American Aristocracy: The Gods of Copley Square – Cornerstone
The MIT block of the 1860s, of which only the Boston Society of Natural History Building (above right) still stands
American exceptionalism, proud progeny of Boston exceptionalism, inherits how much, I wonder, of what is not unreasonable about the original? Consider Philadelphia historian Digby Baltzel’s conclusion that “no other city in America and very few in Western history as a whole have equaled Boston between the ages of Cotton Mather and Henry Adams in dominating the ideas and values of a developing nation.” The developing nation, as it turned out, of what would be the American century – the 20th century.
Nor is it clear to this advocate of Boston-centric Global Studies that what Baltzell called “Boston’s hegemony over the American mind” is contracting rather than expanding in the 21st century, when the American intellectual capitol has hardly declined either from being the capital city of Western learning the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead perceived it had become by the 1940s. Whitehead made this pronouncement at an institution that was one of the most conspicuous evidences of Boston exceptionalism – the American Academy of Arts and Sciences – founded by arguably the first Boston Brahmin, US founding father John Adams, an institution whose history is one of the earliest threads that leads to Copley Square.
First in Philadelphia in the 1770s – “in general old Massachusetts outshines her younger sisters,” Adams wrote home to his wife, “Still … they have more wit than we. They have . . . the Philosophical Society” – and then in Paris, Adams bided his time. When in the French capitol “in the commission to the King of France . . . [he] was frequently entertained with inquiries concerning the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia . . . and encomiums on [their] publications” he knew what he had to do: “these conversations suggested to me the idea of such an establishment at Boston, where I knew there was as much love of science.”
An example of the sort of society Adams famously encouraged in the Massachusetts Constitution, the Academy, founded in 1799, moved a century later in 1899 to the Back Bay, and in 1904 joined Copley Square’s great galaxy of institutions when it built at 28 Newbury Street, close to the Natural History Society, the handsome building that still proudly declares its name and lineage in bronze on marble over its main entrance today. Alas, an awning above the bronzework proclaims a more commercial message. As Lewis Mumford, perhaps the leading American critic of the urban scene in the first half of the 20th century, dolefully explained in Back Bay Boston: The City as a Work of Art, in the 1950s the Academy deserted the city and “traded in this central position for a suburban estate.” Today one buys designer jeans in its once august halls.
Designer jeans matter, of course. Richard Florida ‘s latest figures in the May 2012 Atlantic disclose that Boston now ranks fourth among “America’s most powerful global cities,” economically outpaced only by New York, Chicago and Washington, D C. Still, I ventured into “The Banana Republic” – what the American Academy’s first permanent home is now – only once and found the experience somewhat odd, sorting through smart jackets and such where once in the 1920s Albert Einstein held forth to Bostonians about relativity.
Exceptionalism also has this characteristic, which might be called a weakness (why poet Robert Creeley once urged on me instead “Boston’s particularism”) – it requires something to be neurotic about. For Adams it was, first, Philadelphia; finally, Paris. For the United States as a whole now it is undoubtedly China. What, one might usefully inquire, during the Brahmin ascendancy, did Boston most conspicuously need?
Rome? – which Puritans-turned-Unitarians detested almost viscerally. New York? – which Emerson, always reliable, led the way, historically, in disliking. New Orleans? Boston’s exact civic opposite. But dislike, certainly disapproval, is not the same thing as anxiety, which is more respectful, more admiring. When Bainbridge Bunting wrote that in the second half of the 20th-century in “planning Commonwealth Avenue . . . as a great boulevard and in constructing . . . mansions akin in style to those being built in Paris in the same years, Boston expressed its will to assume a place among the great cities of the world,” he was underlining the fact that the Brahmin’s second language was French; their rival, Paris. And in Copley Square, their cultural ideal would turn out to be, not Second Empire Paris, but something very like the 18the century French Enlightenment Adams had first experienced the results of in 18th-century Paris – science, in the lead.
How ossified our history has become. I don’t dare ask my students what was the idea – and it was a big one – history offered up to launch embryonic Copley Square on the world stage when the northeast corner block of the future square was beginning to spring to life in the early 1860s. Or what was the role, the vital part in the history of the idea, that the square played; only a footprint then with one or two lonely half- built landmarks.
The American philosopher-historian John Fiske knew – certainly how big an idea it was. “Since the publication of the immortal ‘Principia’” – Newton’s work of 1687 that is widely accepted as the most important book in the history of science – no scientific idea – “no scientific book,” Harvard’s Fiske wrote in the Atlantic “has so widened the mental horizon of mankind as the Origin of Species.” The idea was evolution. The book was by Charles Darwin.
Fiske knew well the intensity of feeling that idea, that book, aroused, he having been first denied a position at Harvard and then given it (under two different presidents!) because of his views on the subject, widely known. Fiske knew too how vital it was to insure humankind’s “widen[ing] mental horizon”would not be closed down by such reactions to Darwin’s idea – that being the urgent, immediate and highly controversial task following the debut of Origin, which fell hardest on this side of the Atlantic on two Boston scientists: Asa Gray and William Barton Rogers. Harvard’s Gray was among Darwin’s closest friends and partisans, (Darwin once wrote Gray that there was “hardy anyone on the world whose approbation I value more highly”), while Rogers, a distinguished geologist, was particularly the man of the moment because he was on the eve of founding in Boston a great scientific university that would “over-top the university’s of the land.”
If you pay due heed to the two-decker Life and Letters of Rogers, it makes the claim – the implications of which have never been properly explored, it runs so against the grain of what historians have given us all to understand – that the celebrated Memorial Rogers wrote for the Massachusetts Legislature in 1860 “must be regarded as foreshadowing the establishment not only of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but of that notable group of buildings now occupied . . . also by the Boston Society of Natural History and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, as well as, more indirectly, Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library; all in the vicinity of Copley Square, which has become a centre of the intellectual life of the modern city.”
MIT in Copley Square? Who knew? Actually, there is a plaque. But this is not a good example of the skill with which Brahmin Boston characteristically deployed the art of the understatement. Instead, I will myself rephrase the the claim. Doing the one thing, as it were, with his left hand, and the other with his right, and a third perhaps with both, Rogers became an effective spearhead of, first, focusing Boston’s age-old intellectual and cultural legacy so as to establish an American intellectual center or agora as I call it, an acropolis finally, where ideas would be taken seriously – 19th-century Copley Square – as the context of, second, establishing the great polytechnic institute he had long dreamed of – MIT – all the while standing up for the big idea in science of his day everywhere but especially the task of he and Gray to defend and enlarge upon.
Because he accomplished all three tasks at the same time, each reflecting back on the other to their mutual advantage,MIT becoming the square’s cornerstone and Darwin’s defense its first great defining moment (as we will see shortly) William Barton Rogers must be nominated, perhaps the second (behind Adams) but effectively the first and certainly the foremost of the gods of Copley Square.
