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The Inaugural Address

Karl Taylor Compton
Ninth President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
June 6, 1930

Karl Taylor Compton

Permit me to take this opportunity briefly to discuss certain features of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which have induced me, with real enthusiasm, to cast my lot with you as a part of this new organization. I venture to hope that this is appropriate because the significance of these considerations is not primarily to me personally, but to every one who is interested in science, and in the contributions which science has made and will in the future make to the happiness and welfare of mankind.

The three most pertinent questions in evaluating any institution would seem to be, " What is its purpose?", "What is its accomplishment?", "What is its future?" It is through its answers to these three questions that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology commands allegiance and support.

I venture to formulate the purpose of the Institute as "the development of science and its useful applications," and to describe the method of accomplishment of this purpose as being "through continual study and research combined with the training of men." This purpose is dictated by the opportunities found in modern science for contributing in such a fundamental way to the necessities of life that it is not surprising that the distinguished founder of this Institute, William Barton Rogers, expressed it and recommended the means to accomplish it in words which are every bit as significant today as they were when he wrote from Virginia in 1846 to his brother Henry in Boston , outlining his plan for an Institute of Technology . This was fifteen years before the Institute was incorporated and nineteen years before it was actually opened. He says:

"The true and only practicable object of a polytechnic school is, as I conceive, the teaching, not of the minute details and manipulations of the arts, which can be done only in the workshop, but the inculcations of those scientific principles which form the basis and explanation of them; along with this a full and methodical review of all their leading processes and operations in connection with physical laws."

Dr. Rogers then goes on to outline an organization and a curriculum which are astonishingly like those of today, which have stood the test of time and experience. As an example of constructive imagination, good judgment and prophetic vision, I wonder whether there is an equal to this in educational literature!

Turning now to the question, "What has been the Institute's accomplishment?", I almost hesitate to attempt an answer, because its direct and indirect influence have been so enormous. As the first category of accomplishment I would mention its Alumni. They comprise builders of huge industries, organizers and executives of great companies, leaders in science, engineering and architecture, and a great host of men who are ably engaged in operating and developing the vast industrial system which is the distinguishing feature of our present civilization. And in educational work they have taken an equally prominent part. For example, I recently visited a great mid-western university in which I found that all four of the deans were Technology men. During the past few months, since I have become so particularly interested in the Institute, I have been continually amazed to discover how important a role its Alumni are playing in the life of the country. There can be co doubt regarding the value and vigor of an Institute which has trained such men.

As the second category of accomplishment I would point to the other great technological and engineering schools now scattered all over this country, which are the direct offspring, so to speak, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and patterned after the original plan of President Rogers, each with an individuality born of local conditions or of desire particularly to emphasize one or another aspect of the general plan. In this providing a pattern and also to a very large extent the faculties for these newer technical schools, the Institute is in the position of the founder of a sturdy and illustrious family. And this is true not only in this country but also abroad. It is held, for example, that the tremendous technical and industrial development of Germany is due largely to the fact that that country, perhaps more than any other was quick to grasp the value of President Rogers' ideas and, with characteristic efficiency, to build upon them a nationwide system of technical schools and of industrial development.

As the third category of accomplishment, I would like to suggest simply the present industrial and economic structure of the country. Of course very many factors have entered into this, and the part which the Institute directly or indirectly has played is rather undefined but none the less real and of tremendous significance. Time does not permit elaboration of this interesting theme.

And finally, "What of the future?" From past experience and accomplishment we may gain wisdom, guidance and encouragement, but it is the future which vitally interests us. In regard to this future there seem to me to be several outstanding considerations.

In the first place there appears to be no reason for any change in the purposes and ideals of the Institute. As I have already remarked, the Institute has been devoted in the most fundamental way to the benefit of mankind through science. There is every indication that only a beginning has thus far been made in the science of discovering and understanding Nature and in the art of usefully applying this knowledge. I can conceive, therefore, of no more appropriate or urgent program for the Institute than simply to continue its work of developing both principles and men for applying science to problems of human welfare. But, although the purpose of the Institute is unaltered, I do believe that present conditions indicate the necessity of careful attention to several vital matters.

