Dr. Robert Krim, co-founder and executive director of the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative and a long time champion of the Boston area’s history of innovation and entrepreneurship, shared with us an advance copy of his book Boston Made: From Revolution to Robotics, Innovations that Changed the World, which highlights inventions and achievements of several MassTLC members.
The book will be be released on Februart 23, 2021. In the meantime we received permission to publish the introduction to the book here, and encourage anyone interested in learning more about Boston’s unique innovation drivers to check it out. Along the way, you’ll learn stories about MassTLC members such as Raytheon, Trip Advisor, iRobot and our board member Dan Bricklin and his achievements at Visicalc.
You can also read our Q&A with Dr. Krim, here.
Boston Made From Revolution to Robotics – Innovations That Changed the World
Imagine melted candy leading to one of the greatest modern innovations. So it was for Percy Spencer, who walked through a radar test room at the Boston-area Raytheon Company one day in 1946 and discovered that the chocolate bar in his back pocket had been turned into a sticky mess. A self-taught engineer and quick thinker, Spencer wondered if the same microwave-emitting tubes known as magnetrons, which had been used for military radar (and put Raytheon on the map during World War II), could cook up other snacks. So he brought in a bag of popping corn and put it in front of the magnetron tubes. Presto, he had popcorn. Within a year, Raytheon was selling the Radarange, later known generically as the microwave oven, and over the next forty years the company, and its Amana subsidiary, produced millions of microwave ovens.
It’s a great story. But it’s only one of nearly four hundred innovations at the heart of Boston’s history. No other American city has identified so many world-changing innovations as part of its narrative. Another large American city recently listed all of its firsts—people and innovations—and came up with eighty. Over the past four centuries, Boston and Massachusetts have continually been a center for the inspiration, creation, and development of some four hundred life-changing discoveries.
This midsized city, perched on the northeastern edge of the continent beside the Atlantic Ocean and founded by Puritan settlers, is still dotted with cobblestone streets and costumed re-enactors who passionately tell the story of how the American Revolution began in Boston. It is a place devoted to its sports teams, its prestigious universities, and its esteemed medical centers. Across the centuries, the capital of Massachusetts has nurtured entrepreneurial spirit; encouraged innovation; and rocked the world with medical breakthroughs, technological advancements, and social innovations.
The Boston region witnessed the world’s first successful organ transplant. It was the first home to the telephone, modern venture capital, and the creation of the best available medication for multiple sclerosis. The chocolate chip cookie was born here, as were basketball and the first public park in the United States. The state of Massachusetts was the first to abolish slavery and the first to declare marriage equality for gays. Such a broad gamut of innovative events is remarkable and unprecedented.
Of those many hundreds of innovations that have emerged from the Greater Boston region over the last four hundred years and changed the nation or the world, Waves of Innovation chooses to tell the stories of fifty of them. Each story is complete in itself—but taken together, they provide an understanding of why the Boston area has been notably innovative over time. This history is not an accident: as you will see, detailing the crucial innovations and examining the common features driving them illustrate clearly how Boston is a case study in innovative excellence that provides potential lessons for other regions seeking to become or remain vibrant and relevant in a rapidly changing world. (Boston, long the dominant city in Massachusetts and New England, is used throughout this book to describe the specific geographic entity itself as well as the region that surrounds it.)
Waves of Innovation details how successive waves of innovation have allowed Boston to reinvent itself repeatedly, remake its economy, and retain its relevance. A deep dive into these innovation stories reveals the reasons for this excellence. Innovation always has a little magic about it, a little something that evades definition. But that magic doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Every one of the innovations described in this book, to varying degrees, emerged from a perfect storm of circumstance, a context that allowed startling and unlikely successes to flow. And that context is made up of five key drivers: strong entrepreneurship, local networking, local funding, local demand, and global demand. Examining these interrelated drivers, which we will do later in this introduction, reveals the general characteristics that transcend the unique circumstances of Boston’s history and illuminates the challenges and opportunities faced by other cities and regions. In other words, the Boston story holds lessons that can be applied anywhere that people seek to change their city and world for the better.