Rogers’s review in the Boston Courier in March 5th, 1860, seems to have been the first full-fledged article about Darwin’s book in the American press, though The New York Times was only three weeks behind with a much longer and equally positive review. Rogers, who had written his brother Henry in January of 1860, “The more I look into Darwin’s argument the more I like it,” must have been much encouraged when Henry, a professor at Glasgow University, wrote to him of it in February of 1860, at the same time making plain Darwin’s defense team was an international one: “I wrote to [English biologist Thomas] Huxley . . . in relation to Darwin’s book and your liberal defense of it and he replies much pleased.” Certainly in his Courier review Rogers had made plain his enthusiasm for Origin:
[It was] certain that arguments emanating from so philosophical a thinker, and presented with such fairness and simplicity, will not only command the earnest attention of scientific men of whatever predilections, but will in many cases win, at least, their partial assent . . . [Mr. Darwin is] likely to find able and zealous supporters, and . . . he is likely to have efficient assistance in the grand contest of observation and argument which he has thus initiated.
According to Ronald Numbers in Darwinism in America, Rogers worried he might have to “do battle almost unaided” for Darwin. But his Courier review, aimed at a general lay audience, was something of a companion to a more scientific review of the same month in the American Journal of Science by Gray, who in July of 1860 also authored the major Boston review in the Atlantic, returning to the attack in the same journal in October. Just because he was so close to the author of Origin, Gray likely knew more of Darwin’s plans than probably any other American, which doubtless explains why a full year before the book’s publication Gray had ventured what turned out to be something of a dress rehearsal for the debate it was sure to provoke. In January of 1859 , according to Henry Dupree in an article in Daedalus, Gray invited a mentor up from New York to Boston to hear him “knock out the underpinnings of [ Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz]‘s] theories about species and their origin.”
Rogers, though he had met Darwin, was closer to Gray, with whom he evidently worked hand in glove. Rogers documented their intimacy in an aside to his brother in a letter of January of 1860 in which he alludes to “Gray, who called some days ago, to leave his proof sheets with me,” the reference being to a review of Origin Gray was writing. Indeed, Janet Browne, in the second volume of her biography of Darwin, writes:
Gray stoutly defended Darwin against American attacks and wrote three important reviews in as many months. . . . [f]inding an authoritative ally in William Barton Rogers, the geologist, and future president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These two readily understood that [Harvard professor Louis] Agassiz was the only man in America to posses the stature and influence to crush theories . . . and the resulting controversy [they generated in Boston] rivaled anything that Huxley and Wilberforce could provide in Britain.
(Adds Dupree: For Gray’s part, in a note added to a paper he sent to the Academy of Arts and Sciences in April 1859, “Gray specifically pointed to the relevance of Darwin’s ideas and announced his partial adherence to them, going further in public than had any other scientist in the Western world.”)
Of Rogers, meanwhile, much more than a review was expected. He would be called upon to undertake an historic, high profile defense of Darwin against a formidable foe in pubic debate As it turned out it would be a harbinger of things to come in Copley Square, which , beginning with MIT, would soon become a New World Acropolis that by 1894 The New York Times was already comparing to the ancient Athenian original; as well a civic artistic and intellectual agora for the Boston city-state. The extent to which this was or was not planned is uncertain. But no one in a position to hope for anything special of what would become Copley Square was talking.
Certainly there was hardly any there there in 1860-61. Maps of the time are full of hints of a projected square or park in this area of the rapidly-filling Back Bay, but it was not until 1867 that architectural drawings of a splendid square are known to have surfaced, drawings by William G. Preston now in the Boston Public Library. Of his splendid conception nothing or perhaps very little was ever built. But Preston’s first work in the area (in recent times used as Louis Men’s Store) at the Berkeley Street end of the block bounded otherwise by Boylston, Newbury and Clarendon streets, is still there today, though dominated now by the huge bulk of the New England Building. Preston’s stately edifice was being erected in the early 1860s for the Boston Society of Natural History under the supervision of a building committee Rogers, in fact, dominated. Indeed, it was under the auspices of this society that what the New York historian Joseph Horowitz called the choice against “Darwin in favor of God,” or the reverse, would be joined by Rogers and his adversary.
Meanwhile, the vigorous reception by Bostonians of Darwin’s thesis was quickly proving to be national news, especially in view of who it was Gray and Rogers were primarily taking on. As Darwin’s biographer points out, “ever since 1846, when he had emigrated to Boston from Switzerland, [Louis] Agassiz had been the leading naturalist in America, a man of world-wide scientific reputation, professor of zoology at Harvard University, charismatic [and] devout.” Continued Browne: “[Agassiz] was well known as believing that all living beings, including humans, were created by divine fiat. . . . Evolution in any form, whether it was Darwin’s or any other, was sacrilegious.” So it was perhaps not surprising that in Washington D. C. The Daily Intelligencer of February 20, 1860 published a letter from Boston by an unidentified correspondent that recounted how “[Agassiz] was “very decided in his condemnation of [Darwin's] ideas” and how “the opposite side was maintained with equal zeal by Prof. W. B Rogers, the geologist, Prof. Gray, the botanist, and Prof. Theophilus Parsons”, their ‘animated’ discussion at one event, at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “not ended when the witching hours of midnight were imminent.”
Rogers all the while focused in 1860-61 on the incorporation of MIT and the funding and erection of its first building, a twin of the Natural History Society’s edifice to be built right next to it also from the designs of Preston. The role of the earlier of the two buildings, finished in 1862, the Natural History Society building itself, should not be downplayed, however. Historian Samuel Prescott concluded that in Rogers’s day it was [his] association with the Natural History Society” that enabled him to implement his vision of MIT. Moreover, once the Institute was up and running, according to the 1886 Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston, the Society was formally affiliated with MIT to the extent that “in the [Natural History Society] laboratory, instruction is given to classes of the . . . Institute of Technology.” It was an integral part of the MIT block,though the Institute’s own would be the centerpiece, Rogers’ “edifice of noble purpose,” according to historian Mark Jarzombek’s, the cornerstone of Copley Square.
The birth pangs of all this were hugely complicated, moreover, by the fact that they took place bracketed by two world-changing events: to the debut of Darwin’s book in late 1859 one must add the start of the Civil War in early 1861. Reading Rogers’ correspondence of the time underlines how much he was dealing with. A letter to his brother Henry in Glasgow of January 2, 1860 goes on in this wise:
It is clear that the conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery is henceforth to be perpetual until freedom [from slavery] has triumphed throughout all the States . . . I have been reading the early chapters of Darwin’s book . . . I sent you the proceedings of the Natural History Society, containing some little matters of mine which may be of interest . . . A Memorial prepared by me . . . will be presented to the Legislature erelong, and it is thought the grant of land on the Back Bay will be made [for MIT] . . . My memorial has been highly approved . . . The calmness and truth-loving spirit of[Darwin's] book are truly remarkable.”
