MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections


Title: MIT Wind Tunnel


Among the many perils of early aviation were various unknowns associated with innovations in design. Prudent engineers performed as many tests as possible on the ground, including the standard precaution of turning a sample plane upside down and filling its wings with sand until something broke. A widely-perceived need for more sophisticated testing inspired the evolution of wind tunnels. MIT's Technology Review noted that "a pilot who has taken an airplane off the ground and finds it to be unstable or unwilling to answer the controls is in a very unpleasant position..."

Wind Tunnel, ca. 1914



MIT Wind Tunnel, ca. 1914

Photograph from Records of the
Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel, 1914-1963,
in the Institute Archives & Special Collections


MIT's first wind tunnel was rigged up by student Albert Wells in 1896 by attaching a tube to the school's ventilation system to study the effects of air movement on different surfaces. The wind tunnel shown here (located on Vassar Street, 1914-1921) was the first MIT lab built on this side of the Charles River, predating by two years the formal relocation of the campus from Boston's Back Bay to the reclaimed mudflats of Cambridge in 1916. Jerome C. Hunsaker, who founded MIT's aeronautics department and taught the first courses in aeronautical engineering in the US, supervised the design and construction of this prototypical "aeronautical lab."

The facility consisted of a square wooden tunnel (forty feet long and four feet in cross-section) attached to a sheet metal cylinder housing a seven-foot black walnut propeller and chain-driven motor. The equipment allowed researchers to regulate the flow of air to speeds ranging from two to forty miles per hour. A balance in the tunnel supported models of aircraft, wings, parts, or other test objects, enabling measurement of the forward push of air, lift, and twist of currents. Aeronautical testing was the tunnel's overriding purpose, but it was also used to measure the effects of wind pressure on architectural models, rates of evaporation from reservoirs, and air resistance to such diverse objects as cars, golf clubs, and tennis rackets. The US Army Air Service leased the tunnel in 1917-1918 and tested nearly every World War I plane design there prior to production.

Wind tunnels at MIT have been regularly modified, upgraded, and replaced to accommodate the changing needs of bigger and faster aircraft. Our current wind tunnel, built in 1938 and named for the Wright Brothers, has been used primarily for student aeronautical projects and architectural testing since the 1960s. Sports equipment is still tested, and in 2007 the tunnel was used to test a new uniform for the National Hockey League. The records (1914-1963) of the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel (AC 144) are among the collections in the Institute Archives and Special Collections, a division of the MIT Libraries. Blueprints, logbooks, and aerodynamic research reports of the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel and its predecessors are available for research in the Archives, 14N-118.

Aeolus drawing from A Whimsical Map of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1944-5, by Professor Frederick K. Morris.

Logbook recording opening of the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel

Object of the Month: March 2000, 2008

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