New MIT dome will be a force for innovation — and pranks

What appeared to be a red MIT fire truck was seen on top the university’s dome in September 2006.

Globe files

What appeared to be a red MIT fire truck was seen on top the university’s dome in September 2006.

Today, the iconic, 150-foot-high dome at the center of MIT’s campus may be known for the creative things the school’s crafty students have hoisted up onto it, but the “Great Dome” has always served as a symbol of the school’s spirit of innovation.

Constructed in 1916, the 100-foot-wide expanse was the architectural crown of MIT’s “New Technology” campus on the Charles River. Thirty years later, as MIT scientists developed radar systems to help Allied forces win World War II, administrators worried that light shining through the dome’s 32-foot skylight made the school an easy target for enemy planes, so they covered the window. Of course, it was that decision — which transformed delicate glass at the top of the dome into a solid surface — that prepared the structure for some of the school’s most notorious pranks. Over the years, students have hoisted a campus police cruiser, a piano, and a replica of the Apollo lunar module on top of the dome, always leaving passersby wondering, “How’d they do that?”

Today, a crew is restoring the large window at the center of the dome. That’s great news for the students straining their eyes in the library below. But it also threatens to alter the school’s great prank tradition. No doubt, some of MIT’s pranksters are probably already dreaming up workarounds for when the renovation is done in December. The new window may become yet another force for innovation.

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