MIT 150

MIT's contributions to technology

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Globe Staff Writers Sam Allis, Hiawatha Bray, Scott Helman, And Carolyn Johnson, And Globe Contributors Scott Kirsner, Karen Weintraub, And Michael Blanding / May 15, 2011

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World Wide Web Consortium

The first sentence on the first World Wide Web site had to explain to visitors what exactly this thing was. It described the Web as a “wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents.” Oh. Nobody could have imagined that would one day include classified war documents, videos of talking dogs, and the ability to stream movies and instant message with friends. Tim Berners-Lee, the soft-spoken Briton who invented the Web in 1989 while working at a particle physics lab in Geneva, came to MIT in 1994 to help create the World Wide Web Consortium, to help spread technical standards for building websites, browsers, and devices (like televisions) that offer access to Web content. His greatest act of all was actually something he didn’t do: patent his invention or extract licensing fees from those who used his ideas – decisions that helped the Web go global in a few years. “The thing spread largely because I didn’t make World Wide Web Incorporated in 1991,” Berners-Lee has said. When Queen Elizabeth II knighted Berners-Lee, he said it showed that great things could happen to ordinary people who took on projects that “happen to work out.”

Transistor radio

Considered by some to be the most important invention of the 20th century, the solid-state transistor was born at Bell Labs in New Jersey. One of the three Nobel Prize laureate inventors was William Shockley, who earned his doctorate at MIT in 1936. Among the first products to take advantage of transistors were hearing aids, portable radios, and televisions.

Send. Reply. Delete.

In 1971, Ray Tomlinson, an MIT alum working at Bolt Beranek and Newman, a Cambridge consulting firm founded by other MIT alums, sent the first e-mail between two computers on the Arpanet (the Internet’s predecessor). He picked the @ to separate the user’s name from the computer “host” where he could be reached. When Tomlinson showed his e-mail system to another BBN employee, he reportedly said: “Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on.”

The minicomputer

Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, who worked at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in the 1950s, formed a start-up called Digital Equipment Corp. in 1957 to build what they called “interactive minicomputers,” which would be smaller and less expensive than mainframes and designed with business use in mind. Digital’s first minicomputer, the PDP-1, sold for $120,000 and came standard with 9K of internal memory. Digital became the second-biggest tech company in the world at one point, after IBM Corp.

The new robots

When they started iRobot Corp. in 1990, MIT grads Helen Greiner and Colin Angle knew they wanted to build robots; they’d figure out their business model later. Did they ever. The Roomba vacuum arrived in 2002, the first truly functional robot to find its way into American households. Last year it earned iRobot more than $400 million in revenue. On a more serious note, iRobot developed a reconnaissance robot for the military. PackBot acts as eyes and ears for troops and neutralizes roadside bombs, screens vehicles and people for devices, and goes into caves. iRobot has built about 3,500 PackBots for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.


MIT electrical engineering professor Amar Bose had a simple mission in 1964: design a stereo speaker that could come closer to reproducing the sound of a live musical performance. His company led the rush to create dozens of game-changing products, from noise-canceling headphones to a better bedside alarm clock. Its newest product is a flat-panel TV that eliminates the need for external speakers. Bose donated most of his stock to MIT last month making MIT the company’s majority owner. Bose has more than $1.8 billion in annual revenues and about 8,000 employees.

Where am I?

Like knowing where you’re going? Ivan Getting founded the Aerospace Corp. A 1933 graduate, he designed radar systems at MIT’s Radiation Laboratory during World War II and later worked at Raytheon Co. He was also one of the developers (and major advocates, in the face of Pentagon resistance) of a satellite-based global positioning system for navigation. You know it as GPS.

Key to the Kindle

Love your Kindle? Thank MIT. Media Lab associate professor Joseph Jacobson is a cofounder of E Ink Corp., the company that produces the highly readable black-and-white screens found on many electronic books, including’s popular eBook reader. Now owned by a Taiwanese technology firm, E Ink is making life miserable for the printed word, while preserving the written word in the digital age.

