Skip navigation
Hardcover | Out of Print | 224 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 40 figures | August 2010 | ISBN: 9780262113236
Paperback | $20.95 Trade | £16.95 | 224 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 40 figures | September 2012 | ISBN: 9780262518154
eBook | $14.95 Trade | September 2012 | ISBN: 9780262289962
Mouseover for Online Attention Data

Becoming MIT

Moments of Decision
Edited by David Kaiser


How did MIT become MIT? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology marks the 150th anniversary of its founding in 2011. Over the years, MIT has lived by its motto, “Mens et Manus” (“Mind and Hand”), dedicating itself to the pursuit of knowledge and its application to real-world problems. MIT has produced leading scholars in fields ranging from aeronautics to economics, invented entire academic disciplines, and transformed ideas into market-ready devices. This book examines a series of turning points, crucial decisions that helped define MIT. Many of these issues have relevance today: the moral implications of defense contracts, the optimal balance between government funding and private investment, and the right combination of basic science, engineering, and humanistic scholarship in the curriculum.

Chapters describe the educational vison and fund-raising acumen of founder William Barton Rogers (MIT was among the earliest recipients of land grant funding); MIT’s relationship with Harvard--its rival, doppelgänger, and, for a brief moment, degree-conferring partner; the battle between pure science and industrial sponsorship in the early twentieth century; MIT’s rapid expansion during World War II because of defense work and military training courses; the conflict between Cold War gadgetry and the humanities; protests over defense contracts at the height of the Vietnam War; the uproar in the local community over the perceived riskiness of recombinant DNA research; and the measures taken to reverse years of institutionalized discrimination against women scientists.

About the Editor

David Kaiser is Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, Department Head of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physics at MIT. He is the author of Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of the Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics, and editor of Pedagogy and the Practice of Science: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (MIT Press).

Table of Contents

  • Becoming MIT
  • Becoming MIT
  • Moments of Decision
  • edited by David Kaiser
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • First MIT Press paperback edition, 2012
  • © 2010
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • For information about special quantity discounts, please send email to
  • special_sales@
  • .

  • This book was set in Engravers Gothic and Bembo by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited. Printed and bound in the United States of America.

  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Becoming MIT : moments of decision / edited by David Kaiser.
  •  p. cm.
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-11323-6 (hc. : alk. paper)—978-0-262-51815-4 (pb. : alk. paper)
  • 1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology—History. I. Kaiser, David.
  • T171.M428B43 2010
  • 378.744'4—dc22
  • 2009052641

  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction: Moments of Decision 1
  • David Kaiser
  • 1 “God Speed the Institute”:
  • The Foundational Years, 1861–1894 15
  • Merritt Roe Smith
  • 2 Mergers and Acquisitions 37
  • Bruce Sinclair
  • 3 Patrons and a Plan 59
  • Christophe Lécuyer
  • 4 MIT and War 81
  • Deborah Douglas
  • 5 Elephant on the Charles:
  • Postwar Growing Pains 103
  • David Kaiser
  • 6 “Time of Troubles” for the Special Laboratories 123
  • Stuart W. Leslie
  • 7 “Refrain from Using the Alphabet”:
  • How Community Outreach Catalyzed the Life Sciences at MIT 145
  • John Durant
  • 8 Putting Gender on the Table 165
  • Lotte Bailyn
  • with an afterword by Nancy Hopkins
  • Epilogue by Susan Hockfield 193
  • List of Contributors 195
  • Index 201


Becoming MIT successfully charts the expansion of voices in MIT's perpetual self-reckoning.”—Matt Wisnioski, Technology and Culture


This remarkable volume traces the intellectual, educational, organizational, cultural, and human streams that flowed both naturally and by design to create the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the industrial age came to flower. Its establishment derived not only from the driving visions of men like William Barton Rogers and John D. Runkle, but also from antecedents in European technical education, externalities like the Land Grant Act of 1862, and the conceptual and institutional interplay with Harvard, Rensselaer, and Yale. This book is a treasure for those interested in the history of higher education, those interested in the development of engineering during the industrial age, and those who may wish to contemplate its lessons as our universities navigate the revolutions in biological science and information technology at the start of the 21st century.

Charles Vest, President, MIT
Becoming MIT casts new light on how, through technology, industry, and fundamental science, this institution became the powerhouse it is today. But the book does far more—it unflinchingly looks at direct confrontation with issues of science and war, science and public policy, and gender inequity in the halls of the Institute itself. A remarkable study of an astonishing university.”
Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and Physics, Harvard University
Becoming MIT is a gem for anyone interested in American science, technology, history, or higher education. By exploring eight critical moments of institutional decision, this brief but eloquent book chronicles the evolution of MIT and its dynamic, out-of-proportion impact on industry, defense, and higher education. From the machine age to the biotechnology era, the people of MIT have both driven and reflected the challenges and changing nature of American society.”
Charles Vest, MIT President Emeritus