Arts book review

Mystery at the Institute

Matthew Pearl’s latest historical thriller explores the early years of MIT

4688 technologists
Still under construction in this diorama depicting 1863, MIT’s campus in Copley Square was once the westernmost frontier of Back Bay. The woody shores of Cambridge beckon from the background.
Photo Courtesy of MIT Museum, Diorama Courtesy of New England Life INsurance Co.

The Technologists

By Matthew Pearl

Random House

February 2012

One-hundred forty years ago in Lawrence, Massachusetts, John Ripley Freeman found someone’s lost dog. For reuniting pet and owner, the high-schooler collected a generous bounty of $5. Freeman spent that fortune on the latest textbook in Inorganic Chemistry. With the change, he “procured a small supply of glass tubes, flasks, and a Bunsen burner, and set up a small laboratory at home, without setting fire either to the house or woodshed,” he later wrote.

His self-taught chemistry knowledge propelled him through the entrance examinations at the fledgling scientific school whose faculty had written the textbook — the only school that trained budding scientists not with lectures, but by letting them do their own experiments in a laboratory and make their own mistakes.

Of course it was the Institute of Technology in Boston, and John Freeman 1876 became one of our all-star alumni, turning down professorships at Harvard and presidency at MIT to be one of the most prominent engineers of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Those propitious and largely forgotten years of the Institute’s uncertain rise in post-civil-war Boston are the setting for Matthew Pearl’s new thriller The Technologists. Mr. Pearl, a bestselling novelist, has followed books like Bringing Down the House in making MIT and its students the stars of a novel that pleads its own plausibility.

The story takes place in 1868, three years after MIT opened for classes. Most of Boston is deeply suspicious of what the Institute represents. “Their sciences are seen as practically pagan,” a policeman exclaims early on. As industry dawns, the city is hit by a series of terrorist attacks. Magnetic compasses in the harbor go awry, and seven ships crash into the piers of Boston. Later, all of the glass on State Street’s office buildings melts away. Nobody knows why.

MIT is suspected of complicity in the scientifically-based attacks, but a small group of students — including Ellen Swallow Richards, class of 1873 and MIT’s first female student, her future husband Robert Richards, class of 1868, and a character partly based on Freeman — toil secretly in the basement to reverse-engineer the schemes, capture the evildoer, and restore their school’s reputation.

What distinguishes Pearl’s book is how it self-consciously wears the trappings of high-end history. The 1860 debates on Darwin between our founder, the geologist William Barton Rogers, and legendary Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz? Check. (Agassiz despised Darwin’s theory; Rogers thought natural selection plausible and favored keeping an open mind.) The Institute’s perilous financial state? The way MIT’s first geometry students nicknamed Professor Watson “Squirty”? Check. Harvard’s schemes to annex MIT are here, too, although in real life Rogers probably did not resist the plan by planting dynamite in a proponent’s office — a great scene that reminds us the book is not meant to be taken too seriously. The prim determination of Richards, granite-hard New England tomboy, future first lady of science and a founder of environmental science and of home economics, at being the first and only woman to attend not just MIT, but any scientific college? Her temporary segregation as a “dangerous animal,” taught separately from the male students? Here as well.

These ingredients could make for a rich stew, and Pearl is smart to seize on this setting for a novel. (Ellen Swallow Richards, the subject of an adoring biography by a friend in 1912 and a tendentious one in 1973, could probably carry a new book all on her own.) This is why it is so disappointing to find The Technologists as overwrought as it is.

Pearl has taken these elements and turned them up to 11. The characters are lucky to be one-dimensional. Bostonians fear MIT’s sorcery to an extreme degree — “Technology will bring God’s wrath!” an activist shouts. Everybody from Harvard speaks in page-long evil monologues about MIT as Prometheus. Agassiz: “Over there they will teach atheist machinists and the sons of farmers alike. The knowledge of science in such individuals cannot fail to lead to quackery and dangerous social tendencies.”

The narrative moves essentially along one rail to an apocalyptic, 109-page climax. When we finally learn whodunit, there’s no satisfying resolution.

