For three days in April 1949, MIT gathered the most brilliant minds of the era to ponder the past and the future of civilization. That gathering is chronicled in "On the Edge of the Future: The Mid-Century Convocation at MIT," a Compton Gallery exhibition running from June 28 through August 20.
Luminaries from education, industry and government came to appraise the state of the post-war world, consider the progress of scientific enterprise, and ponder the future role of MIT as an institution of scientific and engineering education.
The 50th-anniversary exhibit, created by the MIT Museum and the MIT Archives, will feature historic photographs and video chronicling the events surrounding the convocation, including details on the speeches, discussion panels, and the many interesting stories that took place off the speakers' platform:
The logistics -- Though MIT organized the event, Winston Churchill never crossed the Charles River to the MIT campus. Because no MIT buildings were large enough to satisfy the demand for "Churchill tickets," the Boston Bruins obligingly rearranged their home-game schedule to free the Boston Garden. All 13,909 seats were filled -- by invitation only. An overflow audience of 4,500 watched on a 10' x 13' television screen set up on the MIT campus. Professor Jerome Wiesner rigged up what was then a state-of-the-art sound system so all 4,500 could hear the proceedings.
The statesman -- The MIT Corporation voted to appoint "warrior, statesman, student and maker of history" Winston Spencer Churchill an honorary lecturer of MIT (the Institute does not award honorary degrees). Churchill kept the convocation audience spellbound with his lecture, "The Twentieth Century: Its Promise and Its Realization."
The president -- President Harry Truman, scheduled to speak, canceled at the last minute, and incoming MIT president James R. Killian called his old friend Harold Stassen, president of the University of Pennsylvania and former Republican politician, to substitute. The large press contingent covering the convocation spun Truman's cancellation into a major story. Truman's letter of apology explained that "the situation in the Congress is a delicate one, and I have to be available every minute from morning until late at night to accomplish the program which I believe is of vital importance to the country." His critics believed, however, that the president was afraid of being upstaged by the eloquent Churchill.
Records in the Truman Library do not solve the mystery, but show that at 12:45pm on the day in question, the president was scheduledto speak with Ronald Reagan, CEO of the Screen Actors Guild, about "the unemployment situation in the motion picture industry." Truman was apparently impressed by President Killian's smooth handling of the affair, because the following year he named Killian to the President's Advisory Committee on Management Improvement in Government.
The press -- Radio coverage of Churchill's address was extensive, with US, British, French and Canadian broadcasting systems carrying the address live. The event -- the first national television hookup to originate in Boston -- attracted the largest television audience for a live event to that date. Thousands of people held parties to watch it.
The impetus -- In the wake of World War II, many people were uncomfortable with the use of science for military purposes, and MIT wanted to emphasize its dedication to science for the betterment of humanity. Professor Killian, who would be sworn in as MIT president during the convocation, called for a focus on the "obligations and ideals of an institute of technology."
He stressed that technical universities such as MIT should not only carry out pioneering research and teaching in the sciences and technology but must also educate their students broadly in the social sciences and humanities. He emphasized the importance of universities remaining independent in their funding, research and education. This was particularly relevant to MIT, which, at the end of the war, was the nation's largest nonindustrial defense contractor, with 75 separate contracts worth $117 million.
The Compton Gallery is located in Building 10 under MIT's Great Dome. Hours are Monday-Friday from 9am-5pm. Admission is free. For further information, call Kathleen Thurston-Lighty at x3-4422.
A version of this article appeared in the June 9, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 33).