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August 1, 2022

A Progress Studies History of Early MIT—Part 2: An Industrial Research Powerhouse

by Eric Gilliam

Each piece in the MIT series can stand alone for the most part, but I’ve written them in such a way that they build off each other. So, I’d recommend reading Part 1 before this piece for optimal pleasure.

As was true of the last piece, the majority of the MIT-related information in this piece comes from Philip Alexander’s fantastic work of history called A Widening Sphere: Evolving Cultures at MIT.

MIT’s then-new Cambridge campus, completed in 1916

Executive Summary:

In the early 1900s, MIT began to pursue research in a more focused way. Since MIT’s mission was to serve industry, the Institute pursued extremely applied research and quickly became an industrial research powerhouse. MIT proved its researchers were extremely effective, working on applied problems such as cleaning city water sources, iron and steel corrosion, and speech clarity in telephone transmission. The Institute, in the post-World War I era, even implemented a program called the Technology Plan, which facilitated hundreds of contacts at a time with different companies where MIT was paid in exchange for its researchers expertise in consulting/research work.

As MIT saw it, “There could be no more legitimate way for a great scientific school to seek support than by being paid for the service it can render in supplying special knowledge where it is needed.” When MIT was heavily pursuing industrial research of this type, it was doing a phenomenal job of directly solving the vexing problems of modern industry with its researchers as well as training the engineering students at the Institute to solve those problems in the future. University engineering departments should consider pursuing more of this industrial — not so “academic” in the modern sense — research work into their missions to help create progress, in the world of physical things in particular.


The first piece in this series covered the early decades of MIT and its approach toward educating many of the engineers who would end up in leading roles in America’s era of peak growth and building. In this piece, I will cover the Institute’s differentiated approach to research. MIT was radically committed to its primary goal of serving the needs of industry above all else. This not only resulted in a curriculum that was extremely applied, but it also extended to the Institute’s approach to research in its early years.

MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers, did not live to see MIT pursue this mission of extremely applied research on a large scale. But it was always in his grand vision for the school. Rogers himself was an academic with an applied bent. While he was a Physics and Civil Engineering professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, he was made the official State Geologist of Virginia after publishing a series of articles in the Farmers’ Register, a monthly publication “devoted to the improvement of the practice, and support of the interests of agriculture.” The articles detailed a method for sanding rocks commonly found in Virginia to make fertilizers. The Virginia farmers, for whom the publication was intended, quickly began deploying Rogers’ methods in the field.

This type of research — requiring skills far above the level of the common worker to undertake, but producing outputs that were extremely useable by the common worker — was exactly the kind of research that the Institute would go on to perform at a much larger scale. And this style of research, if integrated into the engineering departments of top universities, could go a shockingly long way in facilitating progress today.

The First Official Labs

For many years, research had to take a backseat at the Institute. The primary goal of the Institute was training its students — and the Institute was very resource-constrained for its early life. However, around 1903, Tech’s research efforts began to pick up steam under the direction of President Henry Pritchett.

Pritchett said upon returning from a tour of several German polytechnics:

The time has come when the Institute must not only be a teaching body, but it must well lay the foundations for a school of investigation into the physical sciences…How important is the development of the research spirit as a part of national progress we are only just beginning to realize.

Upon returning, he established several labs. The first was the School for Engineering Research, a place designed for advanced engineering students to work, experiment, publish ideas, and build up an increasing pool of knowledge for engineers and other related workmen to utilize in the real world. (Tech shut down the lab soon after it began due to staffing difficulties.) The second, founded in 1903, was the Research Laboratory for Physical Chemistry. It was created largely at the urging of Chemistry Professor Arthur Noyes (’86). Several of the instructors affiliated with chemistry work at MIT were already conducting their own personal research, so establishing a lab gave them a more formal venue to continue their research. While the lab had a strong interdisciplinary bent, hiring both physicists and chemists, the research it performed was much less applied than much of MIT’s early research, making it a bit of a minority at the Institute for the following decades.

