Reminiscences of MIT in the mid-1950s
Tales of the Institute in “Days of Yore”
Heading off to the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology in late August, 1954, I believed that I was doing a public service to the nation. America was in the early stages of the Space Race with the Soviet Union, and my guidance counselor at Dayton, Ohio’s Fairmont High School had convinced many of us graduating seniors that it was a civic duty to become engineers and help advance the nation’s chances of winning that historic race. Little did I know then that beating the Commies in space, and to the moon, would have little to do with my activity at MIT.
A few highlights of those MIT Days of Yore stand out, even after 60 years have passed. Some are worth recalling; others are perhaps best forgotten. One of my first shocks as a freshman at MIT was the size of large lecture classes, which exceeded the size of the entire Fairmont senior class. The most memorable of these freshman lectures had to be the freshman physics course taught by distinguished MIT professor Hans Mueller, who was a world-class practical joker.
Two infamous incidents come to mind. During one class, Dr. Mueller had a glass of water and a beaker of concentrated sulfuric acid on the large lab table in front from which he lectured. After demonstrating the potency of the acid, he appeared to switch it accidentally with the water glass, then seeming to take a big swallow from the beaker of acid, while everyone gasped or screamed. He then calmly asked what all of the fuss was about, knowing all along that he had switched the glass for the beaker, which were the same size and shape. His lecture continued without further ado — and it was only later that many of us learned that we had been pranked by a master.
Then, there was Dr. Mueller’s lecture on molecular movement and probability. That seems like a harmless topic — unless it is the molecular movement of air, and the tiny (but still greater than zero) possibility that all of the air molecules might congregate in one corner of the lecture hall. As the lecture proceeded, we were urged to picture that slight possibility, and the resulting lack of air in the rest of the lecture hall. Dr. Mueller’s description became more and more graphic, and soon a few freshmen were gasping for breath as the air seemed to have fled away. Before long, the gasping spread and intensified, while we looked up into that far corner where our air had migrated and prayed for its return to the rest of the room. Finally, Dr. Mueller bid the air to return, took a deep breath, and proceeded with his lecture as if nothing unusual had occurred.
However, MIT fun-and-games were not limited to the freshman physics classroom. There were, for example, the memorable chemistry lab sessions, which were presided over by ancient crones unofficially designated as Acid Annies. These women appeared to have been at MIT since its founding, and to not have improved much in either appearance or disposition in all those years. Any clatter of test tubes or other glassware earned a stare of reproach, while a Bunsen burner flame which exceeded the proper height caused an immediate and forceful rebuke. It was in chem lab that I learned the proper — or improper — use of the “bugger factor” which was designed to insure that our actual lab results more or less matched the correct ones per the lab manual. This knowledge has proven useful throughout later life, as it has a host of applications ranging from political polling to gambling decisions. Life, indeed, has many such “bugger factors.”
In the pressure-cooker that was student life at MIT in the mid-1950s, many memorable episodes occurred outside of our classrooms. Some of these episodes were fueled by “Home Brew” made by placing a batch of raisins (and sometimes other fruit) in a large glass jar or similar container, adding a half pound or so of sugar, and placing this rancid mix on a sunny windowsill to ferment. After a couple of weeks, there was a potent and highly-alcoholic mix which proved that techies could do successful chemistry experiments, after all. Home Brew was never the same twice.
Perhaps it was the Home Brew, or perhaps it was the need to relieve (or at least change) campus pressures, but in any event we had occasional Mirror Wars at the East Campus quad. These were pre-arranged by upperclassmen and the word was then passed from room to room. Each participant — and it was considered bad form not to participate — removed his dresser mirror and carefully placed it where the hot Cambridge sun would reflect off the mirror and onto the dorm across the quad. After a half hour or so, dorm temperatures became intolerable, even after we stripped down to “tidy whities” while sweat poured off of us and onto the floor. The first dorm whose residents ran outside screaming and panting was the loser in a Mirror War. Then again, as more Home Brew was sampled afterwards, perhaps none of us were indeed Mirror War losers.
One “Special Event” occurred each year and was eagerly awaited by MIT students. This event always occurred on May Day, May 1, the official date marking the beginning of the Russian Revolution. On that occasion, replicating the founding of the Soviet Union, MIT’s East Campus marched on West Campus. Both sides were armed with various non-lethal weapons, particularly the infamous Black Marias — lengths of lab tubing filled with high-pressure water and as fat as stuffed sausages. Letting one of these discharge against the opposition scored points, while other creative forms of mayhem contributed to the singular event. Dorm staff and assistants always seemed to disappear in advance of the MIT May Day Riot, and a good time was had to all — or nearly all, anyway. Casualties went to the infirmary, but usually injuries were minor.
Speaking of West Campus, the infamous attempt to enforce a Dinner Dress Code was also memorable. One day, a notice was posted on all bulletin boards there, and circulated room-to-room, that in the future, ties would be worn as required attire at all evening meals. The House Committee appeared to have devised this scheme to make us more like Harvard students, whose neckties were typically thrown over one shoulder of a blue blazer, above their khaki trousers. But techies were not the passive sheep attending Harvard; we had minds of our own. After hushed discussion in the West Campus halls and rooms, a plan was hatched: on the first official day of the new regulation, all residents indeed appeared for the evening meals wearing ties — and nothing else at all! (Those who were on the shy side wore a jock strap.) That was the end of the Dinner Dress Code at West Campus. A blow had been struck for student freedom at MIT!
Finally, the role of the ROTC military training program in the 1950s must be recognized. At least two years of the ROT CORPS, as it was unofficially termed, was required of all students, since MIT was a so-called land-grant college. We all envied the one techie who was too tall for a uniform to fit, and therefore was declared exempt. The rest of us, except for a few military types, managed to do our best to undercut the ROT CORPS — but that is a story for another day.
Eugene Elander is a member of the Class of 1958.