A History of MIT Pranks
From homemade torpedoes to purloined police cars.
None of these would have made it into the MIT “Hall of Hacks” hosted by the university's museum until 2001. With the possible exception of the bell, which I imagine as rigged to toll when the professor made a certain movement or perhaps leaned on his podium, these ruses don't appear to have required much scientific or engineering know-how. We would be safe to surmise that the freshmen of the class of 1868—who arrived when there were no other students but the freshmen—did not yet have the training that would have allowed them to, say, mix the nitrogen composite of the 1870s.
But there is something else to note in the banality of the original hacks other than just their lack of scientific aplomb. In its early days, the public considered MIT not only strange, but doomed to failure. People saw the Institute, in the words of one of the first MIT professors, as “the refuge of shirks and stragglers from the better organized and stricter colleges,” and, as another early polytechnic professor wrote bluntly, “a resort for college weaklings.” Even the focal word in the Institute's title, “technology,” could be off-putting in its unfamiliarity, dating back only to 1829 when used to indicate the application of sciences and mechanical arts to improve industry and manufacturing. It was not uncommon in the school’s early years for a father to abruptly pull his son out of the Institute once he realized how radically MIT diverged from established universities—not just in advancing a “practical” curriculum based on scientific experiments, but completely omitting ancient languages and requiring no religious worship. Rather than attempts to show off scientific acumen, the earliest MIT pranks were the acts of students trying to remind themselves that they were not so different from their peers at “better” colleges and universities, where silly pranks were rampant. Across the Charles River, not far from the future home of MIT, Harvard students threw boots out of windows at policemen and set off fireworks in professors' offices.
But if some of the students wanted to emulate their Ivy League counterparts, the faculty could not afford to do the same, a fact on which the evolution of pranks at MIT hinged. Catching and purging pranksters was a priority at more established institutions. In 1805, Yale authorities expelled James Fenimore Cooper after a retaliatory prank involving gunpowder, and Harvard repeatedly tried to shut down the so-called “Med Fac,” a secret society devoted to mischief-making around campus. By contrast, the first groups of MIT “conspirators” had considerable leeway, if not impunity. “The surroundings were very unsuited to aid in what might be called the policing of the school,” explained one of the original students. He also noted that the authorities “never made the mistake of regarding a prank as a crime.” The student's point about policing is certainly true: MIT occupied a series of rented spaces before moving into a building on Boylston Street 10 times too large for the student body, making it extremely difficult to monitor students when they were not sitting in a laboratory or classroom. But it was more than a matter of failing to catch the culprits red-handed or being philosophical about tomfoolery. The Institute simply couldn't survive a disciplinary policy resulting in suspensions and the loss of much-needed tuition—at times there were not enough funds to pay its faculty.
In retrospect, MIT's penury may have been a blessing for its identity. The early generations of students used their unusual freedom to hone an entirely different style of pranks than their counterparts at other colleges, and this style became a tradition that grew with their exceptional scientific abilities. Rather than being pushed underground like Harvard's now defunct Med Fac, brainy pranks became a welcome part of MIT's culture. These days, they're lauded not only in the university's museum but by its admissions office. That might constitute the greatest stunt ever pulled off in the academy.
Matthew Pearl is the author of the novel The Last Dickens.