Pearl’s fictional MIT is one where students compete for the ceremonial honor of being named “First Scholar” of their graduating class, and “charity scholars” attend for free but must wait on professors with brandy at faculty meetings. It is an Institute that exists only because, upon first arriving in Boston, Rogers applied for a teaching job at Harvard and was rejected. What we get, alas, is a Harvard view of MIT.

More troubling for a book based on 19th-century scientific terrorism, Pearl has not done his homework to present credible calamities. The attack on the compasses is nautical nonsense. (If the ships are waiting for a pilot in the fog, they’re not already in the inner harbor or going ramming speed. And they would be on soundings. And making sound signals.)

Later catastrophes are electromagnetically confused. The scientific discussions are flawed. For a book that calls itself The Technologists, this is a problem, or at least a wasted opportunity for verisimilitude.

One tool the book uses to dress up in history’s clothes is jarring: Pearl has taken pains to insert the actual writings of Richards, Agassiz, Charles Eliot (MIT professor and later Harvard’s president for 40 years), and others into their dialog whenever possible — context be damned. In practice, this produces some choppy prose that is helpful neither to history nor to the novel’s grace.

Here is the real Richards, in a letter quoted by her 1912 biography, discussing a period of depression before she left home for Vassar College in 1868: “I lived for over two years in Purgatory really. … I used to fret and fume inside so every day, and think I couldn’t live so much longer. I was thwarted and hedged in on every side; it seemed as though God didn’t help me a bit and man was doing his best against me and my own heart even turned traitor.”

And in 1870, after she graduated from Vassar and was waiting to hear back from MIT: “Everything seems to stop short at some blank wall and I suppose I’m like Baalam and don’t see the angel of the Lord in the way.”

Now here is how those letters manifest in the book’s scene-setting, with the 1868 depression moved forward in time: “But after she was graduated from Vassar, everything seemed to stop short at one blank wall after another. Despite all her hard work, a degree from a women’s college proved insufficient to secure her admission into her newly chosen profession. She was living in purgatory, fretting and fuming so much that she began to think she couldn’t live much longer. She was thwarted and hedged in on every side, as though God wouldn’t help her a bit and man was doing his best against her, and her own heart even turned traitor. She felt like the prophet Baalam, obstructed everywhere by an angel he could not even see.”

The misspelled reference to Balaam may have tripped easily off Richards’ pen in 1870, but coming from Pearl in 2012 it is incongruous. And given that the real Ellen wrote in 1870 that she was over her depression, “not feeling the old unrest and fretting against the fetters,” what is the value of this quasi-historical pastiche?

Pearl has Eliot explain why Harvard should acquire MIT: “President Rogers is a brave, even a remarkable man of our epoch. But far better than devotion to an idealized person is devotion to a personified ideal.”

The real Eliot did write something quite like that second sentence — except in its original context, his “personified ideal” is pluralistic democracy in our country, in contrast with Europe’s “idealized” kings and queens.

Later, Eliot-of-the-book criticizes MIT students as “shirks and stragglers.” The real Eliot did use this phrase — but he was most likely referring to part-time non-degree students at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School, where he had previously taught, not MIT.

By liberally sprinkling these quotations wrested from history, The Technologists becomes a sort of ersatz jukebox musical. The words are true in the micro but ultimately threaten to betray the characters. It is not so difficult to pick out the insertions, which do not really match Pearl’s own writing.

By contrast, when it is Pearl who gives voice to the characters, they ring more true. When Ellen Swallow proclaims, “Worry not, I am not one of the feminist reformers,” it’s not a phrase the real Ellen could have said in 1868, but in substance it’s on the mark. She was a complex character who criticized the suffrage movement, mended her mineralogy professor’s (later husband’s) suspenders while a student, and dissented on pragmatic grounds from MIT’s 1878 decision to admit female students on the same footing as men.

Despite disclaiming the mantle of reform, or maybe because of it, she became a super-reformer of the 19th century who did much to advance the public health, the environment, and the condition of women. It is not so hard to draw a line from MIT’s first female student to its 16th president. Notwithstanding the book’s flaws, Pearl deserves praise for dramatizing these pioneering people at a pioneering school, at the dawn of an era of revving change that continues today.