The third lab was Tech’s Sanitary Research Laboratory and Sewage Experiment Station. The research carried out at the lab typified the kind of research that the Institute would do best in the following decades. The technical contributions the lab made were extremely practical, but “always conceived in a thoroughly scientific spirit.” The goal of the lab was to address the sewage problem afflicting many American cities and towns. (MIT instructors had been working on the problem for several decades, but the injection of funds allowed the project to expand its work.) The research program was based on the hands-on testing of and experimenting with the city water supplies. Under Biology Professor William Sedgwick, the lab would invent the first techniques for measuring microorganisms in sewage and possibly the first use of sand filtration of a city water supply for disease prevention in 1893.

Many of Sedgwick’s civil engineering and sanitary engineering students would take these learnings forward with them as water systems were built in towns all around the country throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. (I detail the massive impact of these water systems in depth here.) With the injection of funds in 1903, this course of research expanded its scope and Sedgwick hired a diverse team of biologists, chemists, and bacteriologists to push the lab’s work even further. These extra funds allowed the lab to take on even bigger roles in research as well as public health efforts more generally.

1903 marked a turning point. Tech was on more stable footing and able to take a more organized approach to research at an institutional level. The applied approach that MIT took was a natural fit for the Institute and the Institute’s labs quickly began to impress industry with their ability to solve a wide range of partners’ technical problems.

The growth of applied research at the Institute

Over the next 15 years, applied research would grow and thrive at the Institute. And, to be clear, what they called applied research at the time was much more applied than what we call applied research today — where things like experimental particle physics would come to mind as “applied”. Applied research meant things like industrial research problems or the kinds of problems they were working on at the Lawrence Experiment Station.

These applied research projects at the Institute were often done in partnership with or in service to companies. President Maclaurin, who oversaw much of this applied research expansion, strongly believed that work done by the applied and pure labs at the Institute was complementary. But given the financial constraints, MIT tended to lean towards growing the applied research projects. Alexander writes the following on research under Maclaurin:

Most lines of research introduced on his watch were engineering-based, not science-oriented. In 1911, the electrical engineering department studied ways to improve electric vehicles while naval architecture worked on ship propulsion. A research division in electrical engineering, analogous to the laboratories already in existence for physical chemistry, applied chemistry, and sanitary engineering, was established in 1913 with support from AT&T and other companies. One of its inaugural projects looked at problems of speech clarity in telephone transmission. Also in 1913 Maclaurin arranged with the U.S, Navy secretary Josephus Daniels for Jerome Hunsakar, of the naval constructors’ corp, to come to Tech to train aeronautical engineers and to promote research on “flying machines” and manned flight. A research laboratory of aerodynamics was founded in 1914, with a wind tunnel — first of its kind in America — to evaluate the impact of air currents at then-breathtaking velocities up to 40 m.p.h. Results laden with military applications flowed to the Navy in series of confidential reports. One study in 1915 assessed the influence of gyroscopic stabilizers on the motion of aircraft exposed to high wind gusts. The problems tackled by these various laboratories arose, Maclaurin observed, out of “the actual difficulties of our industrial life” and presented Tech with key opportunities in light of how rapidly such problems continued to crop up. Engineering research was vital to “the whole field of profitable enterprises,” and with German supplies cut off because of the war, chemical engineering was uniquely positioned to stimulate America’s next industrial boom. — A Widening Sphere

MIT was ideally suited to take up work like the projects above and excelled at doing this type of industrial and engineering research. In this period, Tech lost many of its faculty who were more interested in pure scientific research to other universities — as the curriculum was also becoming more applied. There was no question that the Institute existed to best serve the needs of industry and the school was increasingly doubling down on this mission. There were naysayers, but much of the school’s board (the MIT Corporation) was quite pleased because the Institute was producing useful research, building MIT’s reputation by impressing their industrial clients, and training engineers of the highest level. So, there was not much urgency to immediately begin expanding the role of pure research at the Institute.