But first, what do we mean by the word innovation? Certainly, it is important to have great thinkers and researchers, especially Nobel Prize winners like Dr. Joseph Murray, who performed the world’s first successful organ transplant, or the diplomat Ralph Bunche, in 1950 the first African American recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the important thing for Boston and the world is that there are people and groups who think great thoughts and then change them into world-altering actions. The invention itself is important, but this book emphasizes why and how each innovation came about and then gained traction so it could become meaningfully used or universally known. Patents and inventions are important, but innovations change lives. So the date we attach to each innovation is not necessarily when it was first conceived but rather when it became commercially or culturally important or when real change occurred because of it. For the most part, Waves of Innovation, detailing fifty out of hundreds of innovations, can be seen as a companion to “Four Centuries of Innovation: From Massachusetts to the World,” a permanent exhibit at Boston Logan International Airport.
Directly or indirectly, these innovations have fundamentally changed the world. They include the birth control pill, which shook society when it became available to the public; the robots that went into the reactors at Japan’s Fukushima installation after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami; and America’s first public school, which showed the path to a better future for the nation. To showcase all four hundred would have resulted in too cursory a review for each; these carefully chosen fifty illustrate the breadth and depth of the Boston area’s contributions.
Punching “above Its Weight”
Boston has defied epochal changes in the global economy, repeatedly emerging in a new and more vigorous form, no matter the challenges it has faced. Its phoenix-like existence reveals much about what it takes for a city or region to weather storms, adapt to change, and build a resilient living culture that is strong and enduring.
As the innovation thought leader Scott Kirsner puts it, although not a particularly large city, Boston consistently “punches above its weight.” By some measures, the city’s metropolitan region is the sixth largest economically in the United States and ranks twelfth globally, with annual economic activity of more than $438 billion. And Massachusetts is one of the top three states in terms of the annual value of venture capital investment. Boston’s sports teams are among the most competitive in the country, giving it a visibility out of proportion to its size. And its professional sporting legacy is deep; with its opponent, Pittsburgh, the city hosted (and won) the first baseball World Series in 1903, and its professional basketball, football, and hockey teams have long traditions of national success.
Today, one of the most noticeable things about Boston—one often remarked upon by outsiders—is its educational and research enterprise. The metropolitan area attracts 250,000 students to the region annually at its sixty-plus colleges and universities. Among them are some of the most famous in the world, especially Harvard, the oldest college in the United States, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). However, these two heavyweights are joined by almost another dozen major research universities, including Northeastern University, Boston College, Boston University, Wellesley College, Tufts University, and the University of Massachusetts Boston.
This concentration of academic talent, which includes researchers and educators from around the world, has helped sustain the city as a home to technology-oriented companies. In the past generation, the region has become a center for biotechnology, while its long-standing leadership in medical research has grown even more substantial. Indeed, the Milken Institute, an economic think tank in Santa Monica, California, rates Boston as the most important life sciences region in the country. A recent study by Luís Bettencourt, of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, found that over the past twenty-five years, more scientific papers in the top three science journals were authored by researchers in the Greater Boston area than by scientists from any other city worldwide.
But the innovation economy doesn’t just stem from the institutions of higher learning. Large research universities attract talented people, but they don’t, by themselves, make a city innovative on a world-class level. So much of the culture of innovation exists and thrives not just inside university walls but outside them as well. And a world-class research university does not by itself transform a mid-sized city into one filled with related innovations and hundreds of successful companies. New Haven, Connecticut, home to Yale University, or the town of Princeton, New Jersey, did not morph into what Boston has become. Nor did Cambridge and Oxford in England. It is not only the major university that makes the critical difference. Something else is also needed.
A State of Nobel Prize Winners
On the level of ideas alone, Boston and Massachusetts have had incredible success. More than 170 Nobel Prize winners have conducted their significant work in Massachusetts, or they have worked in the state for significant portions of their professional career. In fact, if Massachusetts were an independent nation, it would rank second in the world to the United States as a whole for the total number of Nobel Prizes, ahead of the United Kingdom and Germany.