Rogers achieved his primary goal when on April 10, 1861 the legislature passed “An Act to incorporate the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to grant aid to said Institute and to the Boston Society of Natural History,” signaling full steam ahead with construction of the Natural History Building and on the design stage of the MIT building adjoining. Meanwhile, L. A. Wilham declares in When the Bible Meets Darwin, when Rogers met his opponent – Agassiz, who else? – on the debate platform at the Natural History Society, “Boston became the the first American center of Darwinian debate.”
“Rogers may have over-dramatized his role as Darwin’s lone defender,” Numbers remarks, “but not by much,” given that his and Agassiz’ series of public exchanges constituted one of three great 19th-century debates W. M. Smallwood cites as pivotal to framing the idea of evolution: Paris: Georges Cuvier against Saint-Hilaire; Oxford: Huxley against Samuel Wilberforce; Boston: William Rogers against Louis Agassiz. Already a liberal capital – Boston had long stood for “American acceptance of new scientific thought – for example, Galileo’s at 17th-century Harvard” – historian of science Edward J. Pfiefer writes, an acceptance that has generally “been taken by historians as a mark of a sophisticated, but still colonial culture,” – by 1860 it was thus not surprising that Bostonians would raise the flag in this matter on the global stage in what turned out to be the debate.
“Nothing like [these debates] occurred in any other scientific society,” Pfiefer writes in 1998 in his American chapter of Thomas Glick’s The Comparative Reception of Darwinism. “The importance of the clash between Agassiz and Rogers can hardly be overestimated,” Pfiefer insists: “in it Darwin’s views were scrutinized by two scientists of international stature . . . The famous confrontation at Oxford between Huxley and Wilberforce was not so extended, nor so carefully organized, and did not present opponents of comparable standing in science. The debates in Boston were unique.”
They were also, in the words of Darwin’s biographer, hard to overlook. “Rogers,” Browne writes, “in a series of evening meetings of the Boston Society of Natural History, argued violently with Agassiz, showing that Darwin’s views would not collapse like a pack of cards under Agassiz’s wrath.” In fact, by all accounts the show was very much worth the hearing and the seeing, strikingly timely: “It was in the same month in which Darwin published Origin, that Agassiz and Rogers began their evolution-related debates,” according to Rogers’ biographer, A. J. Angulo, author of William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT.
Both scientific stars fascinated. For example, by Nathaniel Shaler’s account, “Agassiz was handsome, impetuous and eloquent, but unguarded in speech. Rogers has sharper features, was always alert, and possessed a keener sense of logic.” Agassiz was also known to be excitable. Smallwood reports that one exchange on the subject of evolution so outraged Agassiz that “he became sufficiently angry [as] to challenge [Asa Gray] to a duel.” Rogers, too, was a character, if a less volatile one. Shaler is especially impressed with the way MIT’s founder would always begin his response to Agassiz with a positively terrifying and certainly rather odd gesture by which “he seemed to turn his eagle eyes ‘hard aport’.”
The best and most detailed description of the series of Rogers/Agassiz debates in late 1859 and early 1860 is still to my mind the artcle in the The Quarterly Review of Biology by Syracuse zoologist W. M. Smallwood, who characterized the Boston as opposed to the Paris and Oxford debates as in 1941 “the least known but ablest of the three great debates over evolution,” perhaps the first to recognize this, and furthermore declared Rogers the winner. “Never before had Agassiz met an opponent who was his equal as a scientist and his superior as a logical thinker.” The third of the debates Smallwood thought especially important: “the critical manner in which Rogers met the arguments of Agassiz places this debate in the first rank of scientific evolutionary discussions.”
Anjulo also concludes Rogers won, that “the six encounters left Agassiz on the defensive.” According to Anjulo, “Agassiz assumed the role of Socratic questioner to ‘teach’ his opponent . . . Rogers replied with lectures that outlined evidence . . . Shaler, an Agassiz disciple, gave the victory to Rogers.” Nor did it stop there. By the time that the stately new Natural History Society building was finished and open for use, it reverberated in the early and mid 1860s to more shock waves. Recounted L. A. Wilham: “Alpheus Hyatt, a paleontologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former student of Agassiz, applied evolutionary principles to the classification of shellfish.” Then, in 1867, Dana’s student Othniel Charles Marsh began doing fundamental work in making discovery after discovery . . . a body of work that earned him Darwin’s high admiration and esteem. Marsh had done, according to Darwin, more than anyone to prove evolutionary theory with regard to paleontology and geology.”
Indeed, Angulo adds to all this the information that “the Darwinian revolution appeared to reach even the closest aspects of Agassiz’s life when his son Alexander and his friend Edward S Morse, another of many Agassiz disciples, became themselves evolutionists. Morse recalled, furthermore, that his decision to abandon Agassiz was informed by a very interesting dissertation from Professor Rogers’ at a meeting of the Boston Society of Natural History”. Stately old pile, full of MIT’s earliest history – some of the classes of Louis Sullivan’s (of whom more soon) were in that building – why the Institute does not rescue it today from the fashionable hard times it has fallen into as a retail store, buy it and make it the showpiece exhibition hall of the MIT Museum, is a mystery to all.
The trajectory toward Copley Square of its formative historical figures was frequently a long one. Thus it was that in the mid-1830s, while the Back Bay was still under water, and William Barton Rogers was a University of Virginia geologist tramping all over that state leading its geological survey, Boston Brahmin John Lowell Jr., the son of “textile spy” Francis Cabot Lowell, was making his way up the Nile toward Luxor in Upper Egypt. He was on a voyage somewhat “in the steps of Marco Polo” that he had undertaken in aid of healing from the death within an 18 month period of his young wife and two daughters. He sailed out of Boston Harbor in 1831 never to return. Five years later he was dead, at only 37, in Bombay. Lowell, however, dreamed as radical a dream as Rogers, a dream which arose fundamentally out of a deep knowledge of his native cultures needs. And before his early death he fulfilled it: indeed, important aspects of three founding institutions of Copley Square can be traced back to Lowell’s dream, which Edward Weeks detailed in his The Lowells and their Institute:
[Lowell] established his headquarters on the top of a ruined palace at Luxor and set about examining the remains of the Pharaohs. . . . .[On] April 1,1835 he turns to his friend and trustee, John Amory Lowell, to elaborate on the will he had signed before leaving Boston. . . . He states his purpose simply.
