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William Barton Rogers

William Barton Rogers


My name is William Barton Rogers. The reason you may already know my name is most likely related to my efforts (and success) in establishing and leading MIT during its early years. MIT was incorporated in April of 1861. A year later, at the first meeting of the Institute’s incorporators, I was formally voted its first president with the charge to organize the school and prepare for admission of the first students. It took three more years before classes started in 1865, as the onset of the Civil War and financial difficulties delayed the opening of the new institute. What I would like to share here with those of you who will read my blog are excerpts from the letters I wrote to my brother Henry in late 1860 and early 1861. This was when, together with the other members of the Associated Institutions of Art and Science, we were petitioning the state legislature for allocation of a part of the Back Bay land for a new institute, which was to promote discussions, publishing, and education in the industrial arts and science. Before doing so, however, let me tell you a bit more about myself.

I was born in 1804, in Philadelphia, the second of four brothers, all of whom became distinguished scientists. My schooling started at home under the guidance of my father, Patrick Kerr Rogers, a physician, and continued in Baltimore public schools. I enrolled at the College of William and Mary in 1819, where my father became a professor of natural philosophy and chemistry. After Father’s death in 1828, I took over his professorship, and taught astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, and physics for the next seven years. In 1835, the University of Virginia offered me the chair of natural philosophy, and I moved to Charlottesville. Sharing my interest in the study of minerals, rocks, and fossils with my brother Henry, I developed a passion for geology and lobbied successfully for the establishment of a geological survey in Virginia. As the state geologist, I directed the Virginia Geological Survey from 1835 until 1842, when the state stopped supporting the project. During the same period, Henry led geological surveys of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Based on our mapping of the stratigraphy and structural geology of those regions, which included the Appalachian Mountain chain, we derived a new theory of mountain formation and presented a paper at the third meeting of the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists in 1842, and later on before the British Association.

As teaching and administrative duties at the University of Virginia (I was chairman of the faculty in 1844-1845) were getting more and more tiresome, I became disillusioned with the prevailing attitude toward education and research in Virginia. It took several years before I finally resigned (in 1853) and moved to Boston, the hometown of my wife Emma Savage, whom I married in 1849. Conducting several courses of public lectures and publishing articles on an array of scientific topics, I became involved with a committee of interested citizens who, in 1859, petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for allocation of part of the newly recovered Back Bay land for a Massachusetts Conservatory of Art and Science. Even though the petition did not pass, the time was ripe to lobby for the establishment of a polytechnic school, an idea Henry and I conceived in the 1840s. On behalf of the Associated Institutions of Art and Science, I wrote the second memorial to the state legislature proposing that the Back Bay land should be used for a complex of educational institutions. That memorial was defeated as well. The next step was to submit a scaled-down plan, described in my “Objects and Plan for an Institute of Technology, including a Society of Arts, a Museum of Arts, and a School of Industrial Science, proposed to be established in Boston.” It was approved by the legislative committee, but not by the state legislature. We did not give up and, after many discussions and revisions, the “Act to Incorporate the Massachusetts Institute of Technology” was finally passed by the legislature and signed by Governor John Andrew on April 10th, 1861. Two days later the shots were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The Civil War had begun.

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