How MIT Ingenuity Plus Federal Support Has Shaped Our World

June 3rd, 2014

Global Positioning System (GPS): developed at MIT's Radiation Lab, initially funded by the National Defense Research Committee. Image: Wikimedia Commons

MIT's flight simulation research for the US Navy led to the creation of the first digital computer to operate in real time. Image: MIT Museum

A company founded on the prosthetics-meets-robotics research of MIT professor Hugh Herr SM ’93 received a $7.2 million grant from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Image: MIT Media Lab

Government investment in microchips developed at Texas Instruments (cofounded by Cecil Green ’23, SM ’24) created a commercial market for technology now essential to smartphones. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Human Genome Project: In the 1990s, MIT biologist Eric Lander led the national effort to sequence the three billion DNA letters in human genetic code. Image: Johns Hopkins University

A breakthrough treatment to manage HIV infection—highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART)—came out of research by David Ho, an alumnus of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The fingerprints of MIT faculty and alumni are evident throughout a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation—a compelling catalog of transformational 20th-century technologies that continue to shape our daily lives and fuel the economy decades after the discoveries that set them in motion.

In Federally Supported Innovations: 22 Examples of Major Technology Advances that Stem from Federal Research Support, Peter L. Singer, a Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the MIT Washington Office, notes, “The origins of many foundational technologies can be traced to at least an initial investment of United States federal research and development support and funds.” Here’s a look back at some of the breakthroughs from Singer’s report that bear the stamp of MIT ingenuity.

Global Positioning System (GPS)

In 1951, Ivan Getting ’33 proposed a method of using satellites to calculate the position of rapidly moving vehicles—the conceptual basis of GPS. Brad Parkinson SM ’61 led a design team in the 1970s that made the system a reality. The National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) initially funded this research at MIT’s Radiation Lab.


The first digital computer to operate in real time resulted from Project Whirlwind, a US Navy research project to design a flight simulation training system, which began at MIT’s Servomechanisms Laboratory in 1944. Eventually, the project shifted to the creation of a digital computer. Jay Forrester SM ’45 developed a three-dimensional array of magnetic cores, which became the standard storage system for digital computers.

Advanced prosthetics

Injuries sustained during wartime have created an increased need for prosthetics. Called the “Leader of the Bionic Age,” MIT professor Hugh Herr SM ’93 has been instrumental in merging the field of prosthetics and robotics. BiOM—a company founded by Herr—received a $7.2 million grant from the US Department of Veterans Affairs to produce its motorized feet and ankle prostheses.

Microchips and Semiconductors

The invention of microchips and semiconductor technologies revolutionized computing. Microchips are fundamental to smartphones, enabling features such as GPS, touchscreens, and voice-user interface. Although they were developed in private laboratories at Texas Instruments, cofounded by Cecil Green ’23, SM ’24, and Fairchild Semiconductor, cofounded by Robert Noyce PhD ’53, Singer notes that “the buying power of the US government helped turn microchips into mass-produced, publicly-affordable, foundational technology.” Public-private partnerships such as the Sematech Consortium were also crucial in advancing innovation in the semiconductor industry.

Human Genome Project

Sequencing the three billion DNA letters in human genetic code—an effort as ambitious as the moon landing—launched a new era in biomedicine and created the field of medical genomics. The 13-year, $3 billion effort was funded largely by federal grants from the US National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Energy. MIT biologist Eric Lander‘s research team contributed one-third of all sequencing in the project, which culminated in 2003 with the publication by the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium of the public version of the genome. According to a Batelle Report, the initial investment in the project has yielded nearly $1 trillion in economic returns over the past two decades, a 178-fold return on investment.

Treating HIV/AIDS

The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s created a national health crisis, prompting the government to launch numerous efforts to fight the spread of the disease and find a cure. The result was a range of effective treatments to manage HIV infection. Among these is HAART, highly active anti-retroviral therapy. HIV/AIDS researcher David Ho, a 1978 graduate of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, was among the developers and champions of the therapy.

Read more about world-changing innovations discovered at MIT in the Spring 2014 “Discovery Issue” of MIT SPECTRVM (“The Brilliance of Basic Research“).



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