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The Elevation of Applied Science
to an Equal Rank with
the So-Called Learned Professions

April 1911 — MIT’s 50th Anniversary Celebration of its Charter, Congress of Technology, Boston MA


[Richards wrote this speech and intended to deliver it, but died on March 30, less than two weeks before the event.]


The world has always prized the artist, the delineator of the ideal, the creator who puts into visible form the aspirations of the human race; but it has contemned the artisan, the mere worker in wood and stone, whose hands fashioned the thoughts of others.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, fifteenth-century ideals prevailed; and these ideals, which sought visible expression through the artist and the poet, were saturated with mysticism. The unknown was to be reached for in the heavens — the idealist’s feet spurned the earth. Knowledge was hardly to be desired lest the charm of mystery should be lost, and science was not welcome since it laid bare many fallacies. Thus it had already dispossessed man of his place at the center of the universe, about whom all things revolved and for whom all things were created. When science ha won a reluctant hearing, the temples of medieval learning were protected from the defilement by the mere artisan through rigid rules s to the uselessness of the knowledge permitted and by requirements as to the purity of results from earthward tendencies. The learned professions of law and theology did not deal with materials, and even medicine was unpractical. Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the earth’s crust lifted; and the four and twenty lines of scientific endeavor, now known as the various branches of engineering, chemistry, physics, electricity, sanitation, etc., began to call loudly, if not in musical form, for recognition and for aid in perfecting their power.

The devotees of traditional culture viewed with abhorrence this leveling demand: they refused to soil their hands with artisan’s tools, even to gain the artist’s creative power, and they scorned this new creative force because it was to be used to advance the material welfare of men.

Such was the atmosphere, laden with the blinding dust which the culturists had raised, in which a few prophetic souls started a fan to clear away the obscuring smoke of anathema and objurgation. In such an atmosphere, in 1861, the Institute was founded to give instruction in useful knowledge, “to teach the application of science to the practical arts of life to human comfort and health, and to social wealth and power.

It required twenty years of discussion, persuasion, explanation to develop this thought of the worth of the study of man in his earthly environment and of the nobility of the professions which gave to man control of the earth through knowledge of its forces. The breaking up of traditions, and the bringing forward of new leaders, were necessary accompaniments of the development of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose business it was to be to train the scientific leaders of national progress.

For the aristocracy of learning still held out against the useful dollars and retarded the progress of civilization by a veritable ostracism of the devotees of applied science. To ally oneself with the Institute of Technology, for at least ten years after its organization, was to cut oneself off from much that college professors considered desirable. The smells and strains of the chemical laboratory were as plebian as the callouses on the hands of the road-side stone-breaker. One instance of this is the sacrifice made by William P. Atkinson, the first professor of history and English at the Institute, who, in the words of another, “allied himself with an institution unpopular among his associates” because of “his belief in the importance of the radical educational idea” of the new school. To him is due the early development of liberal studies, which is a unique feature of the Institute work.

Why was all useful work tabooed. Was it a relic of Roman slavery, of feudal and priestly tyranny? One of the early fruits of true democracy in education was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the people’s university of science, where the work done was for the benefit of the people and not for a class. So strong was this feeling on the part of many of the early workers that the taking out of patents for new and possibly money-making processes was refused as not a suitable professional attitude for the scientific worker.

The Institute of Technology boldy cut out a new path and a new profession as truly for the benefit of man as the old “humanities.” It was a long, hard struggle, as only those who felt the sting of actual contempt can realize. So rapid has been the recent development of the sciences, as applied to useful ends, and the consequent honor accruing to the worker, that it seems almost incredible that as late as 1894, sanitary chemistry was refused a place in the curriculum of a new university because its aim, the practical one of securing better health for the race, was not “pure science, which could be of no use to any one.”

By what means, then, did the object of the Institute — “the advancement, development and practical application of science in connection with arts, agriculture, manufacture and commerce” — become accepted as socially respectable? How did the scientist and artist come to be distinguished from the artisan?