In 1917, when the US entered World War I, the Institute continued to expand the applied research work that would contribute to the military effort. Chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering laboratories shifted their efforts to finding ways to offset German advances in military technology. One of the more notable uses of MIT instructors was in poison gas-related work. Professor William Walker, director of the Research Laboratory of Applied Chemistry, was made commanding officer of the chemical warfare service and 18 members of the department followed him, working on poison gas and gas defense.

Financially supporting itself with applied research: MIT’s Technology Plan

When the war ended, MIT found itself in a precarious funding situation. The post-war period was a time of industrial uncertainty, and this made many of MIT’s traditional donors much less likely to come forward with large donations. Massachusetts had also cut off its yearly state gift to MIT because of a law change. In concert with a vast influx of students resuming their studies after serving in the war, MIT was in a financial bind.

But Maclaurin had an idea: self-support. MIT would capitalize on its own assets and earn money by formally offering its services to industry on a larger scale. High numbers of industrial partners had been eager to engage in ad-hoc courses of research with MIT’s applied professors, often paid for by the company, anyway. Why not turn this into a much larger, more formal program that was facilitated by the Institute? The idea would grow into what was known as the Technology Plan.

The Technology Plan is emblematic of the industrious, no complaining, get-things-done attitude of the Institute in that era. Maclaurin established a new division of the Institute, the Division for Industrial Cooperation and Research (DICR), to oversee the initiative. And they got to work.

The DICR was launched in 1919 with William Walker, the head of the applied chemistry institute, as the director. The plan was meant to attract a wide range of industry sponsors and would work as follows:

In return for an annual fee paid up-front, a company was entitled to technical advice from faculty and staff, consulting services, access to alumni records, a variety of quid pro quos. Walker, who had led Tech’s highly regarded experiment in cooperative education (the school for chemical engineering practice), employed an aggressive marketing strategy to seal contracts, totaling almost a million dollars, with 189 firms inside two months. He wanted the program viewed as a kind of exclusive club, one that members boasted belonging to, rather than as a charity to help pull the Institute out of a financial hole. Firms were offered bang for their buck, so to speak, and got it, by and large. “We want to meet the industries more than halfway,” Walker told the local press. “There could be no more legitimate way for a great scientific school to seek support than by being paid for the service it can render in supplying special knowledge where it is needed…Manufacturers may come to us with problems of every kind, be they scientific, simple, technical or foolish. We shall handle each seriously, giving the best the institute has at its disposal.” Some complained that MIT, in setting itself up as an industrial consulting service, had placed itself in competition with its own alumni. But Coleman du Pont swatted this fear aside—”If any Tech man has made such a criticism,” he said, “he must be a poor specimen of the breed, for the real Tech man has no fear of competition.” — A Widening Sphere

The program was remarkably successful and played a massive role in helping MIT survive this time of financial uncertainty. And, culturally, the Technology Plan work felt like a natural role for Tech to play in carrying out its mission to serve industry.

Some tech faculty, particularly those like Noyes and Hale — who were more on the pure research end of things — thought the Technology Plan was a slippery slope and would blur the lines of education and industry too much. But the arguments for, in the end, were far stronger in the short run. The pros, as one current student later recalled them, were:

The Institute would gain by being brought closer to Industry’s problems, to the benefit of professor and student alike; that Industry in its turn would learn that there were ways of getting benefits from the Institute other than by raiding its faculty and luring its most gifted men away for good—in those days a real vexing problem. — A Widening Sphere