‘As the prosperity of my native land, New England, which is sterile and unproductive, must depend . . 1st, on the moral qualities, and 2dly, on the intelligence and information of its inhabitants, I am desirous of trying to contribute this second object . . . and I wish courses of lectures to be established on physics and chemistry with their application to the arts, also on botany, zoology, geology . . . .[and on] the literature and eloquence of our language and even on those of foreign nations.’
The climate of New England makes for strong opinion . . . More than any other provincial capital [Boston in the 17th and 18th centuries] was a place where controversy burned. The homes were crowded and dark . . . the people found an emotional outlet in the two-hour sermons or the civil disputation . . . The spiritual eloquence and the argumentation of the meeting house was the food on which the Boston mind fed . . . as the Colony entered on its long struggle with the Crown, the sermon had an ally in the political harangue . . . To listen, to argue, to question and to convince – this was the heritage that had crossed the Atlantic and taken root. It explains why the theater seemed frivolous . . . and why the lecture was epidemic in Boston.
Lowell himself certainly had his high-spirited, even his theatrical, side. His biographer reports that “when he explored ancient ruins alone as he often did . . . he went armed – ‘I entered them pistol in hand for I always keep two double-barrelled ones loaded at my saddle-bags’ – and when he lost his way with dark closing in, he would ask for directions of the swathed suspicious Turkomen in Greek – and got their help!” But as his command of Greek suggests, here was a Brahmin who had not wasted his time at Harvard, and early on also showed a more studious side. He employed an artist ,for instance, to accompany him. While Lowell was measuring the fallen columns, to compile his descriptions, and selecting the art he wished to buy and send back to Boston – most notably sculpture from Karnak – the artists job was to paint a documentary image of the ruins.
But the real high spirits were in the idea Lowell was developing. In more than one way Lowell’s perhaps Byronic-seeming dream turned out to be a very hard-headed Brahmin dream too. And radical enough. Lowell was inventing what we call today “extension courses.” The British version of the mid 19th century was widely influential and in America in the 1890s the practice would be codified by the American Society for Extension Teaching in Philadelphia. But the basic idea appears to have been Lowell’s first! This Harriette Knight Smith in her history of the Lowell Institute:
Among the numerous educational institutions of Europe and America there is doubtless not one so unique and individual in its character as the Lowell Institute of Boston, a foundation which has existed. . . without ostentation. . . yet whose influences have been so far reaching that it has taken rank as one of the noblest of American institutions, and is perhaps even better known among many circles in the Old World . . . . Mr John Lowell Jr . . . was the individual who solved for New England the problem of the higher lecture for the average citizen — which in reality closely resembles what the leading colleges and universities elsewhere are now establishing what is known as University Extension.
Because of MIT the square within a decade would attract Harvard Medical School and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts – of which more next time – and was soon well established as a bastion of elite education, the Lowell Institute, for all its part in that scene with big-name lecturers like Theodore Roosevelt and William James (as the Globe pointed out in 1899 “the stipend paid a Lowell Lecturer for a single course of lectures [was] sometimes larger than the annual salary of the most distinguished professor in any American college or university”) – the Lowell Institute also led the way in introducing into the square mass education. And for self-improvement the masses were always welcome. Very Boston Brahmin.
The most conspicuous example would be Northeastern University. Today a major American institution of higher learning, this originally working class night school started in upstairs rooms over the by no means inelegant Copley Square YMCA, which stood on Boylston Street opposite the MIT block is the result of “the Lowell Institute set[ting] up courses in . . . law at the YMCA, as recounted by Weeks. “Historically, this infant law school . . . was the foundation upon which the entire Northeastern University was built,” this even before the Lowell Trustee established the Harvard Extension School, originally encompassing five Boston institutions of higher learning, never mind the educational radio and television generally of our own day.
William Barton Rogers and John Lowell Jr., never met, pursuing in their youth very different dreams down very different paths in the1830s, Lowell’s entitling him to consideration as another if distant of the square’s gods. Moreover, in the building and sustaining of MIT in its early years John Amory Lowell, the first trustee of the Lowell Institute became in the 1850s perhaps Rogers closest ally in the fulfillment of Rogers own dream. It had been only partially achieved with the legislative act of April 1861 incorporating MIT. Many strings were attached – a guarantee fund of $100,000 for instance. It would be years before the Institute would come finally into being.
William Barton Rogers’ journey was in many ways a much longer one than even Lowell’s. One of four brothers, each of whom became a scientist of high repute, William Barton Rogers was the most eminent. But Henry, his younger brother, may have been the most eloquent, doubtless what prompted John Amory Lowell to invite the University of Pennsylvania professor to become a Lowell Lecturer. Henry agreed and scored the expected success, quick as well to take advantage of the opportunity to sound Lowell out about fundraising for the cause he and his brother William shared. Henry’s report to William was telling: “[the Lowell Trustee] is a very cautious man . . . and has doubts about the practicability [of our idea] . . . But he sees its value and now is a fine occasion to inspire him with the zeal which he is quite capable of feeling in its behalf.”
Southerners of Irish-Protestant descent, the Rogers brothers came of stock prone to both vision and rebellion. Their father, Dr. Patrick Kerr Rogers,was described by Samuel Prescott as a “survivor of the Irish Rebellion [of 1798] who had been outspoken enough in the Dublin press to make it expedient he depart promptly for America.” William, born in Philadelphia, ended up on the faculty of the University of Virginia, where he had something of a history, his father having corresponded with Jefferson, who knew a bit about anti-British rebellions. The younger Rogers, however, fled the South for not very different reasons than his father had fled Ireland, troubled by anti-intellectualism, bigotry and violence. When the University was attacked “for the appointment of a Roman Catholic and a Jew to the faculty,” Rogers’ reaction was to long for “glorious New England.”
William’s reply to Henry’s letter was thus heartfelt: “ever since I have known something of the knowledge-seeking spirit and the intellectual capabilities of the community in and around Boston I have felt persuaded that of all places in the world it was the one most certain to derive the highest benefits from a Polytechnic Institute.”
What Rogers meant a century and more ago, Harvard professor of the history of science Steven Shapin referred to in a 2003 review in The London Review of Books, when he pointed out that MIT was “designed to train industrial leaders . . . and produce the sort of large scale innovations that would spawn entirely new technology-based industries for the Boston region.” It was also, he continues, “a self-consciously hybrid creation, combining elements of research university, polytechnic and (last and least) liberal arts teaching college,” becoming “the first entrepreneurial university and a model for others, notably Stanford.” Above all Shapin sees how revolutionary was Rogers’ vision that “MIT saw High Modernity coming, embraced it, did more than any other American educational institution to hurry it into being.”
