MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

The Beacon of Progress, 1900


Beacon of Progress

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The Paris Salon of 1900 awarded its highest medal to MIT Professor Désiré Despradelle (Department of Architecture, 1893-1912) for his extravagant design for a proposed monument "dedicated to the glory of the American nation." Had he found sufficient backing for his "Beacon of Progress," the resulting structure would have been by far the tallest man-made object in the world.

Plans called for a 1500-foot stone tower in Jackson Park, Chicago, on the site of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which had celebrated technological progress. The fair had inspired Despradelle with futuristic visions of the benefits to be drawn from technological leaps forward in the approaching century. He was likewise enthralled by Americans, whose "marvellous energy" was capable of "developing material things to a superlative degree." The giant tower, which he referred to as an "altar," would support a beacon light at its apex and have an amphitheater at its base, wherein leaders could impart "inspiring words" to assemblies in the room he called a "sanctuary." A series of elevators would carry visitors to observation balconies at different levels and up to the pinnacle itself.

The Beacon of Progress was said to be "of a grandeur of conception and of a daring in execution almost unparalleled." Drawings, such as the one reproduced here, are all that survive of Despradelle's grandiose scheme. They are themselves monuments to the spirit of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century science, which saw no limits to the heights to which scientific and technological advances could carry us.

From an account in Technology Review, Vol. 2, No. 4, October 1900.

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President James Mason Crafts presided over the MIT of 1900, located in the Back Bay area of Boston. (A 12-by-16-foot version of Despradelle's drawing hung for several years in the atrium of the old Rogers Building on Boylston Street.) Fifty women and 27 foreign students were among the 1171 registered. Mechanical engineering was the most popular major. Student theatrical societies mounted 24 plays. The varsity football team won five, lost two, and tied one, while freshmen footballers went two and two, including a humiliating 16-0 loss to Dorchester High School. The Class of 1901 beat the Class of 1902 in the annual Cane Rush by a score of 15 hands to 11 hands. MIT's exhibit on architectural and engineering education in the United States was a big success at the Paris Exposition of 1900, attended by many Tech men living or traveling abroad. H. W. Gardner, Class of '94, wrote back that the Tech exhibit was the "swellest."

The Technology Review is available in the reading room of the Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118. Information about other MIT publications in the Archives' collections is available on the Archives web site.

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