First I would suggest the necessity of greater emphasis upon the fundamental sciences both in their own rights and as the bases of the various branches of engineering. As engineering has developed to greater and greater complexities, it becomes increasingly impossible to hope to train men in those exact processes of thought or manipulation for which they will later be called upon. And as scientific discoveries and applications are ever increasing at an accelerated rate, there is ever increasing probability of meeting problems far off the beaten trail. Also many who start in as engineers later become executives or administrators. In all such situations a broad and thorough training in fundamental principles gives much greater power than a training in details which may seldom be encountered in practise. Again, whereas a generation ago most of our great technical industries were in their infancy and needed many men trained in the details of their respective arts, now most of these industries are large organizations which are equipped and prefer to train their own men in the fine points of their art: they absolutely require, however, men who come with a sound basis of training in fundamental principles. The Institution which supplies these men, supplies the men destined to leadership.

Every application of science presupposes a discovery of science to be applied, so that the useful applications of science are in the last analysis limited by the extent to which scientific research has been successful in uncovering the hidden forces of Nature. Then, when these scientific discoveries are put to the service of man, there is always a limit to the available extent of this service, a limit set by some such thing as a defect of material, inability to solve an equation, or some disturbing factor. So here again it is the province of research to push back or remove these limitations. While, therefore, in its humble beginnings, the greatest service of an Institute of Technology might very well have been to acquaint men with the laws of science and the technique of their application, an Institute of Technology today, to perform its greatest service, must take the lead in actually developing science and its applications as well as in technological instruction.

I hope, therefore, that increasing attention in the Institute may be given to the fundamental sciences; that they may achieve as never before the spirit and results of research; that all courses of instruction may be examined carefully to see where training in details has been unduly emphasized at the expense of the more powerful training in all-embracing fundamental principles. Without any change of purpose or any radical change in operation, I feel that significant progress can thus be made.

Second let me emphasize the supreme necessity of maintaining a faculty of absolutely first grade men, despite the increasing difficulty of doing so. Here, as in every organization, the question of personnel is the supreme issue. But, unlike other organizations, an educational institution can make a perfectly logical and unanswerable argument that its need of the best men should supersede the claims of any other organization. For it is these men in the educational institutions who train and inspire all the others; their abilities are renewed and made available to the world in every graduating class. The folly of sending our youth to second rate teachers in the hope of obtaining a first-class training is too absurd to discuss. And yet this is a very real danger, for industry is competing with universities for the best men, often taking them and then perhaps later finding fault with the institution for not giving its students a first-class training! I could go on at great length on this topic, which is one so easy to argue, yet so difficult practically to solve.

Several things, I believe, conspire to make this situation so serious. Industry can outbid an educational institution for a man if it wishes to do so. An industry may be short-sighted, looking only to its profits for the next few years. Or it may realize the situation and, if left to itself, would not try to take a certain man from an educational institution,—but realizing that if it does not some competing concern will, it proceeds to invite the man to join its staff. There are instances in the Institute in which an industry has taken man after man from key positions, leaving a department seriously embarrassed, crippled and criticized.

How, then, is this complicated situation to be handled? I doubt whether any rules, agreements or other artifices can hope to solve it. The solution must be found, I think, according to the regular economic laws, that is by the Institute's being in a position to offer to the man it needs, a sufficient emolument in salary and advantages to hold him or, failing that, to secure another first-class man in his place. And the industries must, for their own ultimate self interest, see to it that the Institute is financially able to retain on its staff the leaders in the various scientific and technical professions.

The third problem of the future, to which I should like to call attention, is one which is not so fundamental as the two just discussed, but which is nevertheless very important and interesting. It is the problem of finding the most advantageous way in which the Institute can coöperate with technical industries in the solving of their problems. As you know, a great step in this direction was taken with the inauguration of the so-called "Tech-Plan" and the formation of the Division of Industrial Coöperation and Research. Very valuable work has been done under this plan, but it has also had certain unsatisfactory features. I know from personal experience that contact of a university teacher with the practical problems of an industry can be professionally extremely interesting and valuable. And certainly the Institute should render every assistance in its power to any worthy cause within range of its interests. The problem really consists in improving, if possible, the way in which this aid is rendered.

These problems which I have mentioned, and to which others might be added, are simply sign posts pointing out the directions which our efforts must take in order to do our work most effectively. It is a work whose results will ultimately affect every man, woman and child and which should command the support of all except those few who are timid in the face of power or who for some reason fear to let Man understand too much of Nature. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology looks to us, who love and respect Nature, to work out her future development. I join you in this work because I believe in its value, and for the same reason I feel confident of the coöperation of each of you, according to his position and opportunity. In its direct and indirect influence I can conceive of no more valuable service.

Technology Review 32, July 1930, pp. 436-438, 465, 466.


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