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A Brief History of the Department

Early Years

Mathematics has played an important part at MIT since the founding of the Institute. In the early years of the Institute, the teaching of mathematics courses was overseen by John D. Runkle, president of MIT during the absence of William Barton Rogers. Runkle viewed mathematics as a "service subject" for engineers. Following Runkle, Harry W. Tyler headed the Mathematics Department until 1930 and fostered growth by hiring top mathematicians. Finally, in 1933, under Department Head Frederick Woods, Mathematics left Course IX, General Studies, and became its own entity as Course XVIII.

The Sputnik Years

The Mathematics Department grew into a top-ranked center for mathematical research under the leadership of Department Head William (Ted) Martin in the 1950s and 1960s. The book Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians (A K Peters, 2009) weaves together some of the storied history of the Mathematics Department through interviews with some of our faculty who were here during that period.

Notable Faculty

Clarence L. E. Moore first came to MIT in 1904 and mentored a generation of mathematicians, including Norbert Wiener. Wiener is known as the founder of cybernetics as well as for leading research in pure and applied mathematics, artificial intelligence, and computer science. Wiener's eccentricities are also a part of his legacy at MIT.

Norman Levinson, who received his PhD from MIT in 1935, was a student of Wiener's. Levinson initially was a student in electrical engineering but moved to mathematics and later served as head of the Department. His research included nonlinear differential equations and number theory.

Dirk Struik was a faculty member during this period of growth in the department. He joined the faculty in 1928 and described the 1930s as, "a lively time, and a time in which the mathematics department was greatly strengthened, due to new appointments, more than once from the ranks of excellent graduate students." His recollections can be found in A Century of Mathematics in America (AMS 1989).

Claude Shannon was another notable member of the Mathematics faculty. During World War II, Shannon developed information theory at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Upon returning to MIT in 1956, he was a professor in both the Mathematics and Electrical Engineering Departments. For his own amusement, Shannon built mechanical toys and games that can be found at the MIT Museum.

Sources

Struik, Dirk J. "The MIT Mathematics Department During Its First Seventy-Five Years: Some Recollections." A Century of Mathematics in America. Ed. Peter Duran. Providence: American Mathematical Society, 1989. 163-178.

Wylie, Francis E. M.I.T. in Perspective: A Pictorial History of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1975.

Mannix, Loretta H., and Julius A. Stratton. Mind and Hand: The Birth of MIT. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005.