William Barton Rogers: MIT's Visionary Founder

by Elizabeth Andrews, Nora Murphy, and Tom Rosko

William Barton Rogers, 1869BIRTH AND YOUTH

William Barton Rogers was a noted geologist and educator who had a vision for a new educational model. He began to organize and promote his ideas for a “polytechnic” institute as early as the 1840s. And he pursued his ideas until MIT was finally founded in 1861. He served as MIT's first president and his life would end, in 1882, in service to the Institute.

Rogers was born on December 7th, 1804, in Philadelphia, the second son of Patrick Kerr Rogers and Hannah Blythe. William Barton Rogers had three brothers: elder brother James Blythe Rogers, born in 1802; and younger brothers Henry Darwin Rogers, born in 1808, and Robert Empie Rogers, born in 1813.

Their father, Patrick Rogers, was a native of Ireland, who immigrated to America at the end of the 18th century. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and practiced medicine. In 1812 the family moved to Baltimore, and in 1819 Patrick Rogers was appointed Professor of Natural History and Chemistry at the College of William and Mary and the family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia. Mother Hannah Blythe died in 1820 from malaria, a common cause of death at the time.

William Barton Rogers attended William and Mary in the early 1820s, and after completing his work there (though it is unclear whether or not he actually graduated), William and his brother Henry moved back to Baltimore, nearer to their eldest brother James. James had received a medical degree from the University of Maryland and would soon become Professor of Chemistry at Washington Medical College in Baltimore.

During their time in Baltimore William and Henry opened a school in Windsor, Maryland, and their youngest brother, Robert, was one of their pupils. At this time, 1826 to 1827, William also gave a course of lectures at Maryland Institute in Baltimore.


William's brothersThe Rogers brothers: James, William, Henry, and Robert were remarkable, and all would gain distinction as scientists. James held numerous professorships in chemistry, and ultimately completed his career at the University of Pennsylvania. Henry was an accomplished geologist who oversaw the geological surveys of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He frequently spent time in Europe and was exposed to the work of noted European scientists, about which he often wrote to his brothers. He taught at the Franklin Institute, was Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Pennsylvania, and ultimately became Regius Professor of Natural History at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Robert graduated from the Medical Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He became Professor of Applied Chemistry and Materia Medica at the University of Virginia and was later elected Dean of the Medical Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. The brothers often worked together, sharing in the fieldwork of numerous geological surveys, authoring articles, and founding and participating in a variety of scientific professional organizations.


Map of VirginiaIn 1828 Patrick Kerr Rogers died and William Barton Rogers succeeded him at the College of William and Mary as Professor of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy. In 1835 Rogers was appointed geologist of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and headed the state's geological survey (as his brother Henry did in New Jersey and Pennsylvania). Also in 1835 he was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Virginia and moved to Charlottesville. He served as Chairman of the Faculty from 1844 to 1845, and in 1845 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


While William held his faculty position at the University of Virginia in the 1840s he frequently traveled north to the New England area. In New England he found an intellectual and social culture more to his liking: people who valued education and hard work along with financial enterprise.

Imagine Boston and New England in the 1840s…

  • Fast growing urban centers filling with immigrants from Europe and Canada, new railroads and mill towns,
  • flourishing literary circles,
  • a center of anti-slavery and other reform movements.

Map of BostonBoston was soon to be characterized as the “Athens of America” and the “Hub of the Universe.” Local families strove to maintain their leadership role in the industrialization of New England and the United States. Progress depended in part on the continuing improvement of machinery and technology for those industries. And it was interest in science and technology where William Barton Rogers and the leaders of New England industry and education connected. A number of the New England elite were intrigued by his new ideas for a technical and scientific education different from the traditional classical college curriculum where Latin and Greek reigned supreme.

Fortunately, preserved in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections is a fairly complete set of the letters to and from William Barton Rogers which illuminates the progress toward the establishment of MIT. The sequence of events that the correspondence documents can be summarized as follows: After speaking to Boston philanthropist John Lowell in 1846, Henry Rogers asked his brother William, who was still in Virginia, to draft a plan for a scientific school. William outlined his plan in a March 1846 letter to Henry.

