by Xunjie Li

Walking along the Infinite Corridor, I am suddenly overwhelmed by a surge of gratitude. I never thought I would be here. Everything seems so unreal, as if I were standing in a scene from a repeated dream. I wonder what has led me here, to this great institute thousands of miles away from home.

For reasons I am not sure of, I have always worked hard and seemed ever ready and determined, determined to go somewhere— somewhere, I believe, though it is unknown, that would mean a lot to me.

Straightening my back, I take a deep breath. The weight of books in my knapsack gives me a sense of relief— after so many months of waiting, I am a student again. I have made it, and I am here. Pushing open the door of the Institute Archives, I come to this cozily lit browsing room for the second day in a row —trying to decipher those obscure terminologies my grandfather used in his Master’s degree thesis written in 1927.

It is an eighty-page book with a dark-green hard cover. To my surprise, it is also the very copy grandfather submitted to fulfill his graduation requirement. Still not believing what is in front me, I cautiously lay my fingertips on its cover. Moving my fingers across, I relish the sensation given by its texture, and feel as if I were suddenly connected to that period of time—despite the eighty-three years that have lapsed. “Course VI EE M Thesis,” it says on the side. I thought course numbering was a later invention for students, staff and faculty to conveniently refer to the growing academic programs. However, it turns out MIT has been using numbers to represent courses since the 1920s. Lifting up the cover, I find a small note written in pencil on the endpaper. I look closer. It reads:

“T.C. Lee
90 V.S. Tsao
39 Davison St.
Hyde Park, Mass”

Comparing it with the signature my grandfather used on the first page, I believe this note was written by him. I look the address up on Google map Street View, and discover that this address is still being used. This adds to my surprise, as growing up in a rapidly developing country, I have seen tremendous changes made to the surroundings—streets are demolished, new ones are constructed, and old ones are re-named. From this note made on the margin, I guess “39 Davison St.” might be the place where my grandfather stayed during his years as a student at MIT. Since my grandfather’s initials are “T.C. Lee,” my interpretation is that this place might be owned by a Chinese named “V.S. Tsao” and grandfather was lodging at his place.

Credit: http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=39+Davison+st&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=39+Davison+St,+Boston,+MA+02136&gl=us&ei=K4nFTOGSEYGs8AbXtZDWBg&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=title&resnum=3&ved=0CCIQ8gEwAg

The thesis is titled “Transient Currents of Polyphase Induction Motors with a Single-Phase Supply”. The terms — “current,” “motor” and “supply”– immediately register in me as something that I am familiar with, something that I have learned in school. From the title, I infer this thesis probably is about the short-lived induced currents in motors which run on a voltage supply that is single-phased. My interest grows by the second. With a quick look-up of “Transients (Electricity)” on the MIT Barton Library Catalog, I have found that there are several MIT theses written on similar subject during 1920-1935. Among those, I accidentally find a “Starting transient current of an induction motor” written by Vong-san Tsao in 1927. Suddenly, I realize he should be the lab partner of my grandfather, since his Master’s thesis was written on the same subject, in the same year, and supervised by the same professor named W. V. Lyon. When I look back at the note written in the margin of the endpaper, the address begins to make sense to me — Vong-San Tsao should be the one with whom my grandfather was staying, studying and working. According to Chinese Students Directory for the Past Fifty Years published in 1959, there were about thirty Chinese students studying at MIT at that time.

I steady myself, trying to contain my excitement. Slowly, I begin to read the contents. “Self inductance” “Mutual inductance”— these were terms I had just learned last week during my 8.022 Electricity and Magnetism class! Although I am yet unable to fathom all the complicated equations and calculations written in this thesis, I am on my way to learning the concepts. What a joy! Accustomed to the ubiquitous presence of modern technologies, I am a bit surprised to find that all the equations and symbols are written by hand. The illustrating diagrams are also hand-drawn, and the experiment set-ups are photographs pasted onto paper. I even discover that the graph paper my grandfather used was bought from the Coop, as the words on the margin read “TECHNOLOGY BRANCH HARVARD COOPERATIVE SOCIETY”. I find this interesting, as even today, MIT students still buy most of their supplies at the Coop.