Modernity – never mind MIT – seemed a long time coming. But below the surface matters ripened. Three years after Henry Rogers’ Lowell Lectures, William Rogers wed Emma Savage, marrying into a great Brahmin family (her father was a founder of the first American savings bank) and after resigning his UVA professorship in 1853, he and Emma moved to Boston. In 1856 Lowell invited William to be a Lowell Lecturer. Worth noting is that Rogers wasn’t just courting Boston Brahmins, Boston’s Brahmin caste was recruiting Rogers! As Ronald Story points out in Harvard and the Boston’s Upper Class “a Lowell Institute lectureship sometimes helped to recruit a promising intellectual into the ranks of the elite.” (Certainly that was the case with Frederick Law Olmsted, he of Boston’s spectacular inter-connecting park system.)
Not surprisingly, raising the guarantee fund in wartime continued to be difficult, causing Lowell to fund evening courses, then to transfer the Lowell Lectures to the MIT auditorium at a very high rent. Indeed, “there is a legend that in this predictament, “Weeks recounted, “Lowell made a substantial contribution, and so he may have done out of his own pocket, although the documentation cannot be found. What we do know for certain is that ‘thanks to generous gifts’ from Nathaniel Thayer and Dr William Walker the guarantee fund was completed on the last day of grace, and on May 6, 1862, Rogers was elected president . . . with four vice presidents, the first of whom was John Amory Lowell.” The Lowell Trustee, Weeks remarks elsewhere, was not “slow to take the initiative when the time came for the founding of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Lowell, furthermore, was always cautious. And with good reason. Said a later MIT president, Richard Maclaurin: Rogers’ mantra, Mind and Hand, MIT’s motto still, while “not original with him, had rarely if ever [been] adopted definitively as the basis of educational method.” Witness the way the idea galvanized another celebrated educational reformer, Charles W. Eliot, in an earlier incarnation than at Harvard, one of Rogers first faculty hires in the late 1860s once MIT was up and running, whose chemistry class there Weeks quotes Augustus Lowell, John Amory Lowell’s son,recalling this way: “The student was not told what he should find. He was told to do something and note what occurred. He was thrown upon his own faculties of observation and reflection . . . So far as is known, this was the first laboratory of such a character in the world . . . The publication of [the course manual]. . . marked an epoch in education.” Otto Friedrich claimed it was much used in Europe. And certainly there is a case to be made that in its quiet way the establishment of such a laboratory was itself Copley Square’s most notable moment.
As Merritt Roe Smith points out in a review of Angulo’s biography of MIT’s founder, “Rogers’s educational vision: the establishment of laboratory teaching and a vigorous method of instruction that emphasized not only demonstration and experimentation but also original research on the part of students” was enabled by other excellencies.” MIT quickly acquired a reputation as America’s leading ‘Scientific School’ [because of] Rogers’ remarkable ability to attract highly competent faculty members who shared his vision of the New Education. Among them the chemists Francis H Storer and Charles W. Eliot.
Still, there remained Darwin! Consider Weeks’ description of events. “With the filling in of the Back Bay . . . an attractive central site was available . . . The [Lowell] Trustee was strongly in favor of the project . . . He and Rogers, of whom he was exceedingly fond, began to work out the details.” In Europe in the late autumn of 1860 John Amory Lowell had reflected on how “he could advance the plans of his friend, William Rogers.” Yet in his very next sentence Weeks goes on to say that when Lowell wasn’t considering how he could advance Rogers’ plans, “he undertook the most thoughtful piece of writing of his career, an evaluation of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which Lowell thought enough of that he published it in 1860 in the Christian Examiner. In the same year as Rogers’ pro-Darwin review, Lowell, in fact, thus very publicly “took his place beside Agassiz,” not Rogers, showing his – it is Weeks’ word – “fundamentalism.” Slower than most Brahmins to make the transition from liberal Puritanism to radical Unitarianism, Lowell very much opposed what Rogers had made such a point of defending so powerfully.
Yet Rogers had not misjudged Lowell. A crucial ally in founding MIT with Rogers as inevitably the first president, in 1869 he would be just as crucial to advancing Eliot to the Harvard presidency, with all that would mean for the coming of modernity to America. Was not the Boston Brahmin notoriously known for possessing a temperament (as Walter Whitehill noted in his Kennedy), that “more readily accept[ed] change in large matters than in small ones, and in ideas rather than in the details of daily life.”
The Lowell Institute itself is a good example of this. Its big idea, its educational goals, were radical,. Yet the governance of the Institute was traditional: like the Order of the Cincinnati – it was not only aristocratic, but hereditary, even monarchical. There was to be one Lowell Trustee, a Lowell in direct descent from his grandfather,who would chose his own successor. The only check was a visitor – the Boston Athenaeum board of trustees.
John Amory Lowell was what used to be called a “Boston trustee,” who like John Murray Forbes, for instance, “believed that those entrusted with funds of others must never recommend investments in which they had an interest.” In other words a person who tried not to confuse his own personal opinions or beliefs with his judgment as to what was right for his clients, especially institutions for which he was responsible as a trustee, any more than he should only invite to speak Lowell lecturers he agreed with. Which would not include the Russian anarchist we shall meet in that role later in this series.
So far as I know, the first Lowell Trustee left no record of why he had grown so close to Rogers or why he admired him so, though he disagreed with him on so fundamental a matter as true religion. But The Boston Evening Transcript obituary of Rogers in 1882, entitled “A Man and a Principle,” caught hold, I believe, of Lowell’s thinking about his friend, too much a cardboard figure today:
As a representative of the pure scientific spirit President Rogers stands out more strongly than any other man in the [Boston] community, perhaps more strongly than any other man in the United States. Those who know what an intellectual turning-point in modern civilization this spirit illustrates are as profoundly moved by the example and work of a man like President Rogers as by the memory of Emerson or Darwin . . . By the scientific spirit he understood what all thorough thinkers mean by it, the openness to conviction, the sincerity and intellectual receptiveness which make men dread false evidence and false reasoning as they dread sin . . . He was too busy to antagonize, yet he never was false to his own severe method of attaining truth. Is it true? was the question which William Barton Rogers vigorously put to everything.
Research as well as teaching was key to MIT’s mission. And while a decade makes for a lot of science, one thing clearly stands out. Behold, then, the telephone – on which we still depend in the 21st century. In May of 1876, two months after his conversation with Watson at his downtown workshop, and as the climax of a month of meetings, the inventor gave an historic lecture on May 25th, 1876, before a large audience at the MIT Building on Boylston Street, a talk he later called a “glorious” success, and at which he “concluded,” his biographer, R. V. Bruce writes, with what everyone was waiting for: “probably the first public demonstration of telephonic speech in the world.”
Reported The Boston Evening Transcript – “vowels are faithfully reproduced; consonants are unrecognizable; occasionally, however, a sentence would come out with startling directness.” Talk about the secret history of Copley Square!