Boston has a habit of continuing to redefine and reinvent itself. Whether through new products and services or new industries, the region has repeatedly given itself a new and promising future, even when the immediate outlook was bleak. To be sure, the great innovations of one era—such as the clipper ship, the innovative machines that wove cotton and wool, or cotton and rubber firehoses—led to the closed-up, abandoned factories or shipyards of the next. And the same may very well happen with today’s biotech and robotics industries. Do we know what will become of the infrastructure that supports today’s modern-era inventions such as the mutual fund, the robotics industry, the labs creating a cure for Gaucher’s disease, or Akamai Technologies’ development of online streaming? Economic and political forces beyond the control of local areas are continually picking winners and losers. Yet through four major economic upheavals in history, Boston has been driven back to success by four waves of innovation.
The Core of the Story: Boston’s Innovation Drivers
At their most basic stage, innovations are often a by-product of people interacting, bouncing ideas off one other, trying to solve one challenge and then another, seeking to be the first to develop a product and then scale it and bring it to market. Cities, with their diverse individuals, interests, and subcultures, are the perfect setting for innovations and their creators. Most critically, cities like Boston help bring together the five drivers of lasting, prominent innovation. These drivers may, at first, sound so natural that they are not worth mentioning. But their effects are profound. Why has the Boston region continued to develop new ideas and then produced innovations that have kept the economy growing, replacing those same industries and products with new industries, when so many cities have not?
A group of project teams, formed by the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative (BHIC), set out over the course of more than a dozen years to focus on this question and find the answer. With a research team drawn from twelve universities and a working board of directors, this group examined in detail a representative subset of the nearly four hundred Greater Boston innovations drawn from technology, medicine, finance, education, and society during nearly four hundred years of the region’s history. The trustees were diverse and included a county sheriff; a woman whose family came from West Africa; the head of a national insurance company; the electrical engineer who became MIT’s president; independent scholars; Pulitzer Prize–winning historians; biotech leaders; and entrepreneurs who were of many races and ethnicities, some American-born and others more recent immigrants.
These teams looked at why each of these innovations occurred in the Boston region rather than anywhere else. Why did Alexander Graham Bell come to Boston to work on his telephone research rather than settle in Canada, London, or Scotland—all places he had worked before? The teams spoke with hundreds of scholars and laypeople and asked the hard questions. Why is this region so innovative and what drives that innovation? With few natural assets, did the area’s early settlers scramble to find industries that could help their towns survive? Was the early drive for public education in Massachusetts the main factor? Or did the networking among individuals in a smaller city provide the foundation? Or was it because Boston was the second largest seaport for immigration into the United States?
The teams boiled their answers down to twenty-four different drivers and then focused on those that proved most essential. They tested the level of significance of each driver for each innovation. At each stage, the teams involved hundreds of people to be sure that they were looking widely for answers to why Boston was home to such innovation. From this exhaustive study, the teams found that five of the drivers stood out, drivers that, over most of Massachusetts’ history, explain why the innovation had happened in the Boston area, and why at that particular time.
The Five Drivers
- Strong Entrepreneurship
Each innovation was linked to a strong entrepreneur who persisted, no matter the obstacles, in bringing the innovative idea over the finish line. By entrepreneur, we mean a person who energized others, who created something revolutionary that changed that moment in time for the betterment of people or the world. Such entrepreneurs or pioneering teams were people who creatively solved problems, invented ways to fulfill common demands, and pushed with everything they had—and more—to make a new solution work.
A good example is Charles Goodyear, who, in 1844, figured out the formula to make rubber that would last in all types of weather. He went to debtor’s prison for years, working while incarcerated over a small burner to create a durable rubber.
Then there was Dr. Judah Folkman, who successfully invented a means for restricting blood supply to cancer cells, a huge breakthrough in reducing cancer for many. His persistence as a scientific entrepreneur is legendary. Folkman developed his theory in the 1970s although his ideas were denounced for decades as unprovable and he was viewed as an outlier among researchers.
