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MIT Open Houses since 1923: ice cream and hand-blown vacuum tubes

On April 30, MIT will host an open house for the campus community as well as Cambridge and surrounding areas. In fact, this is a continuation of a long tradition.
During the 1948 MIT Open House, visitors examine engines.
During the 1948 MIT Open House, visitors examine engines.

The tradition of MIT open houses reaches back almost 90 years, to 1923. In a month, MIT will sponsor its first day-long community open house in more than 30 years as part of the 150th anniversary and the Cambridge Science Festival. All across campus, visitors can drop in on lectures, lab tours and interactive displays, participate in a scavenger hunt and attend performances.

Taking place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on April 30, the free and open-to-the-public event invites everyone “Under the Dome.”

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.”

The Tech archives and the annual MIT Reports to the President provide many details of the events.

In the 1920s, for example, 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.

Read the full Slice of MIT blog post to learn what inventions were featured in open houses for the 1930s through the 1970s.

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