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The Inaugural Address

Samuel Wesley Stratton
Eighth President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
June 11, 1923

The Effect of Science in the Evolution of Industry

Samuel Wesley Stratton

In the office of the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is carved the following line taken from Pliny's Natural History: Alia Initia E Fine—a liberal translation of which is: Every Finish Marks a Fresh Start. It would be difficult to find an expression more appropriate to the work of that institution or more descriptive of the progress of science in general.

Steam transportation has just celebrated its hundredth birthday. There are few of us who have not paused at the end of a railroad journey to admire the huge, compact, almost living machine that has hauled its enormous and precious load to its destination. We ride with all the comforts of a first-class hotel from one ocean to another, but really to appreciate the magnificent performance of this leviathan one must stand by the track in the darkness of the night, in the mountains, or the wilderness of the desert and watch its performance at full speed. It is an inspiring sight and causes one to wonder that materials exist and can be put in form to withstand such a task. To the mechanical engineer it would recall to mind the first predecessor of the locomotive, now hardly a load for a large modern truck. He would undoubtedly recall the difficulties encountered in the early days of its history. It would be interesting to hear the comments of the man who, when the railroad was first proposed, wrote the ten reasons why it should not be built, were he the observer.

Our modern engineer would recall the life work of many of his predecessors whose names will always appear among those who stand foremost as pioneers in the development of the steam railroad. He would not forget the master mechanic and others in charge of the motive power of the great railroad systems, who spent their lives in improving the locomotive with a devotion to the work not excelled in any other industry. He would acknowledge the indebtedness of this profession to the physicist who contributed the data as to the problems concerning materials, and to the metallurgist who produced new materials as needed for better boilers, wheels or axles. If our observing engineer happened to be one of the leaders of our great locomotive work, what an interesting story he could write of the steps that have been taken in the evolution of the locomotive and how one has lead to the next as the result of hard experience. What the locomotive's final rôle will be in the transportation problem of the future it is difficult to predict, but it will always stand as a great achievement of the mechanical engineering profession.

Another evolution that has taken place quite within the memory of many present is that of the generation, transmission and use of electric power. Electricity has supplied the power for transportation in local areas, and is now replacing steam transportation over many longer distances. It has made suburban life possible over greater areas, it has increased the comfort and lessened the burdens of every household, has reduced the cost of manufacturing and has conserved our natural resources. The steam locomotive which we admire so much and which has been a good and faithful servant is not an efficient one.

Great advances have been made in the transmission of electric power. Some transmission lines now exceed a length of two hundred and fifty miles, and it is already proposed to cover large areas with a network of power lines fed by generating plants at different points producing a continuous system hundreds of miles in length. These developments have gone on with such rapidity that we are apt to forget the tremendous difficulties which this great development has involved. Engineers remember the great controversy that arose as to whether direct or alternating current should be used in the development of the water power at Niagara Falls. The story, in detail, of the steps in this development would be a fascinating one. It would tell of the birth of great industries, of the production of new materials, new uses for old materials and for many of our natural resources. The electrical industry had its origin in the laboratory. The physicist, the chemist and the mathematician have worked side by side with the engineer, and to this fact more than to any other is due the rapid rate at which this evolution has taken place.

It has taken a hundred years to bring the steam locomotive to its present state of perfection, but it has taken only a third of that time to develop electric power. Twenty years ago a generator with a capacity of five thousand kilowatts was a very large machine. Today, machines of approximately ten times that capacity are being built. This is but one example of evolution in the electrical industry of which the electrical engineer and all who have worked with him may justly be proud. His accomplishment of this in the short space of two generations is indeed a credit to his profession.

Less than a quarter of a century ago, the automobile industry was in its infancy. Today, it is one of the largest. The horseless vehicle had been a dream of many years. Civilization had outgrown the ability of the horse for speed, endurance and capacity. (Imagine the number of horses that would be required to replace the automobiles and motor trucks of today.) It was also the need for a more flexible system of local transportation that caused the development of motor-propelled vehicles. The perfection of the gas engine as the power plant of the automobile has made possible the tractor, the household electric lighting plant and other power-driven devices. This automobile industry, too, has called for the service of the physicist and the chemist as well as of the engineer. The industry has often been impatient and forged ahead of the laboratory, but it has then usually paid the price, or, rather, the public has. The evolution of the motor vehicle has been a bold and rapid one. The speed of it has been due not alone to the urgency of need but to the greater facilities for production granted it by previous evolutions. It has had a greater stock of accumulated knowledge upon which to draw.