While I am reading, the middle-aged couple at the desk behind me exclaim in joy. They eagerly ask the librarian, Mr. Myles Crowley, to come over. The bespectacled man points at a picture from an old-looking book. His voice trembles. “This is him!”

Mr. Crowley smiles and says, “I could help to make photocopy of that page.” This little commotion makes me curious. When I turn back to face them, the bespectacled man and Mr. Crowley are already at the photocopier, so I start a conversation with the lady in violet cashmere.

It turns out that she has a grandfather who was among the very first batch of students who came from China to MIT to study in 1872-1881. Today, she and her husband have come all the way from Beijing to visit the Boston area and especially MIT. It is also the first time that she has seen her grandfather’s picture in an old MIT published book. “He did not finish his studies at MIT, though.” She sighs. “He and the other students who were very young became very westernized, so the Tsing government decided to send them back.”

From my secondary history text books, I know about the famous initiative called Tsing Government Educational Mission undertaken by the Tsing Dynasty government which sent one hundred and twenty young students (aged between nine and fifteen) abroad from 1872 to 1881 in hopes that they could acquire knowledge that would aid the development of China. After completing studies in high schools in the New England region, these students went on to apply for universities. For MIT, the first Chinese student registered in 1877. This group of young students was eventually called back by the Tsing government which feared that they would become too westernized, and thus unable to contribute to their own country much.

The couple is quite active in discovering more about this piece of history and its impact on China. They tell me that there are many people just like themselves— descendants of the young students and scholars–who organize conferences and talks in which they share their experiences and findings. At the end of our brief encounter, they recommend documentaries and books to me, and invite me to their conferences. I feel so fortunate that I have actually met this woman and her husband, and have heard their stories first-hand.

Later that day, I ask Mr. Crowley whether there are many people who have come to the Institute Archives to search for things that were written by or about their family members who attended MIT. He says actually it is quite common, since the Institute Archives has all the yearbooks, registers of students, and, in general, books that tells the history of MIT. In the last academic year (July 2009—June 2010), there have been 779 visitors, and 512 Thesis requests from the MIT Thesis storage. Although people who have visited the Institute Archives are doing all kinds of research, most of them are genealogical. In this quest to know what happened to someone dear, I suddenly realize that I am not alone.

Overwhelmed by the complex calculations written in Grandfather’s thesis, I turn to the last page and find a library card. On that small card which has already turned yellowish, there is a list of people’s signatures. Out of curiosity, I check the names out on the Register Book of Former Students. It turns out that the very first person who read Grandfather’s thesis in 1928 was the great engineer Yu Hsiu Ku who was awarded the prestigious IEEE Lamme Medal and the IEEE Third Millennium Medal by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE). I have heard my father talking about how my grandfather was a friend of Yu Hsiu Ku. It is not until I see this evidence with my own eyes that I start to believe.

Yu Hsiu Ku not only obtained a Bachelors degree and a Masters degree from MIT, he was also the first Chinese to obtain a Doctor of Science degree from MIT. As a student passionate about becoming an engineer, I decide to have a look at Yu Hsiu Ku’s graduation thesis. Coincidentally, his Masters degree thesis is also about transients. It is titled “A study of short-circuit transients in electrical machinery.” The fact that it has one hundred and seventy pages surprises me a little as I thought an eighty-page thesis was considered long.

Reading through Dr. Ku’s thesis, I realize that Grandfather’s thesis was written in a rather hasty manner. Compared to Dr. Ku’s detailed introduction and fantastically written conclusion, the introduction and conclusion of Grandfather’s thesis seem to be overly brief. I especially like the way Dr. Ku wrote his thesis. First, he acknowledges past and present work done on the subject. Then, he shows appreciation for the findings that several scholars had found. Notable are “German scientists L. Dreyfus and J. Biermanns”. During that time, L. Dreyfus was a prominent figure who derived a vector method to calculate the transient current.

