Materials Research Activities

Materials research at MIT


Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the last 40 years is indicative of many of the aspects of the development in general. Since 1975 there has been a Department carrying just that name. The name changes reflect an institution growing out of mining and metallurgy just when the plastics age arrived.

1888-1920: Mining Engineering and Metallurgy

1920-1927: Mining, Metallurgy and Geology

1927-1937: Mining and Mettallurgy

1937-1967: Metallurgy

1967-1975: Metallurgy and Materials Science

1975-now: Materials Science and Engineering

The word "materials" only featured from 1967 onwards, and so the department is not actually the first institution at MIT to use that term. An Interdisciplinary Library (IDL) had already been established in 1961: the Center for Materials Science. The Center operated alongside the department with many overlaps in personnel. The original 1961 contract for the Center provided $3 million from the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), and the same amount from MIT's Second Century Fund. ARPA funded some dozen IDLs at various universities. In the 1960s the main fields were: solid state physics and chemistry; materials of electronic interest; and materials of metallurgical interest. In the late 1960s, much military funding of science was transferred to civilian bodies, and the funding of the IDLs came under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. Centers were renamed as Materials Research Laboratories, and each were to focus upon "areas of major thrust". In 1994, a new kind of Center with a limited lifespan were created and within this new set-up the MRL was changed into an MRSEC: Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

MIT's Department of MSE meanwhile developed gradually towards a more materials generic outlook. The intention behind the 1967 name change had been to increase student enrollment. Proponents of the 1975 name change argued that the new name actually reflected the realities, while metallurgists naturally put up resistance to the effacement of their field. The actual education also became increasingly materials generic. In 1972-3 a new undergraduate curriculum was introduced exhibiting greater flexibility and broadness of coverage. The aim was to facilitate transfers from other departments. In 1982, the curriculum was reorganized again, this time with a strong core of required subjects cutting across all materials classes. Only electives maintained the traditional classes: metals, ceramics, polymers, and electronic materials.

It should be mentioned that materials research has of course not only taken place at the Department and the Centers, but also at many institutions affiliated more closely with physics or chemistry. The School of Engineering also established a Materials Processing Center in 1980. Its range of interests according to its charter was: 1) fundamentals and applications of materials processing; 2) materials systems engineering; 3) societal issues.

The MIT Archives has a page with a history of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Since 1998, annual reports on materials research at MIT in all departments have been published on the web. The information on this page was taken primarily from Michael Bever, Metallurgy and materials science and engineering at MIT, 1865-1988, MIT, 1988 and from the interview with Bernhardt Wuensch. We also have an interview with Bob Simha about Building 13, the materials research building. More interviews will follow shortly.

This page was last updated on 22 August 2002 by Arne Hessenbruch.