About the Compton Lectures

Karl Taylor Compton was the ninth president of MIT, serving from 1930–1948 and guiding the Institute through the Great Depression and World War II. It is in recognition of his leadership that the Compton Lectures were established.

In its memorandum of June 8, 1955, the Committee on General Education recommended that a new lectureship, bearing the name of Karl Taylor Compton, be established at MIT in order to bring to campus, “some of the great minds on the world scene.” It was suggested that recipients of the lectureship be, “noted for their universality of thought and their influence on human values.” A further stipulation was that the lecturers should be, “men of broad horizons, not only in the field of science, but also in philosophy, religion, education, and the humanities.”

This proposal was accepted in principle by the Administration, and on February 23, 1956, President Killian appointed the Committee to nominate the first Compton Lecturer and to plan the necessary arrangements for the event. It was expected that the lecturer would spend a week to a semester in residence at the Institute and present a series of at least three formal lectures on a subject of universal interest to the MIT students and faculty. Separate seminars in the lecturer’s area of specialization would also be scheduled.

The original Compton Lecture Committee included:

  • Morris Cohen, Chairman
  • Carvel Collins
  • William R. Hawthorne
  • Max F. Millikan
  • Francis O. Schmitt
  • Thomas K. Sherwood
  • Walter H. Stockmayer

The format and content of the series have varied considerably over the years, but the modern format retains the spirit and intention of the first lecture as described in its founding charter, “the Karl Taylor Compton Lectures are intended to give the MIT community direct contact with the important ideas of our times as propounded by men who have contributed much to modern thought. It should prove to be a unifying and stimulating experience for faculty, students, and staff.”

Today’s Compton format comprises one public lecture, although there can be more than one lecturer in a given year and records show that lectures have been given jointly by more than one person. The content of this website comprises the record of the Compton Lecture series as it is known at this time and it includes material gleaned from the MIT Archives, MIT News, and MIT Video Productions.

The lectures are sponsored by the MIT Office of the President, in conjunction with the Associate Provost’s Office, with MIT presidents Paul Gray and Susan Hockfield both having revitalized the Compton lecture series during their terms. Now past its 50th anniversary, the tradition of the Compton lectures remains modern and vital.

Facts and historical notes

  • The Compton Lecture, for a time, was also referred to as the “Karl Taylor Compton Technology and Culture Seminars” and “The Technology and Culture Seminar.”
  • The most prominent theme emerging from the Lecture is the Institute’s role in the development of nuclear weapons via the Manhattan Project, the peaceful use of nuclear science, and scientists’ role in disarmament.
  • Herbert Simon, the fifth Compton Lecturer, was the first American to give the talk.
  • MIT Press published the Compton Lecture as a small paperback book within a month or two of the talk. Several of these publications became “classics”, including Andre Lwoff’s Biological Order, and Herbert Simon’s The Science of the Artificial.
  • The best-attended Compton Lecture was Niels Bohr’s inaugural talk, with 1500 individuals in the audience, including students from neighboring institutions and other universities. It is reported that some students from Cornell traveled great distances via bus to hear the famed physicist speak.
  • MIT used a “state-of-the-art, wireless public address system” for the inaugural lecture in 1958, in order to compensate for Professor Bohr’s soft-spoken voice. Bohr wore a large antenna in his pant leg that was transmitted to a receiver. An observer reported that during the first talk, he was heard “about 70% of the time,” and that even with the “bugs,” the system was a success.