The spreadsheet

Dan Bricklin was sitting in a classroom at Harvard Business School when he had this idea to create an “electronic spreadsheet” or “Calcu-ledger” – a way for managers to do complex accounting using a computer or project how their revenues might grow under different scenarios. Bricklin, a 1973 MIT graduate, and fellow MIT alum Bob Frankston rented time late at night on an MIT mainframe computer (it cost $1 an hour to use) to write the program that would become VisiCalc. It led to programs like Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel.

The Internet never forgets

Why shouldn’t someone be storing a copy of the evolving Web as a historical reference? Brewster Kahle, a 1982 MIT computer science graduate, began building the Internet Archive in 1996, collecting Web pages, as well as television broadcasts, movies, and even bootleg recordings of Grateful Dead concerts – a kind of shadow Library of Congress solely interested in collecting digital materials.

Heavy traffic

In the late 1990s, Daniel Lewin and his MIT faculty adviser, math professor Tom Leighton, devised a model for speeding up the movement of large quantities of data over the Internet. Their work became the foundation for Akamai Technologies Inc., the Cambridge company that today handles up to 30 percent of the world’s Internet traffic. Lewin became a billionaire. But on Sept. 11, 2001, he was on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. He was 31.

That’s cool

If your office temperature is always comfortable, you might thank Pietro Belluschi. The dean of MIT’s School of Architecture + Planning from 1951-65, he designed the Equitable Building (later named the Commonwealth Building), a sleek office space in Portland, Ore., that was completed in 1948. Wrapped in aluminum, it was the first large commercial building in the country to be fully air-conditioned. It also was the first to have double-glazed glass windows, which helped reduce glare from the sky and, therefore, controlled solar heat better.

Protect yourself

An approach to sending secure digital messages – like using your credit card number with an e-commerce site – was developed in 1977 by a trio of MIT professors: Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman. RSA (the initials of each of their last names) cryptography uses a “public key,” which can be known to anyone, to encrypt messages and a “private key,” which only the recipient has, to decrypt them. The trio eventually sold RSA Security to EMC Corp.


26 William Reddington Hewlett, the cofounder of Hewlett-Packard Development Co., earned his master’s in engineering from MIT in 1936.


The star of what may be MIT’s most popular YouTube video is a four-legged, gas-guzzling robot intended to serve as a pack animal for the military. More than 11 million people have watched BigDog climb a wooded hill, shuffle through deep snow, slip on ice, and deftly recover when knocked over. (It uses global positioning system coordinates to navigate.) Designed by Marc Raibert, who in 1980 founded MIT’s Leg Lab to help robots mimic human walking, and his team at Boston Dynamics, BigDog holds the record for distance traveled by a legged vehicle: nearly 13 miles. The project is funded by the Department of Defense, which recently gave Raibert’s company a grant to develop Cheetah, a robot that could run faster than 20 miles per hour.

1, 2, 3, go!

In 2001,Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT materials science professor, created high-powered lithium-ion batteries with five times the power as before. Incorporated as A123 Systems in 2002 with the help of Boston-area entrepreneur Desh Deshpande, Chiang’s company was successful out of the box – signing deals to power everything from Black & Decker power tools to electric cars in China to power plants in Chile.

Birth of the iPod... and more

As an MIT doctoral student in the early 1950s, Robert Noyce was known as “Rapid Robert” for his quick mind. As a cofounder of Intel Corp., he was known as the “Mayor of Silicon Valley.” A mentor to Apple’s Steve Jobs, Noyce is one of those credited as the inventor of the first practical integrated circuit, a.k.a. the “microchip” – which made modern-day computers possible. Without that, no iPod.

Personal computing

What if every child in the world had a laptop? A few years back, it would have seemed a ridiculous question. Nicholas Negroponte and the MIT Media Lab are making it possible. He set out in 2005 to design a radically less expensive computer to distribute worldwide. His nonprofit, One Laptop per Child, says 2 million children in 31 countries, from Peru to Mongolia, are using its stripped-down PCs. The organization, which has yet to get the price down to $100, is now working on a tablet computer.

Radar detectives

It is sometimes said the atomic bomb ended World War II, but radar won the war. Much of that technology came from MIT’s Radiation Laboratory – intentionally given a misleading moniker to divert attention away from the lab’s true focus, on microwave radar technology development. Its contributions included airborne-bombing radar, a long-range navigation system, coastal defense radars, and early-warning radars. After the war ended, the Rad Lab closed. Seven years later, Lincoln Laboratory was founded, based on many of the same organizational principles and with many of the same employees.