It was by the differentiation of the technological from he technical, by the combination of the activity of the bran with the work of the hands. That Technology graduate is recreant to his Alma Mater who allows the term technical school to be applied to it without protest. Technical means pertaining to the arts, technological to the science of the arts. Technology is the incorporation of higher scientific knowledge into the arts, a process that is now taking place to such an extent that one may almost say the “science of yesterday is the technology of to-day.” And a characteristic distinction between a technological and a technical school is that the one gives laboratory instruction, the other shop practice. It is the laboratory method which has made Technology a scientific university and its graduates professional engineers, chemists, architects, etc. In the words of General Walker, “it led the world in the introduction of laboratory practice,” and in an address commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary, Mr. Augustus Lowell said: “The Institute of Technology has been preeminently a leader in a new method of education.”

Almost at the very outset a long step forward was taken in the establishment of a laboratory of general chemistry. Up to that time general chemistry had been taught wholly by means of text-books, or by lectures with experiments y the lecturer. The student’s part was only to look on to listen. It was not until the student was put into the laboratory that he did or discovered anything for himself. Under the inspiration of Professor Rogers and the direction of Professors Charles W. Eliot and Frank H. Storer, a laboratory of general chemistry was established and the pupil from the first day of his chemical studies was set to teach himself. He was thrown upon his own faculties of observation and reflection. He learned to measure his own power, and he acquired ease and accuracy of manipulation by practice. So far as is known, this was the first laboratory of such a character set up in the world Certainly it was the first one instituted in the United States for the instruction of considerable classes of pupils. The publication of Eliot and Storer’s Manual of Chemistry, designed for students taking this course, marked an epoch in the history of chemical education.

Another equally important step in the scientific education, and one of which the originality is beyond doubt, was taken at about the same time by the establishment of the laboratory now known as the Rogers Laboratory of Physics. Under the inspiration of President Rogers, the scheme of a laboratory where the student of physics should be set to make observations and conduct measurements for himself, in demonstration and illustration of the physical laws taught in the lecture room, was carried out with remarkable ability by Professor Edward C. Pickering, now Director of the Harvard Astronomical Observatory.

Of the ideal which inspired them, Professor Holman writes:

“In education for the technological professions, the inculcation of the scientific method of inquiry int new problems is of even greater importance than the accumulation of fats; for the application of this method with practical sagacity is the one highroad to successful encounter with every problem of nature, whether o the most practical or of the most abstract character. Precisely here lies the great strength of the laboratory; for although the scientific method enters into all branches of scientific work, nowhere else does everything combine to its enforcement as here. Eye, ear and hand are brought into action to deepen and vivify the mental impression. Material things, energy and force, with their immutable laws, confront the student, inspire his imagination, excite interest and impress the memory; while the sense of gaining mastery over the implements, machines and materials of his profession will give earnestness to purpose and permanence to impressions.

“Moreover, this special body of work stands forth above all others n adaptability to that sort of rigorous training in scientific observation, manipulation and method which should characterize a technical course, serving at once as a challenge and a test. The directness with which the false result can be confronted with the true and stubborn fact are among many reasons for its adoption.

“Its importance lies not only in the intrinsic merit of the lines of work which it suggests, but also in the opportunity it affords of employing instead of antagonizing one of the greatest education forces, the enthusiasm of the student.” He says, moreover, “Breadth of mind and grasp of the scientific method can be as effectually cultivated by research, rightly conducted, in applied science as in pure science.”

It is now recognized by students of educational tendencies that practical problems offer the greatest stimulus to research in pure science — that some of the most brilliant work of the past century has been done because of this stimulus. The person applying the result is usually a different individual from the one who makes the discovery, but if he benefits his race and advances civilization, is the former any less deserving of a good name? So solidly was this foundation of service to the community laid in the early years of the Institute that its professors have come to be the referees in disputes, and its laboratories the resort of the manufacturer who has problems to solve and difficulties to overcome.

All that is needed for greater productiveness is that the business man and manufacturer shall more fully appreciate the opportunities which the Institute offers him for the solution of his difficulties, and that he be ready to lend his financial support for the carrying on of important investigations upon the application of science to his industrial and sanitary problems.



Source: Technology and Industrial Efficiency, A Series of Papers Presented at the Congress of Technology, Opened in Boston, Mass, April 10, 1911, In Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Granting of a Charter to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company) 1911, pp. 124-128.