Contrary to its apparent Revival appearance, the design of the Magnetic Laboratory incorporated scientific research and advancement to its fullest. Interested in the development of electricity, Stephen Salisbury III provided a large donation for the construction of a technologically advanced electric and magnetic laboratory. Construction began in 1886 following the designs of Stephen Earle.
While Earle designed the exterior, Alonzo S. Kimball, a WPI professor, planned the interior. Following Kimball's directions, the Magnetic Laboratory was constructed at the present intersection of Institute Road and Boynton Street. (In 1886 this was a remote corner of the campus.) The axis of the main part of the building coincided with the magnetic meridian, and through opposite windows in the tower passed the north and south meridian. The total design of the laboratory was dictated by the laws of magnetics. For this reason, no iron was used in the construction. Millstone granite accented with longmeadow sandstone defined the exterior walls. Hand cut brass nails were used to secure the floor boards and joists together. Kimball did not limit himself to magnetic concerns. Foreseeing the effects of external environmental conditions, Kimball's stringent plans left the structure virtually vibration free.
Kimball achieved great success with his experimentation with electricity and magnetism, but this success was short-lived. Shortly after the completion of the Magnetic Laboratory, the City of Worcester decided to install a horse railway service along Institute Road. The increased traffic in the area resulted in additional vibrations that the building was unable to dampen. Within two years, the horses were replaced with trolleys. Finally, in 1891, electric lights were added to the street; this double dose of interference made the laboratory useless for its intended purpose.
In 1901, a 500,000 volt transformer used for high potential experiments was located in the old Magnetic Laboratory. The transformer was re-located in 1907 to the newly constructed Atwater Kent Laboratories. Beginning in 1911, the laboratory served for seven years as the headquarters for Tech News, then the WPI student newspaper. Next to occupy the building was Robert H. Goddard, a graduate of the class of 1908. Goddard's work was sponsored (1917-1918) by a research grant from the Smithsonian Instition. The interior was then re-designed to facilitate early rocketry experiments. In 1921, the old Magnetic Laboratory was remodeled for the last time. It became the home of Skull, WPI's senior honor society, and in turn was renamed Skull Tomb.
The exterior of the building appears surprisingly similar to its original design. The structure, nestled in the center of a patch of tall pine trees, consists of a one-story room with floor space defined as 15 feet by 20 feet. At present, all the exterior windows have been covered. A skull, the mark of the secretive honor society, was attached to the door until the begining of the 2005/06 year, when the door was replaced after an attempted break in.