Page 1 of letter
“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 inculcation of those scientific principles which form the basis and explanation of them, their leading processes and operations in connection with physical laws.”
- Life and Letters of William Barton Rogers 1:420

It was a vision which included both the practical and the theoretical.

Rogers with the Savage familyWilliam’s interest in the New England world continued. On his travels there he became acquainted with the family of James Savage, Sr. Savage was a noted genealogist who had authored "The Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England."

William became engaged to James Savage's eldest daughter, Emma, and William and Emma were married in 1849. They would be married for over thirty years and Emma would be a widow for nearly thirty more. They had no children.

William returned to his position at the University of Virginia and the couple lived there for several more years. They moved to Boston in 1853, William finally coaxed back to his pursuit of establishing a polytechnic institute. During the next several years he gave public lectures and was associated with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Boston Society of Natural History.


In Boston during those years the marshy lands in Back Bay were gradually being filled in as a state project, and the governor of Massachusetts proposed in 1859 that some of the new ground be set aside for public educational improvements. A group called the “Associated Institutions of Science and the Art” prepared a “memorial” seeking some of that land for various educational purposes, but their request was not successful—at least not at first. The next year the same group enlisted William Barton Rogers to spearhead a new land grant proposal, and as part of that campaign Rogers produced a 30-page pamphlet titled Objects and Plan of an Institute of Technology which was distributed widely.

Rogers’s 1860 pamphlet called for a three-part institution to include a Society of Arts, a Museum of Arts, and a School of Industrial Science. That third component, the school would, he proposed, have departments devoted to design, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and geology. And again he emphasized his overriding vision:

Objects and Plan cover
“…It would be the object to provide a substantial and continuous course of teaching, while imparting a knowledge of the principles, facts, and processes connected with the Arts, [and] should cultivate the habits of observation and exact thought, which are so conducive to the progress of invention and the development of intelligent industry.”

This methodology for teaching, a departure from the strict lecturing format devoted to classical studies, was a new and innovative way of imparting knowledge in academia.

Letter from Governor AndrewThe plan was introduced to the state legislature in 1860. And a year of support and defense of the plan ensued.

This letter from Massachusetts Governor John Andrew urges Rogers to speak before the Board of Education in defense of the establishment of the Institute. "Be thou the advocate," states Governor Andrew, as he extols Rogers's virtues as a persuasive speaker. And persuasive he was…

In April 1861, by an act of the Massachusetts legislature (chapter 183, acts of 1861), MIT was formally established. Governor Andrew signed the act on April 10, 1861, just two days before Fort Sumter was fired upon, marking the start of the Civil War.

First page of charter

An Act to Incorporate the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and to Grant Aid to Said Institute and to the Boston Society of Natural History

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:

Section 1

… are hereby made a body corporate by the name of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for the purpose of instituting and maintaining a society of arts, a museum of arts, and a school of industrial science, and aiding generally, by suitable means, the advancement, development and practical application of science in connection with arts, agriculture, manufactures, and commerce; with all the powers and privileges, and subject to all the duties, restrictions and liabilities, set forth in the sixty-eighth chapter of the General Statutes.

With the charter secured in 1861, the school began to organize, and while the obvious tasks of fund raising (remembering that the Civil War has just broken out) and planning for a building (on a site near today’s Copley Square) were pressing, there was still a distinct focus on the sorting out of courses and setting up the educational plan. Early on, a Committee on Instruction was formed, and William Barton Rogers reported on the curriculum and organization in the comprehensive and detailed Scope and Plan of the School of Industrial Science, which was issued in 1864. The methods of teaching which the Scope and Plan proposed were varied, among them

  • Laboratory training,
  • Practical exercises, and
  • Excursions.
Scope and Plan

The instruction in this department of the School will be given through the medium of —

  1. Lectures and Familiar Expositions.
  2. Oral and Written Examinations.
  3. Practice in Physical and Chemical Manipulations.
  4. Laboratory Training in Chemical Analysis, Metallurgy, and Industrial Chemistry.
  5. Drawing and the Construction of Special Plans and Projects of Machines and Works of Engineering and Architecture.
  6. Practical Exercises in Surveying, Levelling, Geodesy, and Nautical Astronomy.
  7. Excursions for the Inspection and Study of Machines, Motors, Processes of Manufacture, Buildings, Works of Engineering, Geological Sections, Quarries, and Mines.