A used clothing salesman and the freed son of African American slaves, David Walker, is famous for David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World of 1829, still considered one of the most important antislavery documents, which mobilized many to take action. While living in Boston, Walker advocated for the total abolition of slavery and the recognition of black people as free Americans, who belonged by right in the United States, rather than people who should be returned to Africa, a policy widely advocated by some antislavery activists. He played a key role in energizing the white abolitionist movement.
The role of the entrepreneur is essential in bringing together the other drivers and achieving ultimate success. But the interaction of the innovator with the other four drivers is crucial. Entrepreneurship cannot exist on its own and relies mightily on the others. Together they create (choose your metaphor) a secret sauce, a perfect storm, a moment ripe for a lasting and momentous innovation.
- Local Networking
Many large cities are built and sustained around one major industry, but Greater Boston has usually had three or more major industries thriving at one time. Its industrial diversity has consistently given innovators the opportunity to capitalize on an impressive range of information, ideas, and services that they learn about and use by turning to others in different industries. Inventing and innovating happens when pursuit-driven entrepreneurs get feedback on their initial ideas. Many people believe inventing is solitary, not collaborative. But Boston’s innovations have emerged from an environment where people look for solutions to puzzling problems while listening to others and their feedback. Discussing ideas with others and listening to the others’ comments can be just as important as the individual inventor’s work and research. This driver has been vital to almost all of the innovations studied, and networking is crucial in most of the fifty stories in Waves of Innovation.
In the early 1900s, King Gillette had been working on the idea of a disposable safety razor in his apartment in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. He sought the help of a colleague to find someone who could manufacture steel blades supple enough not to skin the shaver, something which all the other metallurgists Gillette spoke with at MIT and other places said was impossible. Through his circle of acquaintances, he met with an MIT engineer, William Nickerson; within a month Nickerson had made the famous double-edged razor a mechanical reality. And within three years, the razor had begun to reshape shaving habits internationally. The name Gillette was synonymous with razors, and the inventor had made a small fortune.
When inventor William Otis was working on prototypes for a steam-powered excavator, he had input from all kinds of metalworkers and blacksmiths at a nearby manufacturer, which made all the difference. Learning about their work and listening to their feedback helped him create a successful design that led to orders from nearby railroads hoping to speed up their construction projects.
- Local Funding
The availability of local, as opposed to national, funding has been critical in Boston’s innovative past and continues to be so today. Local funding provides resources to invest in risky ventures. In the seventeenth century, it was the wealthy who helped to fund the first public school. At its inception in 1635, Boston Latin, the first public school in the United States, received much of its funding from the new town’s wealthiest individuals and a lesser sum from a public town tax. In the 1800s, thriving merchants, stymied by President Jefferson’s embargo on trade due to the Napoleonic Wars, used their idle money to fund America’s first fully integrated textile plants just outside Boston.
Later, in the mid-1840s, Enoch Train, who owned a fleet of commercial vessels, recruited Donald McKay, a talented shipbuilder from Newburyport, Massachusetts. McKay had earned a reputation in New York City building sailing ships. Train saw that McKay needed a large shipyard of his own to invent and build the best ships, and he helped McKay set up such a yard on the East Boston waterfront. The result of their collaboration was the clipper ship. They were the fastest ships under sail at the time, and McKay became the master of the type.
This sort of local funding was first institutionalized by several Boston banks, helping local entrepreneurs forge new enterprises. In the first half of the twentieth century, when the old Boston banks had become more cautious about investing in innovations, one wealthy businessman and professor launched what we now call venture capital. It was the first modern form of funding for innovative start-up companies, and since that launch in 1946, local venture capital has played a key role in innovation and reinvention of the region’s economy.
- Local Demand
Having early local adopters, both businesses and individuals, who would purchase these new innovations, especially when the fledgling companies didn’t have the funds to venture into larger markets, made a huge difference. Local demand not only allowed opportunities and innovations to be tested and improved, it also provided enough cash flow to stay in business while the innovators prepared to meet the demand of a national or international market.
