Although inventions in the classic sense are central to the MIT story, the Institute has long worked to invent the future in a broader sense as well: bucking conventional thinking, taking on the tough assignments, and showing the world new paths to the next horizon. To illustrate this instinct for transformation, three MIT authors reflect on three intriguingly different examples — the Apollo moon shot project, the drive to confront racial and ethnic inequality, and the complicated plunge into a new way of understanding and combating disease.
Back in an era when most university research efforts could be comfortably accommodated in one lab bay, MIT’s Project Apollo effort was something else entirely. An initiative that at times kept more than 700 engineers and scientists frenetically busy, it was an unprecedented peacetime contribution to a unique mission.
Intriguingly, says MIT’s David Mindell, after President Kennedy made a moon landing a U.S. priority in 1961, the Apollo guidance-and-control assignment was the first contract awarded. This likely reflected NASA’s recognition that keeping the spacecraft on target “was the core of the problem, so they wanted to get started on it right away.”
The role of what was then the Instrumentation Laboratory — now the independent, government-funded Draper Laboratories, named for founder Charles Stark Draper — is the focus of Mindell’s 2008 history, Digital Apollo. And as the book makes clear, the effort demanded a large, highly trained, and self-confident team.
The technical challenges were daunting. But the human dynamics, center stage in Mindell’s remarkable story — really the first account by a professional historian of the role of engineers in Project Apollo — added a layer of vast complexity.
Some astronauts, for example, were dubious about having to depend on a computer. “Electronic systems back then were largely made with vacuum tubes or individual transistors,” says historian Mindell, who is the Dibner Professor of Engineering and Manufacturing; head of the MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society; and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics. “No one thought you could create a computer that would be truly reliable.”
The MIT Apollo team solved the reliability problem by using the then-new technology of solid-state integrated circuits. “There was a period when the Instrumentation Lab was buying more than half the integrated circuits being made in the United States,” notes Mindell, whose credentials include a Yale electrical engineering degree.
The validation of integrated circuits became one of the MIT Apollo team’s central contributions to the larger world of technology. Another was showing you could build highly capable computers that are surprisingly small, a break- through that opened the way for computational control of everything from deep-sea submarines — another of Mindell’s professional interests — to vacuum cleaners.
The Apollo effort also demonstrated yet again the power of the Institute’s approach to problem solving. “It’s remarkable how consistent MIT has been over the course of its history,” says Mindell, who chairs the MIT 150th Steering Committee. “The basic idea of mind and hand, and the centrality of science and technology, were there at the start, and they’re still embedded in the place.”
Molecular biologists reach out
For a perilous moment in the 1970s, MIT’s prospects of becoming an international leader in biology and biological engineering were in serious doubt.
Today that may seem implausible, with a biotech firm crowning every Kendall Square corner and the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research joining a pantheon of life-science powerhouses, from MIT’s Biology Department, Biological Engineering Division, and Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department to the McGovern and Picower Institutes, and the independent Whitehead and Broad Institutes. But it’s true, says John Durant, director of the MIT Museum and a science historian with a doctorate from Cambridge.
Durant has written a scholarly account of a mid-1970s episode that threatened to halt MIT’s molecular biology work in its tracks. “There was a group of young molecular biologists who were keen to use recombinant DNA technology for all sorts of research,” notes Durant, and MIT’s then-new Center for Cancer Research had eagerly recruited some of these highly talented scientists.
The problem arose from some of the research methods to be used, most of which fell under the recombinant DNA heading. (Recombinant DNA approaches make it possible to insert a gene of interest from some source — say, a lab rodent — into another, like a bacterium. They play a key role in techniques like gene cloning.) The scientists worried specifically about the safety of some of the tools they were using, which included tumor-causing animal viruses.
In the mid-1970s, such concerns impelled the National Institutes of Health to launch a lengthy safety review, which in turn prompted strict laboratory guidelines for these techniques.
MIT was quick to respond. The cancer center, notes Durant, “adapted some of its labs to bring them into compliance with the guidelines. So they were ready to go. And then, Bang! City officials in Cambridge announced plans to conduct their own review.”
The new delays hit hard. “Molecular biologists are famously fast-moving,” Durant observes. “They want to get going and do things.” But instead, the MIT scientists had to embark on a series of consultations with Cambridge officials and residents.
Some of those citizens served on a city-mandated oversight group, the Cambridge Experimentation Review Board. “The scientists took part in extensive discussions with the board members, they conducted lab tours, and they answered a lot of questions,” says Durant.
Based on the board’s recommendations, Cambridge eventually drew up its own research guidelines. That provided important clarification for MIT and Harvard, of course. But Durant says it also benefited the biotech industry that would arise largely based on discoveries made by molecular biologists at MIT and elsewhere, because the rules provided the regulatory certainty firms needed to put down roots in Cambridge.
Difficult though it felt at the time, the episode ushered in a period of remarkable research advances – striking enough to produce four Nobel Prizes for members of the MIT cancer center. To help invent the future, it seems, sometimes scientists must attend to important work outside the lab: “It was a moment,” says Durant, “when a group of scientists recognized that they needed to rethink their relationship with the broader public, and they did so.”
MIT’s efforts to make sure both student and faculty ranks reflect the diversity of society at large have seen both significant success and some areas of more halting progress. Recently, a new focus on improving MIT’s effectiveness in recruiting and retaining faculty of color has opened a promising avenue.
In his nearly 30 years at MIT, Clarence Williams served as a long-time special assistant to the president and chancellor for minority affairs. In these and other posts, he worked hard to make MIT more inclusive. But Williams has also approached the issue as a scholar, with a special focus on the African-American experience at MIT.
Williams’ research produced Technology and the Dream, an oral history featuring reflections from MIT alumni, senior officers, faculty, and staff. His contributions also include an article on MIT’s first African-American graduate, Robert R. Taylor, Class of 1892, whose architecture studies at MIT prepared him to design the visionary central campus of Alabama’s Tuskegee University.
Williams came to the Institute in 1972, when the push for inclusiveness was just starting to have an impact. “In almost every situation,” he notes, “I was the only black person in the room.”
Williams earned his Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut, where he also worked for some years. Thanks to such experiences and the advice of two long-time mentors in higher education, the challenges of his new setting did not hold him back. Moreover, since that time, says Williams — now retired but still heavily involved in MIT affairs — the picture has changed significantly.
Some of the progress reflects Williams’ own leadership. In 1975, he helped create and launch the annual campus observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. “MIT was the first university in the country to honor Dr. King in that way,” he notes.
Williams has also been long involved in efforts to diversify the student body, and he’s generally pleased with progress on that front. In 1991, for example, 13.1 percent of MIT undergraduates came from underrepresented minority groups; today, the figure is 22.9 percent. And, Williams estimates, “in the last decade, we have graduated 10 percent of the African-American students educated at universities focused on science and technology.”
At the faculty level, progress has been slower. Still, Williams is enthusiastic about the momentum created by the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity, a faculty committee launched by Provost Rafael Reif in response to an MIT faculty resolution to increase the percentage of underrepresented minority faculty. Chaired by Professor Paula Hammond, the Initiative produced an exhaustive study that explored not only the levels of faculty diversity but also how minority faculty experience MIT through the hiring and tenure process.
Based on that study, Initiative members laid out practical recommendations for building minority representation on the faculty. Set in motion last winter, the recommendations are just beginning to influence faculty recruitment. Williams, though, sees great potential. “It’s one of the best plans of its kind in the country,” he says, “and I think it will set the pace for a lot of other universities as long as we continue to move forward with the committee’s recommendations.”