The Scope and Plan of the School of Industrial Science set forth the key decision that degrees would be offered in the following areas:

  • Mechanical Construction and Engineer
  • Civil and Topographical Engineer
  • Builder and Architect
  • Industrial Chemist
  • Geologist and Mining Engineer

Etching of the Rogers BuildingThe first classes at the Institute were held in February 1865 in the Mercantile Building in downtown Boston. Construction on the first building, later named for Rogers and shown here, was completed in 1866.

It was not until 1916 that MIT moved across the river to Cambridge.


Now, how was the Scope and Plan interpreted by the faculty? Here are four examples of how certain faculty members translated what was laid out in the Scope and Plan into their first courses.

First, two professors of chemistry, Charles Eliot and Frank Storer compiled the Manual of Inorganic Chemistry, published in 1868. The manual was groundbreaking—it was designed so that students themselves could carry out the chemistry experiments. The standard teaching method had been for the professor to lecture and the students to get no closer to the experiments than what they read in their textbooks. [As a side note, Eliot and Storer soon after went off to Harvard, Eliot to become Harvard’s president. This speaks to the quality of the initial faculty at MIT, as well as to the notion that the rivalry for Cambridge faculty existed from the start.]

Ware billThe second example of how the Scope and Plan was interpreted relates to architecture. William Ware was hired to start the architecture program, the first in the United States. His first thoughts were presented in a lecture in December 1865 titled “An Outline of the Course of Instruction in Building and Architecture proposed for the School of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” Although Ware joined the faculty in 1865, he traveled to Europe to buy teaching objects, interview individuals, and study European schools before committing to a specific curriculum.

Shown here is the bill for objects Ware purchased abroad. We know from the minutes of the Corporation, MIT’s governing board, that Ware asked permission to extend his trip so he could finish setting up the course. Architecture classes were taught for the first time in 1868—three years after other Institute classes had started. There is also correspondence among the records of the Corporation wondering when Ware would return to begin teaching.

Physics laboratoryThe third example has to do with Edward Pickering, professor of physics, who modeled his physics laboratory on Rogers’s preliminary ideas in the 1864 Scope and Plan.

Pickering pointed out the importance of the laboratory as a new method of teaching in physics. He wrote, “It is somewhat remarkable that while Physics is almost as much an experimental science as Chemistry, it is yet taught even in our best schools by textbooks and lectures.”

Surveying on a field tripA fourth example is the use of excursions or field trips, the last method of instruction in Rogers’s 1864 list, and that too was firmly established in the early years of MIT.

Ellen Swallow and Robert RichardsWe are fortunate to have in the Institute Archives and Special Collections the diary of Robert Richards, professor of mining engineering. Richards was also a member of the first MIT graduating class of 1868. Richards's diary has notes of the expedition he and nine undergraduates took in 1873 to mining camps in northern New England and the Adirondacks. The diary includes his jottings about student assignments on the trip, organizational details, and an intriguing glimpse into the personal side of his life. On one page he compiled the arguments pro and con educating men and women together. Two years later he was to marry the first female graduate of MIT (Ellen Swallow, class of 1873).

So the Institute was off and running, committed to this new program. It was serious business, and at the beginning (the first class graduated in 1868) MIT officials did not hold a formal graduation ceremony. [Also, from the start William Barton Rogers expressed a strong aversion to honorary degrees, and to this day, although there have long been graduation exercises, MIT has never given an honorary degree.]


