Compton

Nearly a week after 1948 Boston Mayor James Curley contacted MIT and asked if flamethrowers might effectively melt record snow, then MIT President Karl Compton drafted a response. “The use of flame throwers to dissipate snow would be neither practicable nor efficient,” he wrote. His suggestion: Try salt.

In a typed message (which was never sent but instead relayed by phone) Compton outlined three options for the mayor to consider.

Salt, or calcium chloride, as he put it, would work well but could corrode the underside of automobiles. Alternately, snow could be transported to and melted in liquid-fuel heated hot water tanks, with the runoff disposed via sewer. However fuel consumption would be high, and it wouldn’t work if temps dipped below freezing. As for the flamethrowers, Compton spent three paragraphs describing the relative merits and obstacles to such a method only to conclude that they too would be impractical and inefficient.

“On the basis of such information as we have,” Compton wrote, “only the salt method appears to be an economical alternative to the present method of snow removal.”

Last year, Massachusetts salt supplies were strained by near-record snowfall and freezing temperatures, and similar challenges are surfacing this year. On February 3, a newspaper in nearby Gloucester reported that city officials ordered 600 tons of salt on January 21, another 400 tons on January 27, and 600 tons again on Monday. The vendor, which is based in Chelsea, was only able to deliver 300 tons before the storm that began Tuesday. The rest is on backorder.

View more letters and MIT ephemera at the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections website.


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Sixty three years ago Boston received so much snow that then Mayor James Curley took a look at it and began pleading with then MIT President Dr. Karl Compton for help. “I am very desirous that [MIT] have a competent group of engineers make an immediate study as to ways and means of removing the huge accumulation,” he wrote, “…be it by the use of flame throwers or chemicals or otherwise.” The mayor was desperate.

Sound familiar? Current Mayor Thomas Menino was quoted yesterday exclaiming, “This is relentless; it just doesn’t stop coming.” Indeed, Boston has already received more than 60 inches of snow this winter, some 20 more than the seasonal average, and more is on the way. Federal law prevents the city from dumping snow into the Charles River (too many contaminants), so the city is charged with finding ever more places to pile ever higher mountains of snow.

An article over the weekend in the New York Times pointed out that other cities, like Minneapolis, have dealt with this problem by investing in snow dragons, which are pricey machines capable of melting, filtering, and safely disposing of 30 tons of snow per hour. According to the Times piece, Boston has rebuffed the idea in the past but is reconsidering. Public Works Commissioner Joanne Massaro says that “any option is on the table.”

Any option, including reaching out to MIT?

“No,” says MIT Facilities Director John DiFava, “We haven’t heard from the Mayor’s office.” It’s probably for the best, since the crews are already busy. In the last few weeks, they have been working around the clock to deal with the record snow.

“At this point, it’s not necessarily the clearing it away, it’s the getting rid of it,” says DiFava. “When the snow first starts to come you plow it out of the way, but as it builds and doesn’t melt you start to lose space. It starts to fill in and the streets get smaller and the walkways get smaller, and then you’re faced with trucking it out.”

DiFava says MIT crews are piling snow in a campus recycling lot and several other lots in the northwest part of campus.

“We’re lucky to have property on campus where we can pile it,” he says, “but if this keeps up, they’ll close too. Then, I don’t know what.”

Time to dig out those flamethrowers?

Read Part II: 1948 MIT President to Mayor: Try Salt

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