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Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics records

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: AC-0043


  • 1910 - 1990


Access note

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Intellectual Property Rights

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Separate written application for permission to publish must be made to Distinctive Collections. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the creating office.

Historical note

The history of aeronautics/astronautics began at MIT in 1896, when Albert J. Wells (Mechanical Engineering, Class of 1896) designed and built a small wind tunnel as part of his thesis. By 1910, interest in aeronautics had grown considerably and the Alumni Council recommended to the Executive Committee of the Corporation that MIT establish a course in aeronautics and fund the construction of a new wind tunnel. In 1913, President Maclaurin and Professors Gaetano Lanza and Edward F. Miller gave the first lectures on aviation at MIT. In the same year, the Executive Committee provided money for a wind tunnel and Jerome C. Hunsaker was hired to teach aeronautical engineering. The Department of Naval Architecture administered the course, and Hunsaker's first offering in 1914 was 13.72, Aeronautics for Naval Constructors. Until 1926, aeronautics was a graduate course only.

America's entry into World War I speeded efforts to increase the size of the course. By the end of the war 17 graduate degrees were conferred; 81 students were enrolled in 1918 alone, and 2,152 army and over 4,000 navy officers had received aeronautical training at MIT. The end of the war brought a sharp decline in the number of aeronautics students, and Naval Architecture desired to abolish the course in aeronautical engineering. In 1920, the Department of Physics took administrative control of aeronautics.

In 1926, Course XVI, the Department of Aeronautical Engineering, was created, offering undergraduate courses for the first time. However, the department remained under the control of Physics. Aeronautics was an extremely popular course; within a year the student body rose from 44 to 130 (including graduate students), and limits were placed on class size. Office space was extremely limited also, and MIT quickly accepted an offer from the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics to build a complete laboratory for the department. In 1928, the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory and the Aeronautical Library opened, and courses in meteorology (under the administrative control of aeronautics) began.

In 1933, Hunsaker became head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and transferred control of aeronautics from Physics to his department. Two years later Charles Stark Draper established a small instruments laboratory to provide graduate students with experience in guidance and control systems.

Aeronautical Engineering became a full fledged department in 1939, with Hunsaker as its first head. In the same year, the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel began operations. The department expanded rapidly to meet war time needs. Aeronautics began intensive courses for army and navy officers and opened a ground school for the Civil Aeronautics Board. More importantly, research on classified projects grew dramatically. The use of the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel doubled and then tripled. Three laboratories opened during the war: Flutter Research (in 1940), Vibrations Measurements, and Structures. In 1942, Draper's laboratory, renamed the Confidential Instrument Development Laboratory, began its research and development work on military guidance and control systems.

The end of the war brought conflicting demands on the department. Student enrollment dropped gradually, reaching a low in 1952, but the number of research projects continued to grow. Almost all of the major research activities were performed for the military. Project Meteor developed supersonic air to air missiles; the new Gas Turbine Laboratory and the Aeroelastic and Structures Laboratory investigated various aspects of military aircraft performance; and the Instrumentation Laboratory continued its work on guidance and control.

The advent of the space age brought further changes to the department. In 1957, with interests in aerospace research quickly growing, the department began studying its research and teaching needs. The department's Facilities Planning Committee warned that Aeronautics was running out of space and that equipment was becoming obsolete. It recommended that the department spend $100,000 for ten years to buy "modest" new facilities. Within two years, however, the department officially proposed the construction of a center of aeronautics and astronautics. The total cost for the building, renovation of existing space, and equipment was $7 million. By 1963, however, the plans were abandoned and the Center for Space Research built instead.

The department's 1959 name change to Aeronautics and Astronautics reflected the growing interest in aerospace research. The number of aerospace courses increased, and the Instrumentation Laboratory devoted much effort to the Apollo project guidance system. By 1964, the Experimental Astronomy Laboratory (renamed Measurement Systems Laboratory in 1969) and the Space Propulsion and Man Vehicle Laboratories began operations. In 1967, the department began Project Icarus to determine what would be necessary to deflect or destroy the asteroid Icarus as it passed by the earth. The project was later fictionalized in the motion picture Meteor.

The department's organization and curriculum changed often throughout the 1960s. In 1960, a two track program for undergraduates began; students would choose a curricular emphasis either in engineering or engineering science. This experiment proved unsatisfactory, and by 1964 it was replaced by the traditional one track system. A 1962 Ford Foundation grant allowed professors to write new textbooks, permitted the establishment of new courses, and funded the students' Project Laboratory. Interdisciplinary courses with Civil Engineering and the School of Industrial Management were tried. In 1967, academic studies were divided into five divisions: aeronautic/astronautic systems; structures, materials, and elasticity; mechanisms and physics of fluids; instrumentation, control, and guidance; and propulsion and power.

Disenchantment with the Vietnam war and MIT's relationship with classified research directly affected the department. The Inter Laboratory Research Council and the MIT Standing Committee on Special Laboratories (called the Pounds Panel) investigated the role of the Instrumentation Laboratory. In 1970, over objections by many in the department, the laboratory was renamed the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory and removed from department control, becoming a separate division within MIT. With the loss of the laboratory, the department abandoned the divisional research structure it had since 1961. In 1973, the Draper Laboratory was officially divested by MIT.


29.26 Cubic Feet (26 record cartons, 6 manuscript boxes, 2 legal manuscript boxes, 2 half manuscript box, 1 flat storage box)

Language of Materials



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Processing Information note

Some collection descriptions are based on legacy data and may be incomplete or contain inaccuracies. Description may change pending verification. Please contact the MIT Department of Distinctive Collections if you notice any errors or discrepancies.
Preliminary Inventory to the Records of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1910-1990
Ready For Review
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
Building 14N-118
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02139-4307 US