Way out there

During the Apollo 11 mission, the world watched astronauts’ bold, small steps open a new frontier in exploration and the public imagination. But to several hundred engineers in Cambridge, the Apollo missions were tense times when the guidance, navigation, and control systems that were designed and developed at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory underwent the ultimate test of guiding men to the moon. The lab, founded by Charles Stark Draper in 1932, was spun off from MIT in 1973 as Draper Laboratory, largely because of student protests against classified research taking place on campus. Draper’s technologies have been important in missile guidance for submarine and land-based ballistic missiles and are now being used to tackle problems in biomedical research.

Touch this

In 1963, the idea of a computer responding instantly to something a nonprogrammer did to it was still a bit fantastic. Sketchpad, created by MIT doctoral student Ivan Sutherland, was the first “graphical user interface,” inviting users to draw geometric objects on a computer screen with a light pen. Sketchpad was a key step toward making computers more usable, as well as computer-assisted drafting, or CAD, software that engineers use to design everything from lawn furniture to jet engines.


Sporting rubbery red lips, pig-like pink ears, and big ping-pong ball eyes, Kismet was a robot designed to engage with humans. Begun in 1997 by Cynthia Breazeal, Kismet relied on microphones and cameras to collect information about the world around it, following an object with its head and eyes or responding to a scolding tone of voice with its own vocalizations or facial expressions. “Kismet wasn’t about creating a friendly robot,” says Rodney Brooks, former head of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. “It was about understanding the intent of the machine.”

Just the fax

Shintaro “Sam” Asano, a Fulbright scholar at MIT in 1959, once said his professors encouraged him to take risks and test new theories: “I was immersed in a free-thinking atmosphere,” he said. Perhaps that explains why years later, while working as a National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer, when he struggled to explain a complicated camera over the phone to a colleague who had a heavy Southern accent, Asano had an idea. He wished he could just draw a picture and send it instantly. While American businesses weren’t initially interested in Asano’s digital fax machine technology, it was licensed by NTT, a major Japanese telecommunications company, and took off there first. Why? It was faster to write down Japanese kanji characters and fax the message than to type messages on a teletypewriter.


“I need some help, that much seems certain.” “What would it mean to you if you got some help?” “Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother.” “Tell me more about your family.” Written in the mid-1960s by MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum, Eliza was one of the first computer programs to convey a semblance of “humanness”; many people who engaged in dialogues with Eliza believed – for a few volleys, at least – they were interacting with a human therapist. The next time you type a question into Google and it finds the help you need, thank Eliza.

That other computer jack

When Wi-Fi isn’t available, reliable, or secure enough, computer users who need to connect turn to Ethernet – that jack on your computer that’s slightly too big for a telephone plug. It was co-invented by Bob Metcalfe, an MIT alum who now serves on the university’s board of trustees and who founded the company 3Com Corp. to sell Ethernet networking equipment.

Big doings at BBN

Bolt Beranek & Newman, a Cambridge firm founded in 1948 by two MIT faculty members, worked on the acoustical design of the United Nations’ General Assembly Hall, studied the vibration of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Mercury capsule during launch, and analyzed the 18 minutes of tape that President Nixon’s secretary accidentally erased, as well as a recording of President Kennedy’s assassination. It also designed much of the early hardware for the Arpanet (a Pentagon-funded computer network that predated the Internet) and helped America Online build out its infrastructure as AOL exploded in the 1990s.

Thinking Machines

Founded by alums of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, Thinking Machines Corp. set out to build “a machine that will be proud of us,” as the company’s motto went. Just as the human brain can multitask, the team at Thinking Machines (it filed for bankruptcy in 1994) designed computers that could do the same, handing various computational tasks to 64,000 different processors inside.

