade schools of Paris, London and Berlin. In fact, the most important educational event of the day, President Lincoln’s creation of the land grant colleges, through the Morrill Act in 1861, also stemmed from the desire to “teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts… in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” It makes perfect sense that MIT was, itself, one of the very first land-grant institutions.
Yet in its thoroughness, intensity and conviction, William Barton Rogers’ MIT had no peer. He endowed us with values that still guide us today: useful work founded on science; hands-on learning; meritocracy; hard work; service. How would William Barton Rogers view the results of the Institute he launched? After all, he had great ambition for it.  Remember his vision of “overtopping” the universities of the land? I am not going to claim that MIT has quite met that measure, but in another way, MIT has succeeded beyond his greatest hopes in helping to beget the kind of America Rogers envisioned. 
In 1861, the year of MIT’s founding, “technology” had only just taken on its modern meaning, and launching an Institute devoted to the advancement of technology was a bold experiment. After the war, the Institute that Rogers founded quickly became a powerful mechanism for discovery and innovation. By teaching science and engineering as a hands-on proposition, when most American college classrooms still rang with Latin and Greek, memorized by rote, Rogers helped America unlock its future as an industrial powerhouse.   
While MIT faculty revolutionized teaching and pioneered research in fields from physics to architecture to chemical engineering, MIT graduates used science and engineering to transform daily practice in factories, railways, mines, shipyards and laboratories across the country. Some, like chemistry students Arthur D. Little (1885) and Pierre DuPont (1890), and aeronautical engineers James McDonnell (1925) and Donald Douglas (1914), would found whole new industries. Many more, like MIT’s first woman graduate, Ellen Swallow Richards (1873), or like Cecil Green (SB 1923, SM 1924), Robert Noyce (PhD 1953) and I.M. Pei (1940), would invent the products, launch the companies, design the cities and solve the problems of our industrial society. By founding his new Institute on the vibrant interplay of exploration and creativity, Rogers had given the world a compelling model of an “innovation machine.”
Of course, MIT was only one important stream feeding a mighty river of change in American higher education. With the establishment of the Land Grant colleges, suddenly, higher education became a springboard to a new kind of science-based innovation and a ladder out of every kind of grinding toil for young strivers across the country. As America came into its own as an industrial power, higher education transformed with it, turning out the engineers and inventors, the teachers and leaders of the day. By World War II, America’s great universities had become hotbeds of new thinking; in focusing that creative energy on the terrible challenges of warfare, higher education produced countless innovations, among them the federally supported research university itself, with its dual mission of research and education. It has had a profound impact, from the moon landing to microchips. A Nobel Prize-winning MIT economist, Robert Solow, has calculated that more than half of America’s economic growth since World War II can be traced to technological innovation. The link between innovation and economic growth is now economic gospel.  Much of that innovation springs from the talent and discoveries produced by America’s research universities. 
So, if you will allow me a little rhetorical license, the history I have summarized tells us that since its mid-19th century reinvention as an engine of innovation, American higher education has played a pivotal role in transforming American agriculture, building our modern industrial state, winning World War II, enabling the emergence of the middle class, launching the electronics, computer and biotechnology industries, developing the World Wide Web and the interconnected online universe, and shaping the leaders and ideas that fuel our innovation economy. America’s colleges and universities are indispensable to our individual prospects and to our shared economic prosperity. They change lives, and, over and over, they have changed the nation. This was the future of possibility that William Barton Rogers was voting for. To honor his spirit, tonight we might ask ourselves: “What American future would we vote for today, and what new forms of education can help take us there?”


i Merritt Roe Smith, “’God Speed the Institute’: The Foundational Years 1861-1894,” in Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, ed. David Kaiser (MIT University Press, Cambridge, 2010), 17-18.

ii Henry P. Tappan, University Education, (George P. Putnam, New York, 1851), 64.

iii Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History, (The University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 1990), 218.

iv Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History, (The University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 1990), 112.

v William Barton Rogers, Letter to Henry Rogers, March 13, 1846.

vi David R. Meyer, The Roots of American Industrialization, (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2003).

vii “Objects and Plan of an Institute of Technology”, (John Wilson and Son, Boston, 1861), 1.

viii Horace Mann, Life and Works of Horace Manne, Volume 4, (University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor, 2009), 246-8.

ix Robert H. Richards, Robert Hallowell Richards, His Mark, (Little, Brown, Boston, 1936), 35.



Video of the speech is available for viewing at the Boston Public Library.