The administrative machinery MIT put in place to facilitate Technology Plan contracts worked extremely well. The DICR would serve as intermediary, negotiator, and manager of all contracts between faculty members, departments, and outside firms. “Staff attached to the Laboratory of Industrial Physics operated under several such contracts, in a more or less self-supporting way. So did the Research Laboratory of Applied Chemistry, with projects carried on simultaneously in oil refining, iron and steel corrosion, paper waterproofing, automobile fuels, combustion reactions, rubber, leather, lubrication, and metallic oxidation.” The lab also consulted on textile cleansing for the Laundry Owners of New England. Several members of the chemical engineering group worked as consultants for fuel, oil, and gas companies. The electrical engineering laboratories held research contracts for research on high-tension cables and the impact of illumination on industrial efficiency. As interest in communications grew in the mid-1920s, the labs entered into agreements with Western Electric, New York Telephone, Bell Labs, and AT&T, all behemoths at the time. Projects of this sort included things like short-wave radio research.

Also notable was Vannevar Bush’s work on an electromechanical integrating device—product integraph, a form of analog computer—which vastly improved computing capacity, speed, and accuracy. Bush’s other research projects included the network analyzer, a power-system simulator sponsored largely by General Electric and completed by 1929, and, a decade later, the differential analyzer, a more advanced version of the integraph developed with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. — A Widening Sphere

And labs like biological laboratories sought industry contracts to study nutrition, vitamin values, fermentation, effects of irradiation, and applications of bacteriology in food processes.

In this era — when MIT researchers were heavily involved in Technology Plan projects — the Institute was at its best in a way. The Institute was contributing large amounts of its research resources to solving vexing industry problems while also better training young engineers to go solve problems like these in the future. And the school accomplished all of this while solving a desperate funding problem.

The Institute would surely need to find a way to strike a proper balance between these industrial research projects and research that was a little more open-ended, but the Technology Plan was an important step in MIT finding a new and creative way to make itself extremely useful to industry.

At times, things may have gotten a bit too applied

While most of the professors involved, as well as the MIT corporation, seemed quite pleased with large parts of the arrangement, there was a balance to be struck. At a certain point, the proportion of research being carried out for these DICR contracts grew to be a bit too large for the good of the Institute. Under President Stratton, they sought to reign things in a bit. Alexander writes:

The incentive underlying many of MIT’s research programs was earning power and service to industry. Department heads in the engineering disciplines argued that the Institute accrued substantial benefits from industry’s need for help with problem-solving. “The Institute,” wrote one, “true to its traditions, should occupy the first place for the training of leaders for these industries.” But by the mid-1920s, Stratton and some engineering faculty began to question this focus. Stratton [then-MIT President] appreciated funding boosts—the Research Laboratory of Applied Chemistry brought in $171,880 in outside contracts in 1927-28, while its poorer, pure-science sister, the Research Laboratory of Physical Chemistry, brought in $25,483—as well as the professional opportunities that came students’ way because of MIT’s ties to commerce and industry. But these often turned into mixed blessings. Robert Haslam, director of the applied chemistry research lab, warned in 1924 that reliance on industry for six-sevenths of the lab’s support had prevented the program from branching out in creative ways. “While our outside relations are peculiarly fortunate and happy, this work is of necessity carried on under certain pressure that interferes with the productive capacity of the Department in its contributions to general science. The Department would regret to lose all this outside work, but if the proportion of it could be reduced, the contributions of the Department to the prestige of the Institute and to the development of the profession could be greatly increased.” — A Widening Sphere

Stratton set out to help staff devote less time to tasks and more to issues and “working out problems of fundamental importance to the industry as a whole.” Also, in a practical sense, Stratton believed it would be easier to retain applied staff members, who were lured to work for companies frequently if they were granted more freedom — since the work was similar and pay and resources far greater.

The steps that the Institute took in the 1920s to rectify the situation should serve as some proof that this extremely applied, industrial work can exist alongside a culture of pure research.