There is not even a marker to record the event. Impossible, however, to walk that stretch of Boylston Streets sidewalk today and imagine the audience spilling down the broad steps of the MIT Building after Bell’s demonstration and not think of Thomas Edison’s pronouncement: what they had witnessed that day was the “annihilat[ion]of time and space.” No less.
For not only MIT but also for its neighbors this was to raise the ante considerably. However important and historic the defense of Darwin’s new ideas were, the ideas themselves had been thought through and published elsewhere first. But in his talk and demonstration Bell cast he himself in the role of Newton or Darwin – staking an unarguable claim to rank with Rogers as the foremost god of Copley Square and the square itself not just as student and conservator of events, however activist, but as itself a creative center – Bell’s appearance that day being by no means his first in the square at MIT. That the Institute’s laboratories only five years after the its opening were producing work of the caliber of Bells was only a little bit more amazing than that today neither name ever comes up in Copley Square.
Boston University, like MIT founded in the decade of the 1860s, was yet another vector in what was becoming an era in the emerging square of heightened expectations. BU would not be based in Copley Square until the 1900s, but another concealment is that in their early decades MIT and BU depended a lot on each other, very much sister schools, each making up for what the other lacked. Indeed more than one traditionalist of the time, still wedded to a classical education, might have said BU and MIT each deserved each other, given the challenges each posed to American higher education of that era.
What Boston University depended on MIT for was science, which is to say, instruction in all the branches of same at a university level BU could not yet sustain. That is why Bell’s biographer, Robert V. Bruce, makes plain that the context of Bell’s work at MIT – he being a BU not an MIT professor – that “BU and MIT had an arrangement whereby the students of one could take courses at the other.” BU historian Kathleen Kilgore quotes an alumnus of the ’60s as somewhat limiting the arrangement, remembering that it was BUs “scientific courses [that] were given at the Technology Building or in the basement rooms of the Natural History Society.” In his Academia’s Golden Age, Richard Freeman seems to confirm this: “in the 19th-cenrtury BU depended on MIT to supply its scientific courses.” Certainly according to the 1886 Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston, the Natural History Society provided classroom instruction to students both of “Boston University and of the Institute of Technology.”
The deficiencies of MIT that were supplied by BU? Perhaps the best way to broach the matter is to ask how revolutionary in the first place was Boston University?
BU’s founders – Isaac Rich, Lee Claflin and Jacob Sleeper – “three Bostonians who were among the avante garde who recognized the necessity for a modern institution with high quality graduate divisions “is the way historian Nancy Salzman describes them – do not sound like exciting people, any more than do their goals as Salzman identifies them. But BU was founded only two years after the founding of Johns Hopkins and in the same year Eliot became president of Harvard. As William Vance more expansively puts it in Painters of an Elegant Age, Boston University was “an entirely new thing . . . opening with the highest admission standards in America, its schools of theology and law had the most rigorous degree requirements anywhere and its school of medicine was the first to to require four years of training.”
Like MIT, Boston University aspired to be “a national [institution of higher learning],” which in BU’s case meant not laboratory instruction but the German model. Also, like MIT, the first president of BU, Edward F. Warren, shared with MIT’s first president the view that New England’s metropolis was where all sides of the academic revolution in America had to begin. Declared Warren at BU’s quarter centennial: “in all the modern world, there is no other city which is so perfectly a synonym of ethical ideas, of disciplined intelligence, of lofty, all-sided courageous culture”. All-sided courageous culture. An amazing accolade, reminiscent of Rogers’ “glorious New England.”
But BU also took very seriously something MIT paid only lip service to. It was driven home by the fact hat no less than Julia Ward Howe, author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, by then an American icon, who in 1873 embarrassed the Institute hugely by attending – in state, as the American Queen Victoria so often did when she wished to make a point – which is to say with a considerable entourage – a State House hearing where she vigorously opposed a further grant of land to MIT, and this despite the fact that President Rogers himself had risen from his sick bed to go and testify on MIT’s side in the same matter. Howe’s grounds? She slowly and sagely pronounced that in her judgment “sufficient injustice had already been done to Massachusetts women.”
Eyebrows all around the hearing room doubtless went up, but Howe’s point was well taken. Like Harvard, MIT denied women access to its student body. Archly, she ridiculed the reason given her why this policy, which MIT so repeatedly regretted having to insist upon, ahem, good liberals all, had to continue – “on the ground that there were not sufficient advantages in allowing women in: for the men!” This, Howe opined, was “very much like a man bringing home half a loaf of bread, and refusing any to his wife on the ground that there was not enough for himself.”
The whole incident casts a bright spotlight in liberal Boston on the fact that BU was almost unique not just in Boston but in the East in being coeducational; indeed, it was the first American university, which meant probably the first anywhere surely, that on its own asserted the principle of gender equality. Where else in the world would would a catalogue declare, as Warren Ault cited BU’s College of Liberal Arts catalogue of 1873, that “ladies as well as gentlemen will be admitted to all the privileges of the college on the same condition as gentlemen,” adding that BU would also “welcome women not just to the bench of the pupil but also to the chair of the professor”? That was the same year of Howe’s anti-MIT testimony, to which the Institute’s president’s response was? President Runkle: “Admitting women would disturb the harmony of the [MIT} corporation." Significantly, moreover, all this transpired in the year the Institute did grant its first degree to a woman, chemist Ellen Swallow, inventor of what used to be called "home economics," but explicitly as an exception and not as a change in policy. It was another decade, not until 1883, before gender equality came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
About the admission of women, Rogers, like Eliot, was curiously wary and retiring, professing only sympathy with the idea, never action. Not so BU's founders. Their university , according to Academia's Golden Groves, awarded its first doctorate eight years after its founding, in 1877, and according to Deborah Solomon's In the Company of Educated Women, it was given to a woman, Helen Magill, she the first woman in the United States to receive that highest academic degree. After its merger with the Boston Female Medical College, the world's first such institution (which in 1864 graduated Rebecca Lee, the first Black woman physician in this country), Boston University also became the first in the country to grant medical degrees to women.
Comparisons are tricky in this area, where the facts are often in dispute. But it is significant the way a reliable contemporary source, Bacon's Dictionary of Boston of 1886, treats the subject. Under the heading of MIT, the only mention of "instruction to students of both sexes" was under the Lowell School of Practical Design, one of two subsidiary schools MIT operated. Under BU, however, the first thing said in an article of comparable length is "this institution for the liberal education of both sexes" and note is taken of the provisions made for the "women's gymnasium, dressing rooms, parlor and study" that BU then maintained. Under the Massachusetts Society for the University Education of Women, moreover, it is noted that while the society stood ready to aid in "any Massachusetts university," in 1886 it was the case that "students in Boston University only are now aided."
