Magical Incubator Commemorated in Video, Words

by Amy Marcott on March 2, 2011 · 0 comments

in Campus Culture, Remember When...

Over the course of its 55-year lifespan, Building 20 (above) housed labs focused on food technology, nuclear science, linguistics, acoustics, stroboscopic photography, and more.

Anyone who says MIT folks aren’t sentimental probably hasn’t seen the videos and written tributes about Building 20, a.k.a. the Magical Incubator.

MIT lore is ambiguous about the building’s nickname: Some say it references the sheer number of new research areas and ideas (radar, acoustics) that the building housed. Others say it refers to “the magical power of the building to bring out the best from those in it.”

In 1998,  Building 20 was scheduled to be demolished to make room for the new Stata Center. Former tenants gathered to pay their respects–and this is where it starts to get touching, as you’ll see.

In the spirit of MIT150 and the Institute’s ongoing sesquicentennial celebrations, Slice took a look at a few of the more memorable Building 20 remembrances.

Magical Incubator Video

A short video produced for the occasion describes the history of Building 20 and includes footage from the 1998 event.

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Magical Incubator Words

Former tenants also contributed written memories to an online repository hosted by the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. A few highlights are featured below. Visit the EECS page to read more.

My earliest memory of MIT is of Building 20. I was about 4 years old. I used to ride my red bicycle with training wheels that had a little license plate on the back that said “LISA” through the hall of that old musty building. My father and mother occasionally took me into Cambridge and I would ride my bike along the Charles River. We always detoured through Building 20, my father had space in that building and he would always stop and show me something or check and make sure everything was OK.

Being the kid of two longtime MIT employees, I have spent most of my life at MIT, one way or another. My first paycheck came at the age of ten from RLE’s Mary Scalleri for collating papers during a day off from school. Although I have been working at MIT for 12 years, every time I pass through Building 20, smell that old familiar musty odor, I see myself riding through the halls on my little red bike. –Lisa Ann Bella, administrative coordinator, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science


On my first day as a Research Assistant at D.A.C.L. in Building 20, I heard some loud noises which sounded very much like gunfire emanating from the floor below. I was even more surprised when, in response to the gunfire, some of the other researchers in my lab proceeded to lift up a desk and drop it on the floor a couple of times…..making even louder noises. Building 20 was not known for its soundproofing. It was then explained to me that the “guys” downstairs were shooting bullets through things like apples and the purpose of dropping the desk was to send them a message to cut down on the noise. The “guys,” as I later learned, were Prof. Edgerton’s group and the photographs that they were taking with strobe lights are now well known. Fortunately, Doc Edgerton and his “guys” had not been intimidated by the sound of the crashing desks. –Don Bruck SM ’58


As a former member of the Tech Model Railroad Club, located on the third floor of Building 20, I remember the Coke machine in the stairwell that charged only a nickel at a time (mid-50’s) when most other machines were charging a dime. I also remember the unusual way which we used to enter the building. We would walk behind the building and press a hidden button near the foundation. This would cause a buzzer to activate in the Club’s rooms, which would usually result in a club member coming down to the back door to let us in. But most of all, I remember the unique smell of Building 20 and the sound of walking along it’s hallways. –Ira D. Holtzman ’57


Share your own memories of Building 20 in the comments section or on the MIT Alumni Association Facebook page.

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