As America celebrates its birthday this weekend, an exhibition at the MIT Museum celebrates a powerful symbol of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship: the clipper ship. "The Clipper Ship Era," now in its final days, examines the romance and reality while exploring the design, construction and commercial uses of these merchant ships, which ruled the seas from 1843-1869.
"Clipper ships have always captivated the general public as well as countless writers, artists, even corporate logo designers," says Kurt Hasselbalch, curator of the MIT Museum's Hart Nautical Collections. "The exhibition captures their beauty yet goes beyond the romance. It presents the key technical and historical stories and explores the important economic motivations that sparked the brilliant success and lore of the clipper ship."
The clipper ships emerged as trade and the global economy expanded, bringing American enterprise and naval engineering to the forefront. Through 19th century lithographs, rare plans, photos, clipper ship advertising cards and models, the exhibition focuses on the design, construction, economic impact and social experience of the clipper ship era.
On view through July 10, "The Clipper Ship Era"exhibit marks the 80th anniversary of the first exhibition held in MIT's first dedicated exhibition space, now called the Hart Nautical Gallery, which is on the first floor of Building 5. The building and gallery opened in 1922 as part of the new Pratt School of Naval Architecture. The founding collection of the new museum, bequeathed by Capt. Arthur H. Clark, served as a basis for the first Hart Nautical Museum exhibition in March 1924. Clark began his career at 17 on board a clipper ship out of Boston, and wrote the pioneering book "The Clipper Ship Era," published in 1910. (The Hart Nautical Museum merged with the MIT Museum in 1981.)
Clark's collection makes up a substantial portion of the current exhibit. On display are 23 lithographs of famous American and British clipper ships; half-hull models of locally built, historic ships; rare plans of the most famous East Boston clippers by Donald McKay, the era's peerless builder; and many other intriguing objects, including a model of McKay's Lightning, launched in 1854.