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About MIT: A brief history of MIT

In 1865, the founding of MIT established a new kind of independent educational institution relevant to an increasingly industrialized America. Since then, MIT has built a robust tradition of solving problems in the public interest at the intersection of technology and humanity.

A Private University in the Public Interest

The story of MIT begins with a heartfelt belief: that the American educational system of the 19th century was fundamentally broken. Instead of treating a scientific education and a practical education as fundamentally incompatible, its founders envisioned a new education to unify mens et manus, mind and hand, theory and practice, into a coherent program of study within a single institution.

In 1860, MIT’s founding President William Barton Rogers and his allies applied to the Massachusetts legislature for “an Act of Incorporation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” which was to include a museum, a society of the arts, and a school of industrial science. The state agreed, and allocated land in Boston’s Back Bay, on the condition that the institution remain open to members of the public. The charter was granted on April 10, 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, which delayed classes until 1865.

In 1863, in the midst of the war, Congress passed the the Morrill Land Grant Act, which allowed states to sell up to 30,000 acres of public land to fund colleges and universities, open in their admission to ordinary people, that would educate students in the mechanical and agricultural arts, as well as military training. In Massachusetts, the grant was split, with some funds sent west to create the Massachusetts Agricultural College,01 Today known as the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. while the rest was allocated to the newly-minted MIT. The proceeds from the grant endowed MIT with the resources to construct its earliest academic buildings, and also (re)committed it02 Later, MIT would triple down on this model by becoming a <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Sea_Grant_College_Program" target="_blank" rel="noopener">sea-grant</a> and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Space_Grant_College_and_Fellowship_Program" target="_blank" rel="noopener">space-grant</a> university as well. to acting in the public interest in perpetuity. 

A new approach to education

There have been found many American parents willing to try new experiments even in the irrevocable matter of their children’s education…It requires courage to quit the beaten paths in which the great majority [have walked].

—MIT Professor Charles Eliot, The New Education (1869)

From its inception, the new institution, offering a new education, attracted a new kind of student. Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman in the United States to earn a degree in STEM,03 You can read her thesis, on kinds of ore from Colorado, <a href="https://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/29221"><span style="font-weight: 400;">here</span></a>. graduated from MIT in 1870. She soon became its first female faculty member, helped establish the field of public sanitation04 According to her <a href="https://libraries.mit.edu/archives/exhibits/esr/esr-biography.html">obituary</a>, “she felt that greater opportunities for effective service to her fellow beings were open in that than in other fields and this probably represented the first, and possibly unconscious, leaning toward public service which later manifested itself in so large a measure.” and founded many programs to promote science education for women. Robert Robinson Taylor, the son of a freed slave, integrated MIT in 1888; he later became America’s first accredited black architect, and helped build  schools,05 Including, but not limited to, several historically black colleges and universities. libraries, and other buildings across the American south. 

MIT also became a beacon for students from around the world: the first international student was admitted to MIT in 1866, and many more were admitted in the decades after, despite a contemporaneous wave of anti-immigrant nativist political sentiment.06 Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose... As our blogger Yuliya wrote in her early history of international students at MIT:

In 1909, [Scotland native] President Maclaurin began his tenure at MIT with a vision to build a more diverse and inclusive Institute and “build a better understanding between countries.” [Under Maclaurin], 1 in 15 students at MIT came from a foreign country, possibly the highest proportion of international students in a U.S. institution…To achieve this ideal, MIT provided admissions pamphlets in Spanish and Chinese, and President Maclaurin traveled the world to recruit foreign students.

Today, international outreach, education, and institution-building remain core aspects of MIT’s global strategy.

Our current campus

By the early 1900s, MIT had run out of room in its original Back Bay campus, and in 1916 moved to the left bank of the Charles River into its current campus, which was designed and constructed by alumni.

As America entered World War I, MIT became a military training ground,07 In fact, more MIT alumni served as commissioned officers in WWI than alumni of any other school besides West Point. hosting the first Army-ROTC program as well as the first ground school for Navy pilots. 

But it was World War II, and the Cold War that followed it, that transformed MIT, and it grew rapidly with an influx of federal funding devoted to basic scientific research. Meanwhile, the horrors of the war led to the creation of a committee, led by Professor Warren K. Lewis, on the foundations of the MIT education. Haunted by his wartime work on the bomb, and fearful of the consequences of a technical education untethered to human concerns, Lewis’ report recommended the establishment of a new school of humanistic and social sciences at MIT and to nurture dynamic thinkers who would cut against the grain of conventional thought.08 Later, some of these thinkers among MIT students and faculty founded the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_of_Concerned_Scientists#History" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Union of Concerned Scientists</a>, who (still) seek to "devise means for turning research applications away from the present emphasis on military technology toward the solution of pressing environmental and social problems." In this sense, MIT, like many institutions (and nations), has a complicated relationship with both the work of war and work of peace.

From history to present (and future)

Marking and describing periods of history always becomes more difficult the closer one draws to the present. However, after the end of the Cold War, it’s probably safe to say that the recent history of MIT has been characterized primarily by continuing advances in research and entrepreneurshippublic advocacy on behalf of science itself, and welcoming students from across the country and the world. In this sense, the spirit of the New Education, though now old and venerable, continues: endlessly renewing itself through the production of new ideas, and the nurturing of talented students who bear them, in keeping with the MIT mission.

The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.

The Institute is committed to generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge, and to working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges. MIT is dedicated to providing its students with an education that combines rigorous academic study and the excitement of discovery with the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community. We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.

  1. Today known as the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. back to text
  2. Later, MIT would triple down on this model by becoming a sea-grant and space-grant university as well. back to text
  3. You can read her thesis, on kinds of ore from Colorado, here. back to text
  4. According to her obituary, “she felt that greater opportunities for effective service to her fellow beings were open in that than in other fields and this probably represented the first, and possibly unconscious, leaning toward public service which later manifested itself in so large a measure.” back to text
  5. Including, but not limited to, several historically black colleges and universities. back to text
  6. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose... back to text
  7. In fact, more MIT alumni served as commissioned officers in WWI than alumni of any other school besides West Point. back to text
  8. Later, some of these thinkers among MIT students and faculty founded the Union of Concerned Scientists, who (still) seek to "devise means for turning research applications away from the present emphasis on military technology toward the solution of pressing environmental and social problems." In this sense, MIT, like many institutions (and nations), has a complicated relationship with both the work of war and work of peace. back to text