Industrial research and pure research can pair well

President Pritchett was formerly a researcher himself and recognized that pure research was, to some extent, obviously necessary to carry on a thriving engineering department that served industry. With this goal in mind, in 1924, the Head of the MIT Physics Department earmarked a portion of the proceeds from contracts with General Electric and Victor X-Ray Corporation to encourage pure science research in physics, chemistry, and biology. They also approved a new Laboratory for Theoretical Physics. Alexander writes:

Even Vannevar Bush, whose experience lay on the applied side, was excited about prospects for fruitful give-and-take between this strong group, mathematics faculty such as Norbert Weiner and Henry Phillips, and electrical-engineering faculty and staff such as Gustav Dahl, Gleason Kenrick, and Julius Stratton. — A Widening Sphere

In this period, MIT would invite famous pure research physicists, often Europeans, to come for visiting professorships and lectures, such as Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, William Lawrence Bragg, Erwin Schrödinger, and Albert Michelson. After his visit in 1929, Bragg, who eventually became the Director of the renowned Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, wrote the following piece of advice to President Stratton on how to balance MIT’s applied bent with the obvious need to be doing a sufficient amount of exploration.

I take it…that you wish a good deal of this work to be on fundamental problems rather than on the problems sent in by firms which require a quick solution to some difficulty that has been encountered…I think you need one or two men in the laboratory who know the theory of analysis thoroughly, and who are free to follow to its end any interesting clue which turns up, without the feeling that they must produce practical results as soon as possible. Of course the man who has the power of producing the practical results is just as important and valuable, but he draws his ideas largely from the other fellow who is doing more fundamental work.

And even if one or two of the type of researcher that Bragg describes residing in each lab does not sound like enough to the reader, one could easily substitute in a larger number of these pure researchers. The main point to take from this excerpt is that even a top pure researcher like Bragg, whose Cambridge laboratory was as traditional as it gets, believed there was a way for pure researchers to thrive in even MIT’s most applied labs — which handled primarily industrial contracts.

Pure researchers SHOULD play a role at an institute dedicated to engineering and industry. But, also, the heavy role of applied research contracts in running a successful institute of this kind just makes sense. Many other land grant universities in the pre-World War II era engaged in industrial and agricultural research like this as well. At the time, the money flowing into these universities often craved a more practical research output. As I wrote in an earlier piece:

Pre-1950, the federal government was not anywhere near the behemoth university research funder that they are now. From 1909 to 1939, federal funding was somewhere between 4% to 7% of university revenue. Instead, universities relied heavily on state and industry funding.11

Their share of revenue from state funding in this period was closer to 20% to 30%. In return for heavy state funding, research universities developed specialties that were specific to the industrial activity of their state.12 Examples of this include the University of Oklahoma pioneering innovations in petroleum engineering such as reflection seismology and the University of Illinois producing cutting-edge research in crop production that was actionable for regular farmers.

Many of the best universities also relied heavily on industry partners and contracts for funding. This was in both the form of industry-sponsored labs and studies to produce research directly related to the industry’s work or through “consulting” contracts. These consulting contracts were not seen as the sideshows to the actual teaching and research that they are today. Rather, they were seen as opportunities for the professor to produce useful and exciting research, stay sharp on how industry was actually functioning so they could better train the university students, and make the professors and their universities much-needed income.

What is the right balance?

Many believe that corporate contracts, the bedrock of the Technology Plan, should play no major role in a researcher’s job. They think it is better to let the university research departments largely subsist on federal money — often from the NIH or NSF — that strongly favors pure research — what they called applied research in the 1920s would likely be perceived as far too applied to qualify for many modern “applied” grants. But, I don’t believe this anti-industrial research bias was at all the intention of individuals like Vannevar Bush who fought for the expansion of funds for basic research.

Bush, the then MIT Professor of Electric Power Transmission, had a much more moderated view on this point than many would expect — given that many primarily know him from his authoring Science: The Endless Frontier. Bush spent a large amount of his time working on research either for or funded by General Electric. He and President Karl Compton first met in a quite heated fashion when Bush was furious at a new Compton policy.

