“Slouching Through the Depression”
In 1938 and 1939, various groups of New England industrialists and financiers became obsessed with fixing the nation’s risk-less economy. One of the most prominent organizations was the New England Council, a group of politicians, businessmen, and educators, which formed in 1925 to “improve economic conditions for New England.”
Within this group, there was a growing awareness that New England’s universities and industrial research labs were a valuable asset distinguishing the region from the rest of the nation. The most impressive asset in the region was MIT.
[MIT President Karl Compton]
In 1930, Karl Compton, then the head of the physics department of Princeton University, accepted an invitation to become the president of MIT. Under Compton, MIT redefined the relationship between science and society. When Compton took office during the Great Depression, science was attacked as a source of social ills.
Over the next twenty-four years, Compton worked tirelessly to strengthen basic scientific research at MIT and to promote the importance of science to a skeptical and hostile public. Compton advocated a broad education for scientists, one that responded to the needs of the time.
In 1934, Compton proposed an ambitious program he called “Put Science to Work.” The campaign called for the public financing of “scientific and engineering research looking toward better public works for the future.” Instead of blaming labor-saving technology for society’s ills, Compton proposed the bold idea that science gave birth to great new industries.
“New industries are like babies: they need shelter and nourishment, which they take in the form of patent protection, financing, and the chance of reasonable profits,” wrote Comptom in a long essay promoting his campaign. “But, before all, they need need to be born, and their parents are science and invention.”
The egalitarian ethos of the New Deal stymied Compton’s campaign to finance research at elite universities like MIT. So Compton turned his attention to the regional level. In 1939, responding to a suggestion by Compton, the New England Council formed a committee to examine how new products might help reverse the terminal decline of the region’s textile and garment industries.
The New Products Committee brought together eight of the most progressive minds in America, including Compton, Doriot, Ralph Flanders, a mechanical engineer who rose to become head of Vermont’s Jones & Lamson Machine Company, and Merrill Griswold, president of Massachusetts Investors Trust. Doriot was charged with heading up one of several subcommittees; his was called “Development Procedures and Venture Capital.”
Was this his new impossible mission?