But it has also created new and important problems, many of which are yet unsolved. For example, the time is not far distant (if it is not already here) when the uses to which our crude oil supply is put will be restricted to those for which it alone is suited, such as lubrication. Hence, one of the greatest problems of the industry is to find a substitute for gasoline. Motors are now being made to use a heavier fuel than before and those to use crude oil are being developed. Many experiments are being made on the use of other fuels. Alcohol, if free from water, can be mixed very successfully with gasoline in large proportions. The automotive industry faces many problems in the future but its evolution will, like the others, be brought about step by step by the automotive engineer and the scientist working together, attacking problems of ever-increasing difficulty, with the more and more efficient tools of science.

The navigation of the air is another dream that has come true with an astonishing rapidity. Important laboratory investigations and field experiments had been made during the latter part of the past century, and the first years of the present one, but no suitable power for flight seemed available. A light steam engine was being worked out by Langley and would certainly have been perfected had not the gas engine appeared as the power plant of the automobile. In 1909 all Washington turned out to see Orville Wright make the first public flights of an airplane attempted in this country. It was an inspiring sight and every person knew that it was the beginning of a new era in transportation. In 1913 nearly all Paris turned out to see Pegout ascend to a height of a mile or more, loop the loop, and perform other feats with the greatest ease. During the World War duels were fought in the air at incredible heights under all sorts of conditions. The airplane changed the art of war, and naturally aviation received a great impetus under these conditions. Nevertheless, aviation has advanced more since the war, in safety, in speed, in load-carrying capacity, endurance and efficiency than it did during it. A speed of over 240 miles per hour has been attained, endurance tests of 35 hours have been made, a load of ten tons has been carried, planes have been made to maintain a height of 27,000 feet, and the recent flight of an army plane from the Atlantic to the Pacific established the record for a non-stop flight. Regular air routes have been established abroad, but the air mail service of the Post Office Department is the most striking and successful example of the commercial use of airplanes. The distance that mail can be carried, between the close of business in one city and the beginning of the day in another has been tripled and quadrupled.

In many laboratories are found great wind tunnels for producing known currents of air in which may be determined the principles of aerodynamics upon which the safety and the efficiency of the plane depends. In one laboratory one of these tunnels is placed within a huge shell and operated in air of much greater pressure and density than the normal, in order to extend further knowledge of these principles. In another, the power plant of the airplane is operated within a large, heavy-walled chamber in which the density and temperature of the air can be maintained at the same condition as is found at high altitudes. Aviation gives a striking example of the inseparability of science and technology.

This series of illustrations taken from the field of transportation demonstrates that progress will be in direct proportion to the extent to which the engineer or the manufacturer coöperates with the scientist in the initiation and prosecution of scientific research.

In the field of electrical communication is furnished another series of developments which illustrate in a striking manner the evolution of industry at a rate depending upon that at which scientific data is produced. The electric telegraph was invented by Morse in 1832, but it was not until 1844 that the first commercially successful telegraph line was built. The telegraph soon became an indispensable factor in the development of railroad transportation and the growth of the Nation. It was so much superior to previous methods of communication that it sufficed for a while, but then the very condition it had helped to bring about in commerce demanded a greater speed and scope than it could furnish. Telegraphy brought the countries of the world into closer commercial contact than were the separate parts of any one of them before its invention. But telegraphy soon became a common, every-day thing, and people felt keenly the restrictions of the system that first made rapid communication possible.

A month or two ago scientists from all over the country gathered at one of our sister universities to assist in the dedication of a great chemical laboratory. Only a few days ago a similar one was provided for by gift, to our near and esteemed neighbor, Harvard. Those who have made these laboratories possible are to be congratulated for their wisdom and foresight in investing funds in a manner which cannot fail to yield results of untold value to the welfare of the public and to the prosperity of the country.

In closing, let us not overlook the very finest exemplification of our motto—the leader who in the following of his profession not only accomplishes results that make other and greater things possible, but who by devotion to his work and interest in his fellow-man inspires others to begin.

Among the most distinguished leaders of this type are to be found the names of those who made the Massachusetts Institute of Technology possible, and who have carried on its work in the past. There could be no greater incentive to those who are now in charge or who are to follow them than the work of these men, so well expressed in our motto: Alia Initia E Fine.

Technology Review 25, July 1923, pp. 421-423.


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