Kilgore also points out that "Rich, Claflin and Sleeper supported the much more radical idea of racially integrated education" at a time when "the only college [in the US] admitting blacks with whites was Oberlin.” BU, in fact, awarded its first PhD to an African-American, John W. E. Bowen, in 1877.
Finally, what about the way MIT and BU were embedded in the city? Very European to be sure. It is true within twenty years MIT had spread all over Copley Square and in numerous buildings down many side streets; similarly BU all over Beacon Hill. But what BU and MIT did not share in this connection may be more important: in a later chapter I will take up this theme again and will argue the Back Bay as a whole was the result of a Yankee-Brahmin versus Yankee-bourgeoisie conflict. There were reasons why Brahmin-sponsored MIT ventured successfully where non-Brahmin BU did not. Meanwhile, however, among several reasons advanced by BU historians, I like best the reason Warren Ault gives for Boston University not choosing right off the bat to start up in what would within a decade of the university’s founding become what Ault called “Copley Square, future cultural capital of the city,” and that was that it was in 1869 “a stinking eyesore.”
Well. That was not the way William Barton Rogers saw it; nor Alexander Graham Bell either. Where Ault reported BU’s founders had seen an eyesore, Bell saw just the potential Rogers saw. On his first day in Boston in 1871, two years after BU’s opening, one of the aspects of Boston which “struck Bell most forcefully was . . . standing out boldly on the flat, half-vacant new-made land of the Back Bay, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an edifice with a Corinthian countenance,” as Bruce put it, “but a thoroughly modern brain.” It was a contrast the architectural historian Paul Turner also noticed in his discussion of the MIT building, remarking that the early “Institute catalogues . . . juxtaposed engravings of this [elegant exterior] with views of the forthrightly inelegant . . . laboratories in its basement (the only interior spaces pictured”). A reminder that much that made Copley Square world famous happened in the basement or on upper floors of rented offices.
Although Bell had come to Boston from his native Nova Scotia in 1871 to teach deaf mutes at what became the Horace Mann School (later on Newbury Street) run by Sarah Fuller, who taught Helen Keller, and who Bell, like Charles Dickens, thought an angel and a genius, “what counted for Bell,” Bruce points out, was that “since the mid-forties, when it passed Philadelphia, Boston had become the nation’s leading scientific center, and the opening of MIT in 1865 helped it to keep the lead.” Indeed, Bell’s first day in town, he was back at MIT that night to hear a lecture by Professor Charles Cross. Karl L. Wilde and Nilo A. Lindgren write in A Century of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT:
Recent books have traced the successive ideas and experiments leading to Bell’s invention . . . .It seems clear from these that Bell consulted quite closely with Cross, . . . [who had just] helped inspire a device . . .contrived two years earlier for the electrical transmission of sound . . . .As so often happened in the history of technology, men’s minds were converging on a single point. . . . Bell was born with the right talents . . . . Chance brought him to Boston, which perhaps more than any other city in the world provided the proper intellectual, technical and economical environment for the invention of the telephone.. It is noteworthy that just a few years earlier in 1868, Thomas A Edison had also come to Boston, where is own inventive style began to mature.
Bell had come to the intellectual and scientific center of the US already thoroughly trained in the acoustic arts . . . [He] was offered a professorship in 1873 at the new Boston University (which had been chartered in 1869, not long after MIT was founded). With this added prestige . . . Bells contacts with the Boston scientific community steadily widened, and his acquaintance with Cross . . . at MIT ripened . . . These contacts led to an invitation to Bell to address the MIT Society of Arts . . . Apparently it was that lecture on April 9, 1874, that prompted Cross to offer Bell ‘free access to the Institute.’ The offer included ‘the use of of the Institutes apparatus and laboratories.’ Bell excitedly accepted the offer, and began doing experiments at MIT that would lead him within the next two years to invent the telephone.
However, if MIT was where Bell conducted many of his experiments, in a very real sense they only happened in the first place because of BU., as Kilgore explains, doing so in a most droll way, given the circumstances of a later BU president in whose hands his schools history was hardly safe. Bell, though his tenure on the faculty had been brief, “loomed large in [President] Marsh’s conception of the University’s history.” When in 1939 The Life of Alexander Graham Bell was being filmed in Hollywood, the University’s publicity director arranged for [its star] Don Ameche (who played Bell) to visit CLA [BU's College of Liberal Arts] and its building on Exeter Street where the telephone was invented. As Ameche entered ‘the Marble’ (the lobby) he was greeted by nearly a thousand co-eds. Conducted by a corps of cheerleaders, the coeds were” shouting the school yells.” This despite the fact that the CLA building referred to on Exeter Street had not had anything to do with MIT, nor with Bell, and had not even been built at the time the telephone was invented.
To be fair, however, President Marsh’s grasp of the true history of the telephone was no more vague than most people’s at the time, for the deepest secret of Copley Square is that Bell conducted his most important experiments at MIT. So much of a secret was it, my own search of The New York Times database for Bell’s lifetime discloses that the Times never once linked Bell and MIT in any of their reporting on the telephone. Yet as early as in 1877 the Times reported: “It looks as if we [are] upon the verge of a revolution. . . . . [T]he telephone . . . is the invention of A. Graham Bell of Boston University.”
The real significance of Boston University to Bell – other than that he met his future wife there, that is (one of his students) – is that if it was his BU professorship that kept Bell from having to abandon his experiments, it was his BU dean who absolutely enabled them. Kilgore again:
Bell liked Boston, particularly the new Massachusetts Inst of Technology and the scientists and inventors working there . . . .[Faced with losing his job with Sarah Fuller] he advertised in the Boston papers . . .as a teacher of the deaf so as to support himself]. . . In September 1872 he rented a two-room apartments on West Newton Street in the South End and gave private lessons. He also began attending free public lectures on experimental mechanics at MIT. Lewis Munroe [the founding dean of BU's School of Orator who had made Bell a professor] made in March of 1875 an unprecedented offer: he would pay Bell’s lecture fees for the following year in advance, freeing him to work on his invention.
That was the year Bell achieved his breakthrough. MIT and Boston University thus share the credit for empowering the invention of the telephone.
If Copley Square had a coat of arms – MIT as bottom center of the shield – the telephone is not all that would have to be blazoned in the same quadrant of the shield to represent the square’s earliest role as a center of science and technology. There would also have to be a cross-section of a subway tunnel and a computer! To sum up here the theme of science and technology in Copley Square – on the assumption, by the way, that medicine is so specific a branch of science it must stand alone and thus Harvard Medical School in Copley Square will be treated in another chapter – we must jump briefly ahead to the 1890s.
