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Home > Learn More > Tech > The History of MIT

The History of MIT

In 1861, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts approved a charter that had been submitted by the natural scientist, William Barton Rogers in 1859. The charter requested that newly opened lands in Boston be used to build a Museum and Conservatory of Art and Science. It was Mr. Barton’s opinion that the mid 19th century was bringing about such rapid advancement in technology and science that the current institutions were ill equipped to deal with them. He proposed there was a great need for a new form of higher education and the Commonwealth agreed with him.

Once the charter was approved for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston Society of Natural History, Rogers turned his attention to raising funds, searching for a suitable location and developing the curriculum for the new institute. Known as the Rogers Plan, the institute was to be devoted to three principles: the value of useful knowledge, the necessity to learn by doing and the necessity to integrate professional and liberal arts education at the undergraduate level. MIT is known as a pioneer in the use of laboratory instruction. The theory is that students must not only learn about the manipulations and minute details of the arts, but also learn the scientific principles which form the basis and explanation of them. The building of the institute was put on hold by the start of the Civil War, but the education went forth as planned and in 1865 the first classes were held in downtown Boston in the rented rooms of the Mercantile Building.

Building for the Boston Tech was completed in Boston’s Back Bay in 1866 when the continued expansion of classroom and laboratory space created a need for much more space than the Boston area provided. So, George Eastman made an anonymous donation, which allowed for the purchase of a mile long tract of industrial and swamp land along the Charles River in Cambridge. The new campus, designed by William Welles Bosworth became the new home of MIT in 1916.

Over the years, the curriculum began to become more focused on the practical and less focused on theoretical concerns. The institute began to focus on the importance of the pure sciences such as physics and chemistry. The institute also began to have problems meeting financial obligations and attracting new faculty members. Thoughts of mergers with other institutions were entertained, but something always got in the way.

For one hundred years, MIT has been innovative in creating curriculum to improve the lives of the American citizens. MIT was the first university in the United States to have such innovative curriculum as architecture, sanitary engineering, electrical engineering, aeronautical engineering, naval architecture, marine engineering, meteorology, artificial intelligence and nuclear physics.

MIT has also had its share of controversy beginning in 1870 when Ellen Swallow Richards became the first female student, making the institution coeducational. Richards, who specialized in environmental health, launched another blow for equality by becoming the first female member of the MIT faculty. However, women were well in the minority of students until the completion of MIT’s first women’s dormitory in 1964. Women have also headed departments in science and engineering, and five women have held the position of vice president of MIT. And in 2004 a molecular neurobiologist, Susan Hockfield became not only the 16th president of MIT, but also the first woman to hold the office. The student body has become much more balanced over the years, but women remain the minority among the faculty.

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