Bush opposed Compton’s one-day-a-week limit on outside consulting and a 50% tax on outside income — the proceeds to go into a special fund that would get distributed to all faculty. Bush threatened to leave since when he began his job at the Institute he was promised the ability to do a certain amount of consulting far exceeding the one-day-a-week limit. On top of bristling at MIT reneging on its promises, he said, “And furthermore I won’t stay at a place that has so little sense it tries to clip down to nothing proper consultation on the part of its engineering professors.” Compton offered Bush an exemption which made Bush irate, “Your whole damn fool plan will resolve in a welter of exceptions.”

Bush saw one-day-a-week as his consultation time being clipped “down to nothing.” When interpreting Bush’s viewpoint in reading The Endless Frontier, it is important to keep in mind the context in which he was writing it. This was the system that raised him. He was not decrying the use of researchers on industrial applications, which had gained more acceptance as a good public investment at the time. He was raising his voice to ensure that pure research, a vital natural resource for applied research and engineering work, was emphasized as well!

The need for pieces to be written in support of more industrial research contracts at a place like MIT would never have occurred to the MIT professors at the time. They were doing that work in spades. But, in assessing our current university research ecosystem, we may now find ourselves in the opposite equilibrium. Many professors are expected to spend as much time as possible producing research that serves the academic literature. Their work on projects that serve industrial applications is, in many cases, tolerated as long as it does not affect their publishing. And their performance on these projects is generally not used in hiring and promotion considerations — those are made almost entirely based on their publishing.

That seems terrible for progress.

There is a massive opportunity for universities with large engineering departments to implement and expand programs similar to MIT’s Technology Plan. In determining what percentage of time would be ideal to allocate to these activities, we can take some hints from the stories above. Vannevar Bush thought, for a very applied researcher like himself, that 20% of his time was far too little. We will call that the lower bound. And many felt that 6/7ths of the applied chemistry laboratory’s money, we’ll say that paid for 75% of the lab’s aggregate time, was too much. So, given those two bounds, it does not feel ridiculous for a university to orient its engineering department to strive for something like a 50/50 aggregate time split between pure research and industrial research.

These research projects would carve out time for researchers to apply their toolkit to the applicable problems of industry that are most in need of their skills. It would also create a corp of instructors far more capable of training useful and innovative engineers to work on those same problems upon graduation. Producing work whose output fills some hole in the academic literature and producing work that is meant to be an input into a physical industrial process are far from the same task. Not to mention, this type of work might result in increased productivity in pure research as well.

There can and should be individuals who spend almost all of their time on pure research. But it is probably bad for future progress to allow too many of these individuals to work in an environment in which few of their peers are spending a substantial amount of time working on industrial applications and problems. No matter what, some basic research will always find a way of trickling its way down into practical industrial importance. But allowing pure researchers to be siloed from the acquaintance of those who work on industrial applications — and not just the need to work on those problems themselves — feels like it is setting the system up for inefficiency. When we look back on the era of explosive productivity in areas of basic research like physics and math in the early 1900s, even the purest of pure researchers at the time tended to have regular interactions either with industry or with researchers who did industry-related research — due to industry contracts themselves, close friends who did industry work regularly, or conscription to work on military.

Many fear that we have become less successful at innovating in the world of physical things. Early MIT — with its Technology Plan and its general philosophies regarding what it meant to produce research that was useful to industry — offers many hints as to what can be tried to generate more innovation that scales in the industrial world. And I see no reason why these efforts have to come at the expense of pure research’s productivity.

Engineering departments around the country should consider hiring more early-MIT-style industrial researchers and implementing Technology Plan-like programs. There’s a chance that programs like this could even be run in a self-funded way — given their goal of taking on high numbers of industry contracts. Even for the most risk-averse institution, this could be a moderate-risk, high-reward bet that is worth making.