Another closely-held confidence of Copley Square’s history is that Boston’s subway, among the earliest in the world (London’s was the earliest) and the first in America, as much as the telephone, is another chapter of the square’s many tales. The first subway ended at Park Street; it >began on the square’s eastern fringe at the Boylston Street side of the Public Garden, to which place the Massachusetts governor duly ventured to break ground for this tremendous facility in 1894. As much as the telephone it came out of MIT, in this case the Civil Engineering Department, and it was thus entirely fitting the groundbreaking was within sight of MIT, two blocks down Boylston Street. That department’s offerings were the most popular among students for the very good reason, Francis Wylie recounts, that in the the late 19th-century “America had thousands of miles of railway to build, tunnels to bore, bridges to design and public works to start.” And Boston had a new subway to construct.
Both the city and MIT were fortunate in possessing at the time a man who Samuel Prescott as late as 1954 would call “possibly the finest teacher-engineer of civil engineering the country has produced.” George F. Swain. Himself an early graduate of MIT, Swain was the effective head of the Boston Transit Commission. Writes Prescott:
Professor Swain was . . . noted for his insistence that they ‘think through’ every problem . . . He was likely to be sharp in criticism . . . The students had for him a sort of adoration despite the fact that the sensitive ones were sometimes deeply wounded by his sarcastic remarks. Swain’s fame and skill as a teacher were matched by his extraordinary record as a consulting engineer . . . [He] was of decisive influence in the plans for the Boston subway and the East Boston Tunnel and in the selection of H. A. Carson [another MIT graduate] as the Chief Engineer. As to both design and personnel Swain was key.
The day the new subway opened, September 1st, 1897, the crowds in Copley Square approached Peace Jubilee levels: “Boylston st was black with humanity when the junction of Huntington av was reached [then in front of Trinity Church] by the first trolley designated to enter the new subway tunnel” two bocks ahead on Boylston Street, the Boston Globe reported, and went on to say: “down the street the entrance to the great tunnel was marked by a canal of humanity.” “FIRST CAR OFF THE EARTH” was the headline in which headline the Globe was being a tad enthusiastic, forgetting London and Budapest as civic boosters tend to.
The square itself would become increasingly central to Boston’s rapid transit. As Bainbridge Bunting points out “the first high frequency transit route in America” ran between much earlier Boston power centers, Beacon Hill (site of the State House) and Harvard Square (in front of Harvard College). Later, the omnibus that replaced the stage coaches on this line appeared there two years before it appeared in Paris, three before London. But at each stage of the system’s improvement in the late 19th century, Copley Square benefited. According to historian Charles Bahne, Boston was the world’s fifth city to develop a horse-drawn street trolley system (after New York, New Orleans, Paris and Brooklyn) and in 1899 would be among the first cities to adopt electric trolleys. By the time Copley Station opened (with a specially magnificent wrought iron subway kiosk), Bostonians, writes Lawrence Kennedy, “could travel to all parts of the metropolitan area for nickel.”
This was a fact of some importance to MIT, roughly two thirds of the student body of which even as late as into the 1900s was drawn from the Boston area, and it is with two such local boys I want to bring this this first chapter of Copley Square – science and technology – to climax and closure, though to tell these two tales must project us still further ahead of ourselves all the way up to the 1910s and the era of the First World War. But this controlled “spin-out” of a finale will allow us to to enlarge on and refine another theme that has arisen here, how the zeitgeist of the emerging square melded both elite and mass education all the while cultivating the terrain in between as elite institutions – accessible by rapid transit! – became more and more diverse.
Eighteen years after the opening in 1897 of America’s first subway, a young man from the very middle class Boston suburb of Everett, Vannevar Bush, a graduate of Tufts University, proposed himself in 1915 to the Electrical Engineering Department at MIT as a doctoral candidate. Very much a young man in a hurry, Bush demanded of a department that that had previously in its whole history only awarded four doctorates, and in each case after lengthy study, that if he were able to complete his thesis in a year, he be given his degree in 1916.
The department agreed, perhaps because of everyone’s distracted state “at the time of Bush’s arrival,” G Pascal Zachary, his biographer, points out, “the department was beginning its final academic year in its original [Back Bay] Boston buildings” prior to the move forced on nearly all of MIT by its expansionary needs to Cambridgeport, the adjoining neighborhood to the Back Bay across the Charles River. Whatever the reason, the decision to grant Bush’s request was a controversial one, and Bush’s thesis supervisor, Arthur Kennely, ended up opposing it when Bush did indeed complete his thesis in a year and demanded his degree.
Because Bush earned his doctorate in the department’s last year in Copley Square, and because Kennely himself was an historic figure whose career went back to the era of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, the second of whom Kennely had worked with, the event takes on the character of a significant historic transition; all the more so because Bush’s subsequent career was so fabled he would be hailed as “a local boy who had made good, whose success arose from merit and character,” in his biographer’s words, “not from family connections, a morality tale of special interest to Bostonians still in the grip of the Brahmins.”
What a stupid stance that must seem in the context of this essay, absurd even when one recalls how William Barton Rogers had so ardently worked to found his school nowhere else but in Boston! As it turned out, even Brahmin values did change, and for the rest of it Bush reflected great credit on the sort of average middle class family he came from.
Bush’s fame, it should be noted, derived from much more than his one-year doctoral. Interests he had shown as far back as an undergrad at Tufts, where he had patented something he called the “profile tracer” would yield historic fruit at MIT when his invention of the “differential analyzer, [a] device for solving differential equations” was acclaimed by MIT president Jerome Wiesner as “the first practical and useful computational machine . . . mark[ing] the beginning of the ‘Second Industrial Revolution, the Information Revolution.” Added Wiesner: “no American has had greater influence on the growth of science and technology than Vannevar Bush.”
If Bush’s career brings to a triumphant finale this first theme in Copley Square’s history, the second young man of similar background – immigrant background this time – whose appearance brings this essay to a close, Louis Sullivan, spins us back to the Institute’s first decade of the late 1860s and ’70s.
Sullivan, meanwhile, who enrolled in MIT in 1872, was eager as only a sixteen-year-old can be, though perhaps as yet unknowing he was to be the father of modern architecture in America and the only architect Frank Lloyd Wright ever called master. In 1872, with 27 other students to enroll in MIT’s school of architecture (then only four years old), the first in the United States. It was another moment, and a key transition for the square? Certainly architecture has often been seen as the bridge between science and art.
And so it would in the Copley Square – or, as it was first called, Art Square – of Louis Sullivan and Henry Hobson Richardson.
Douglass Shand-Tucci is an historian of American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. His most recent book is the second volume of his study of the architecture of Ralph Adams Cram (Univ.of Massachusetts Press, 2005) and he also teaches at the Boston Architectural College in the Masters degree program in Historic Preservation. He is the founder of the innovative new history site, Back Bay Historical | Boston CentricGlobal Studies, where his monthly longform blogs have become his principal publishing outlet.