Stopping time

MIT professor Harold “Doc” Edgerton figured out how to marry a still camera and a strobe light that could flash up to 120 times a second, stopping time and allowing for the analysis of events too fast for the naked eye to see, like a bullet passing through an apple or a drop of milk splashing down (below). Using stroboscopic photography, Edgerton’s cameras also enabled the Allies to take nighttime reconnaissance photos from airplanes during World War II and photographed atomic bomb tests from miles away. > Watch the video: He stopped time

The Intergalactic Computer Network

What if any computer user could access information from digital libraries across the planet or have far-off machines run programs they’d written? J.C.R. Licklider, a former MIT professor who went to work at the Pentagon in the 1960s, imagined a vast network that would make information instantly accessible. Writing memos to address the team of researchers building what would become the Arpanet, he jokingly addressed them as “Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network.”

That cool hologram

The “rainbow hologram” wouldn’t exist if not for MIT professor Stephen Benton, who created one that can be seen in normal light. (Earlier generations of holograms required laser light to create the illusion of three-dimensionality.) Rainbow holograms – also known as “Benton holograms” – help make it hard for crooks to crank out fake credit cards, and they often appear on product packaging as a sign of authenticity.


Love it or hate it, Lotus Notes was everywhere for a while. Mitch Kapor, who studied at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in the late 1970s and later returned as a visiting scientist, is a true software pioneer who founded Lotus Development Corp. in 1982.

Conducting business

Nick DeWolf, a 1948 MIT alum, cofounded in 1960 Teradyne Inc., one of the leaders of designing semiconductors.

Beyond the ABCs

Jim Marggraff has helped make learning easier for millions of children. Armed with MIT bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, Marggraff tackled geography education in the 1990s with a talking globe that pronounced the names of countries when the student tapped them. The business was acquired by LeapFrog Enterprises Inc., where Marggraff developed the popular LeapPad, which could read text from specially printed books, helping children learn to read.


We all have an image of what the computer looked like back in the early 1950s: a room-sized box full of switches and tubes. But how did we get from that to the 3/4-inch MacBook Air? A photograph in Life magazine in 1956 holds a clue. In it, 29-year-old MIT doctoral student Dudley Buck showcases his new invention, the cryotron – a sliver-sized computer circuit employing superconductivity to transmit electrical impulses – in his right hand and an oversized vacuum tube the cryotron could replace in his left. It was one of the first glances at our personal computing future.

Google him

Shuman Ghosemajumder, a graduate of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, is the former chief of click fraud at Google. He helped protect advertisers in a $20 billion industry from fraud.

Underwater robots

Anyone who’s seen “Titanic” knows how undersea robots helped revolutionize exploration. Submersibles such as Alvin and Jason have helped discover everything from sunken treasure to species. None of this would have been possible were it not for the pioneering effort of the MIT Sea Grant Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Laboratory. In 1988 engineer Jim Bellingham created a 3-foot-long robot named Sea Squirt and sent it exploring the depths of the Charles River.

Ridiculously fast-charging batteries

If electric cars are going to catch on, they’ve got to be as easy to refuel as today’s vehicles. Plugging them in for hours to recharge won’t be good enough. Enter lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4), discovered by MIT researchers Byoungwoo Kang and Gerbrand Ceder. Recharging, to quote the researchers, happens at “ridiculously fast speeds.” Batteries could potentially charge 100 times faster than regular batteries; for small batteries, that could mean a matter of seconds, and even larger car batteries could charge in five minutes. The hope is to develop the batteries commercially within two years.

All systems go

Jay Forrester grew up on a cattle ranch in Nebraska, worked on critical radar systems during World War II, and helped design computer technology that formed the basis for the US air defense system. He drew on all these experiences to create a field at MIT in the 1950s called system dynamics, which became an influential way of analyzing just about everything that happens in the world. The idea was to use computer models and simulations not just for technical systems like aircraft, but to develop “management flight simulators” to help us learn about and manage complex human systems such as companies, markets, and cities.

Before 'open source'

Richard Stallman, software pioneer and former MIT professor, was one of the earliest proponents of unlocking software, or what we know today as “open source.”

We’re all connected

With Project Athena in the 1980s, a $70 million initiative, MIT expanded the use of computers on campus. A $50 million gift from Digital Equipment Corp. and IBM Corp., the program established computers, and, perhaps more important, computer networks, as critical components of a university. Jim Bruce, a former longtime professor and onetime vice president for information systems at MIT, says advances in hardware and software allowed students to learn about things such as aircraft wing design in an afternoon rather than over an entire term.