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Italy Does Cambridge

How The Italians Discovered The Real M.I.T.

by Franco Vitaliano


I must tell you a great story. It is a wonderful example of how technology and innovation can be so wonderfully unpredictable, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of some—And how cultures can callously collide.

A long while back, circa mid-1990's, I was having dinner with an acquaintance of mine, the Italian Counsel General for Boston, Mr. Giovanni Germano. During the table conversation, Mr. Germano began to relate how his office was arranging for an Italian cultural event to come to Boston in the summer of 1996. This event consisted of a troupe of Italian flag throwers (a kind of competition between the Italian City States prior to the unification of Italy), and some opera singers.

I was by then deep into the vino, and interjected that Italians had much more to offer these days than just opera singers and pizza. I said that Italy also has a thriving and innovative high tech industry, and that more people in America should know about it. Naturally, having opened my mouth, the inevitable happened. I ended up being "volunteered" to do something about this.

Upon some reflection, I decided that a great thing to do would be to get a bunch of Italian engineering students invited to the famous and much publicized Mech. 270 competition at M.I.T. This is the event where student-designed robots fling ping pong balls, hockey pucks, etc. against opposing teams. This, I decided, would be a wonderful way for the Italians to show off their engineering skills and innovation prowess.

So I contacted M.I.T. The result was that eight Italian students and an accompanying professor were invited to come compete in the Spring 1997 Mech. 270 event held in Cambridge, MA. M.I.T. also graciously offered to house the students at their dorms while they were in Boston.

But money was still needed for the students' air fare, miscellaneous expenses, etc. So I called up Ferrari of North America. After all, wouldn't they, of anybody, be interested in sponsoring a high tech engineering event that featured Italians going up against the world's best and brightest?

But Ferrari said sorry, it couldn't provide the $10,000 or so needed (which amounts to less than the price of a new exhaust system for an old 512TR). Apparently, Ferrari's must only be for students after they take their new high tech venture public, not before. In the end, most of the students ended up getting grants from their schools to pay for their air fare to Boston.

It was decided by M.I.T. that the Italian students (who, like all the teams, were divided into four, two-person teams) would not compete on a special track; but rather, be allowed in the main body of the competition. As we shall see, this probably not too well thought through decision would have some rather large and unforeseen consequences.

Many probably considered it a forgone conclusion that the Italians would be trounced early on in the game. For unlike the M.I.T. students who had nearly four months to design, fabricate, and test their machines, the Italians were not given access to their kit of competition parts until they arrived in Boston at the end of April, 1997. This meant the hapless Italians only had ten days to create, build, and test their machines!

Sure enough, two Italian teams were eliminated the first night of preliminaries (on Wednesday, April 30th). But the teams from Bologna and Padua were still in contention! So, on May 1st, a thousand or so students and faculty gathered to see who would finally win this famous competition. (I estimated that about two hundred fifty students were enrolled in the contest altogether.)

At long last, the much anticipated finals got under way. The Bolognese were wiped out early on, but the Padua team won. And won again. And won again!

Here we were, down to the fourth and final round, and Team Padua had a shot at winning the entire 270 contest! Unbelievable, considering their development time handicap.

So what should now happen? Uh-oh. A professor from the Mech. Dept. comes slowly walking up the auditorium aisle and kneels down to talk to the Italian Consul General and myself. This faculty member does not have a happy look on her face. In a hushed voice, she nervously informs us that, according to the rules, only M.I.T. students could be allowed to win. The Italians were being tossed out! (Why bother inviting them in the first place is another question to be answered on another day.)

Predictably, the visiting Italian students go crazy. They are, quite rightfully, hopping mad. Here is one of the world's most famous engineering universities outrageously carrying on like backwater xenophobes.

The not unexpected result was a group of very incensed young Italians lining up along the sides of the competition stage. "We expect this kind of crooked behavior in Italy, not here!" one of them shouts at me. Things are about to get ugly, I quickly fear, recalling scenes from some of those fan-crazed, out of control Italian soccer games.

This bearer of bad news M.I.T. professor then gets up on stage and announces to the audience that, as you may have noticed, there are some visiting Italian students in the contest. She then invites the Italian professor who is part of the program exchange to come up on stage and be introduced.

The mortified M.I.T. professor comes right to the sticky point: She informs the audience of the exclusionary "rules' about who may be allowed to win. The Italians are being bounced from the Mech. 270 competition!

For a split second, the audience is speechless. Suddenly, loud boos and catcalls come thundering down the aisles and rolling onto the stage, washing over our now extremely uncomfortable M.I.T. official. The sweat is now pouring down my shirt. My god, I wonder, what happens now?

Sensing a PR fiasco of epic proportions, from the stage side wing suddenly emerges Prof. Alex Slocum, the Mech. 270 Director himself. Obviously, he has a big problem on his hands. So Alex sucks up his gut, and to his everlasting credit, Does The Right Thing.

He asks the audience to take a vote: "Should we suspend the rules, and allow the Italians to continue?" As far I as could discern, every hand in the audience went up, and voted, Yes! Good going, M.I.T., I thankfully think. Everyone except the competitors are then shooed off the contest floor.

The stage is now set. The audience is chanting "USA! USA! USA!" The house is rocking. The tension is palpable. An international incident is happening before our very eyes.

Wow! What a story, as I wonder who gets to sell the TV movie story rights. But Padua has to win first, I remind himself.

The contest resumes. More contestants are knocked out. And finally, here comes Padua! They look tense, nervous. I am thinking that all this crazy commotion had to have a negative effect on them.

Ready, set, boom! Ouch! Team Padua is defeated! It goes on to place fourth overall. Crap!

The M.I.T. crowd goes crazy. Cambridge Honor is preserved. Shine up those Brass Rats! *

Ah well, I figure, given the stacked odds against them, the Italians still won a huge victory that night. Moreover, I totally proved my point about how great Italians are at high tech innovation.

And the Italians? Well, they realized that the altar on which they had previously placed the world famous M.I.T. wasn't so big and shiny after all.

Footnote: the whole thing was captured on video tape by M.I.T. I often wonder what happened to it. The tape is probably filed along with those missing frames of the Zapruder Kennedy assassination film....


* The gold-colored M.I.T. school ring features a beaver as the school logo. Hence, they are called Brass Rats.

Copyright 1997, All Rights Reserved

 

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