While president of MIT, Rogers also taught classes including physics. Years of strenuous effort and resulting debilitating health forced William Barton Rogers to relinquish his duties in 1868 and to retire from the presidency of MIT in 1870. He spent the ensuing decade recuperating.

During the 1870s, the Institute began to have financial difficulties and enrollment decreased (partially due to outside influences such as the Great Boston Fire and the Panic of 1873). In 1878 Rogers was asked to resume the presidency of MIT. He agreed on the condition that he would only do so until a successor could be found. Francis Amasa Walker was chosen to be the new president in 1880; however, due to obligations regarding his work overseeing the U.S. Census, he could not take office until the fall of 1881. Rogers continued his involvement, and ultimately died while on the podium at commencement in 1882.

In a biographical memoir for the National Academy of Sciences, written in the style of the time, Walker eloquently described Rogers's last moments:

William Barton Rogers"On the 30th of May, 1882, he rose to deliver the diplomas to the graduating class, most of whose course had been passed under his presidency. His voice was at first weak and faltering, but, as was his wont, he gathered inspiration from his theme, and for the moment his voice rang out in its full volume and in those well-remembered, most thrilling tones; then, of a sudden, there was silence in the midst of speech; that stately figure suddenly drooped; the fire died out of that eye, ever so quick to kindle at noble thoughts, and, before one of his attentive listeners had time to suspect the cause, he fell to the platform — instantly dead. All his life he had borne himself most faithfully and heroically, and he died, as so good a knight would surely have wished, in harness, at his post, and in the very part and act of public duty."

So ended the life of William Barton Rogers. Rogers would be eulogized and memorialized but the greatest testament to him is that his legacy and vision continued and remains at MIT.


Rogers's founding vision has continued to guide MIT, throughout its history. His name and vision are invoked in the speeches of MIT's administrators and in articles and press releases.

Specific iterations of the vision over time include the following: In January 1947, the faculty appointed five of its members as a Committee on Educational Survey with the sweeping charge to “reexamine the principles of education that had served as a guide to academic policy at MIT for almost ninety years, and to determine whether they are applicable to the conditions of a new era emerging from social upheaval and the disasters of war.”

Over a period of two years the five members of the Educational Survey Committee, plus 17 other faculty members met and compiled a comprehensive plan for the future. To give you an idea of the scope and depth of the work undertaken, consider just two of the questions proposed to the committee:

  • What is the real place of the humanities in our educational plan: are they in fact to be tolerated on the fringes of scientific and engineering training or accepted as a real part thereof?
  • Is the load of work so great as to preclude unwisely the student’s opportunity for reflection and self-improvement?

The answers to these questions, including an affirmation of William Barton Rogers’s original concepts as “important guiding principles,” are fully discussed and laid out in the 150-page report. The report recommended that the humanities be given a more prominent role at MIT, and the subsequent development of both the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and the arts program in general are closely tied to those recommendations. The report, still one of the most frequently cited around the Institute, is known by its popular title, “the Lewis report,” after its faculty chairman, Warren K. Lewis.

In more recent times:
The Task Force on Student Life and Learning, a group modeled on the Lewis Committee, was appointed in 1996 by President Vest to review again the Institute’s educational program and its implementation.

The final report of the Task Force, issued in 1998, was written by a faculty committee in consultation with MIT staff and students. It featured eleven principles. The first four, called the "founding principles," refine and restate principles of William Barton Rogers; the next four, called the "Lewis principles," reaffirm statements in the 1949 Lewis report. The final three principles, called the "task force principles," formally define MIT’s mission for this new century: recognizing the importance of community life for a student on campus, the importance of a diverse student body, and pointing explicitly to the intensity and curiosity that should permeate all educational activities. For the past several years the Task Force report has been a guiding document for Institute planning and policy.

And it is likely that another reiteration of the sustained value and importance of William Barton Rogers's vision will be seen when the recently established committee to review MIT's General Institute Requirements completes its work.

The legacy of MIT's visionary founder, William Barton Rogers, continues at MIT.

Unless otherwise noted, images are from the collections of the
MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections and the MIT Museum.
October 2004; revised December 2012

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