This video was created for and premiered at the second meeting of the Charter Society, a small group of committed MIT donors. The goal of the piece was to show MIT’s current benefactors how philanthropy has always been an indispensable part of the institute’s success, and also how the “DNA” of MIT can be seen in the drive, dreams, and sense of humor of its earliest professors and students.
MIT’s first building opened its doors in Boston about 150 years ago. The site was the Back Bay, a marshy, foul-smelling area that was being filled in with trainloads gravel. For the students, it was an inspiring setting for a new institute of technology–a place where they could see and hear machines that were making land out of water. Once MIT had a building, it had to attract students. Since most candidates had never heard of the brand-new school, MIT’s founder took the unusual step of placing newspaper ads. Soon the first class enrolled. Some students who had not flourished with traditional education suddenly found themselves engaged and inspired by MIT’s radical hands-on approach. MIT’s unique character emerged quickly. Students delighted in proving their professors wrong, and practical jokes–today called “hacks”–quickly became a signature of the school. At its core, MIT was a meritocracy, and it’s this value that led the institute to accept an unusual student in 1870. Elle Swallow was the first woman admitted to MIT, the first in the U.S. to attend a science school, and the first female professional chemist in the U.S. But impressive as she was, she was not allowed to take courses alongside her male classmates but instead received private tutoring in a lab of her own. With an original vision and an emphasis on substance over style, MIT survived its fragile early years and grew into the world-class institute it is today.