In 1916, alumni from as far away as India and Australia joined students and faculty along the Charles River to witness what the Boston Daily Globe called an “impressive goodbye,” a celebration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s move from a jumble of buildings near Copley Square to its new campus in Cambridge.
A procession by boat — and a march by foot along the Harvard Bridge, known commonly now as the Massachusetts Avenue bridge — marked the “three-day party” in June of that year.
“They were rightfully excited and proud, and so they hosted this celebration that involved a whole series of exciting events,” said John Ochsendorf, a professor of architecture and engineering at MIT.
On the cusp of the centennial of the parade, MIT officials have launched the “Crossing of the Charles,” a competition encouraging members of the university community to team up to create autonomous underwater vessels, floats, and other vehicles to traverse the river, recapturing the spirit of the momentous move.
Back then, there was a naval regatta; a rare airplane demonstration; and a handmade, papier-mâché beaver, MIT’s official mascot, that was almost as big as a schoolbus. A Venetian-style barge called the Bucentaur transported the school’s charter across the river.
This time around, things will be simpler but also more high-tech.
“We are going to do some sort of reenactment of the original parade, but . . . we are asking MIT students to come up with their own answers about how to cross the river,” said Ochsendorf, chairman of “Moving Day at MIT,” a celebration of the historic relocation that will take place May 7. The celebration will include the “Crossing the Charles” event.
MIT will be commemorating the move from February through June, with a series of other events. A special website has been set up that’s dedicated to MIT’s first century in Cambridge.
Ochsendorf said he expected the “Crossing of the Charles” to be a “big, quirky parade” that only the students at MIT, known for their “hacks,” or public pranks, could pull off.
Parade details will be formally announced in the spring, along with spots along the Charles where spectators can gather.
“Anyone who shows up to watch, I assure you it will be unlike anything you have ever seen before,” Ochsendorf said.
MIT students, faculty, staff, and alumni are invited to sign up for the competition. Teams can also invite a limited number of friends and family members.
Participants must submit a proposal detailing what they plan to build before they begin construction.
Once they get the go-ahead from Ochsendorf and Anette Hosoi, the event’s co-chair, participants can let their creativity flow.
The competition’s website says potential entries could include artistic performances, mobile sculptures, boats, autonomous underwater vehicles, or “amphibious things.”
Entries can be “powered by any combination of sources,” according to the rules.
“Who knows what students will come up with?” Ochsendorf said. “Robotic fish? Solar-powered cars? Crossing the river on sailboats or rafts? The idea is that they come by land or by sea.”
People’s projects will be judged by a panel of faculty sitting in a booth halfway across the Mass. Ave. bridge. The most creative modes of transportation will be awarded prizes, and the top five inventors will get the chance to walk across the stage at a pageant being held at MIT later that evening.
Oliver Smoot will be the parade’s grand marshal. He’s the man whose body was used to measure the length of the Mass. Ave. bridge in 1958 as part of a fraternity prank. It turned out to be 364.4 smoots long — and his name has been immortalized on MIT’s campus.
“It should be an incredible spectacle,” Ochsendorf said.Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.