Guest Blogger: Debbie Levey, CEE technical writer
The tradition of MIT Open Houses reaches back almost 90 years, to 1923. This year MIT will sponsor its first day-long community open house in more than 30 years as part of the sesquicentennial and Cambridge Science Fest. All across campus, visitors can drop in on lectures, lab tours, and interactive displays, participate in a scavenger hunt and attend performances. You are invited to “Under the Dome: Come Explore MIT!”
Until 1980 open houses, which were mostly run by student organizations, were held at least every few years and attracted up to 40,000 curious visitors. Spectators gawked at the large Foucault pendulum swinging from the Barker library dome in 1927 and in 1950 marveled as the Food Technology Department baked a cake in two minutes using “radar waves to cause rapid, uniform heating by molecular friction.”
1920s The Chemical Warfare Service of the Institute supplied high-powered hand flares furnishing 500,000 candle power of light for five minutes. “While they are burning, a smoke screen will be laid over Tech Field to show how a gas attack is made,” promised The Tech. Objects burned in liquid oxygen, and flowers transformed into “a brittle, glasslike substance by a few seconds contact with a little liquid air” to dazzle the crowds. Souvenirs included MIT-insignia ribbons woven on modern looms in the Textile Laboratory, and two-inch models of the Institute seal stamped out by the Forging Lab.
1930s Open Houses provided free entertainment during the Depression to crowds in the 30,000 range, principally school boys and their parents. This potential market attracted outside entrepreneurs, and in 1936 The Tech criticized the “unfavorable atmosphere created by large numbers of ice cream and peanut venders.”
1940s Approximately 30,000 “came to see Technology’s many -ometers, -orators, -ographs, and -oscopes at the 15th Open House . …The most popular exhibits were the Wright Brothers wind tunnel and the model railroad designed by students of Course I,” according to The Tech, while the most highly prized souvenirs were hand-blown glass vacuum tubes and drop forged aluminum seals of the Institute.
1950s Exhibits by Course XX, Food Technology, included an early microwave cooking system to prepare a two-minute cake, a new method for dehydrating orange juice and eggs, and the 250,000-volt Trump Generator for sterilizing food. Spectators sampled the cake afterwards with added whipped cream.
Other highlights among the 250 exhibits visited by nearly 40,000 visitors included a new method of flame propagation using a flow of gas at high pressure, plus “laboratories and classrooms in operation to illustrate the contributions to modern living made by technical education and research,” wrote The Tech. Along with athletic events and concerts, the playing fields served “as a landing field for sundry aircraft that morning.”
1960s and 1970s During these decades, sometimes students struggled to present the mostly biannual events. In 1976, the exhibits committee chairman complained to The Tech that “only about 85% of the departments are doing anything this year, and a smaller percentage are really gung ho.” Another student organizer noted, “It’s difficult to give outsiders a good picture of the Institute when interesting, non-engineering departments [such as Psychology and Meteorology] wish to do nothing.”
Despite a successful event in 1978 with 20,000 visitors, the last public Open House was held in 1980.
The 1929 MIT President’s Report describes that year’s Open House as “an inspiration to great numbers of young men and boys, some of whom will become the famous scientists and engineers of the future.” As young women now comprise more than 45 percent of MIT’s undergraduate population, the visitors on April 30 should find the program inspirational for young men and women.