However, Grandfather starts his thesis abruptly by saying, “The vector method for determining transients in electric machinery was first used by Dreyfus.” This confuses me, so I try to search “Dreyfus” on the internet. However, I cannot find anything useful, as “Dreyfus” is a last name used by many people. Therefore, it is not until I have read Dr. Ku’s thesis that I finally understand how the main methodology that Grandfather used in his thesis came about.

As I continue to read Dr. Ku’s thesis, I am more attracted to the subject—he makes it very interesting by adding his opinions here and there. For example, in his conclusion, he notes the difficulties he encountered, and how the course of his research changed due to new discoveries made along the way. He further uses an apt and interesting analogy to conclude, “In as much as the above study represents the ‘transient state’, may we hope that in the near future we will successfully reach the long expected ‘steady state’.” On the other hand, besides a whole chunk of calculations and experimental data, Grandfather simply has concluded in two sentences.

I call my dad to tell him this disparity in the amount of details included in these two theses. He tells me that this might be due to the fact that Grandfather left the US earlier than initially planned because the money that Grandfather brought with him was almost used up. This small anecdote also explains to me why Grandfather’s thesis has quite a few typographical errors. Instead of re-typing the entire page on a new sheet of paper using a type-writer, he corrected them by hand. Money and time were probably the things he lacked at that time.

Suddenly, I remember a story my father told me some years ago. I was five when my grandfather, who was ninety-five, died. In his last moments, Grandfather called my father to his bed, and murmured that he wanted to see his grandchild. My father led my elder sister in; Grandfather shook his head. My mother held my three-year-old baby sister facing him, but again he shook his head feebly. It wasn’t until my father brought me to my grandfather’s bedside that he smiled and closed his eyes. Maybe all these years, he was looking after me, and seeing me through difficulties. And thanks to his blessings, I am here at MIT, his alma mater, to continue an unfinished dream.


  1. Lee, Tze-Chang. Transient currents of polyphase induction motors with a single-phase supply / by Tze-Chang Lee. 1927. Institute Archives – Noncirculating Collection 3 | Thesis E.E. 1927 M.S.
  2. Stratton, Julius Adams, and Loretta H. Mannix. Mind and Hand: the Birth of MIT. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2005. Print.
  3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chinese Students Directory for the Past Fifty Years. Cambridge, Mass. Institute 1931. Institute Archives- Reference Collection|T171.M42b.C53 1959
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Register of former students / Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Boston : The Institute,   1909-1940.
    Institute Archives – Reference Collection |  T171.M47
  5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Graduation exercises. Cambridge, Mass. :   The Institute, Institute Archives – Reference Collection |  T171.M42j
  6. Thomas, Fargue E. La. China’s First Hundred : Educational Mission Students in the United States, 1872-1881. Pullman, Wash: Washington State UP, 1987. Print.
  7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The 1925 Technique. Cambridge: Mass Institue of Tech, 1925.
  8. “05/04/2000 – Pennsylvania Current: Q & A: Yu Hsiu Ku.” Penn: University of Pennsylvania. 25 Oct. 2010 <http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/current/2000/050400/cover.html>.
  9.  Ku Yu Hsiu Ji Nian Guan. 25 Oct. 2010 <http://www.guyuxiu.cn/english/Emertus Professor.htm>.
  10. Ku, Yu-Hsiu. A study of short-circuit transients in electrical machinery / by Yu-Hsiu Ku. [1926] Institute Archives – Noncirculating Collection 3 |  Thesis E.E. 1926 M.S.

Xunjie Li is a member of MIT class of 2014, majoring in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. She was born and grew up in Chengdu, a city in southwest China best known for its spicy cuisine and breathtaking sceneries. At 15, she got a scholarship to study in Singapore where she learned English. She finally had the courage to apply to her dream school, MIT, 10 days before the application deadline. She was thrilled to receive an offer letter with a note from a kind admission officer who searched MIT archive and mailed her a copy of the front pages of her grandfather’s thesis written in 1927. She and her family were so touched. Before seeing the copy of the thesis in front of her own eyes, she only knew her grandfather’s last name written in English and graduation year, 1927. Since then, Xunjie has always wanted to write a piece about this particular experience. She was glad that she took 21W.731 Writing and Experience which pushed her to put her thoughts down on paper.


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