Take, for example, the first underground subway in the Western Hemisphere and the third in the world. It was 1897 and the subway/trolley system (later named the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority [MBTA], also known as the T) was constructed in Boston to reduce an hour-long daily stall of street trolley traffic along a main thoroughfare in the city. Before it was built, many locals said they wouldn’t be willing to travel underground, and there were concerns that the entire endeavor would be a commercial flop. Instead, after the underground subway was completed, crowds jammed the new transportation system and kept doing so. Boston’s subway soon became a benchmark for others around the nation and around the world.
Software innovator Dan Bricklin developed the electronic spreadsheet, the first so-called killer app software to become widely popular in the United States. Working in the late 1970s with his professors at Harvard Business School, where he was enrolled in an MBA program, Bricklin was able to test ideas and quickly generate sales through a local organization. He sold the first VisiCalc software packages through the Boston Computer Society, made up of six hundred early computer-savvy members, including himself. It was an organization that allowed members of the fledgling software industry to connect and discuss the latest breakthroughs in hardware and software. It was only after this early acceptance that Bricklin made direct contact with Apple’s Steve Jobs, and the software was able to take off on the national level.
- Global Demand
The greatest successes occur when an innovation responds to market demands that are global, not just local. In an unusual number of cases, Boston inventors or entrepreneurs, paired with merchants and marketers, have been particularly apt at reaching seemingly unlikely international markets.
Take the story of salt cod. Historically, the waters off Nova Scotia, Massachusetts, and Maine were teeming with codfish. In an effort to turn around a crash of Boston’s farm economy in the 1630s, Governor John Winthrop and one of his sons, who had moved to a Caribbean island to start a sugar plantation in the 1640s, figured out a use for cod skins, which could be preserved by salting. This process made an inexpensive food, rich in protein, for the enslaved workers. Boston merchants entered a new global market selling the salted codfish skins in the West Indies and returning with sugar, which was made into rum in Boston. The trade made Boston boom for the next century, although it unfortunately strengthened the slave system of the Caribbean islands.
Another example of an innovation with a global reach comes from Fidelity Investments’ owner and CEO Ned Johnson, who realized that his firm’s mutual funds would be even more appealing if investors could write checks against their fund balances. Tested first with local account holders in Boston, the concept’s reception was so positive that it was quickly marketed globally by the company. It contributed significantly to the loyalty of its customers and the company’s rapid growth in subsequent years.
Bump and Connect
Of the five factors that were most critical to innovation in Boston—strong entrepreneurship, local networking, local funding, local demand, and, ultimately, global demand—the first four involve proximity, a shared feature we like to call “bump and connect.” Bump and connect includes the planned and unplanned meetings and conversations that occur among people, for example, an entrepreneur with other entrepreneurs, experts, financiers, researchers, or simply friends and acquaintances. Each can play a role in helping to supply missing ideas, inspirations, and connections to resources, people, and/or money, or simply supply feedback or a critique. All of these bump-and-connect elements are like a well-tested recipe in which each ingredient, or factor, affects the others, and can help turn research and inspiration into something that ends up changing the world.
These informal meetings used to happen (and sometimes still do) in coffeehouses, in pubs, and at office desks and tables, or when the innovators were walking the same streets or attending the same evening lectures or social events. Today, telephone and internet connections have become part of the phenomenon. Bump and connect sparks collaboration across and within industries or communities and increases the rate at which ideas advance and become actions, products, cures for diseases, or new ways of thinking.
At its center is the notion that the isolated individual does not drive innovation, although that individual is very important. Rather, the way in which individuals can discuss ideas is what is important. When people are able to meet, whether serendipitously or by design, they are in a position to share ideas and services more easily, which can lead to new products, industries, and social movements. Boston is not the only place where bump and connect has been important. But its combination of strong local drivers and its extensive bump and connect have positioned it uniquely for innovation success. Boston is probably not alone in being driven by most of the top five factors. And it would be instructive to know what drives innovations in other major cities or regions that have not been studied for innovation as closely as Boston has.
The idea of bump and connect has bubbled up in many innovation analyses. Popular innovation writer Steven Johnson, in his bestselling book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, analyzed hundreds of innovations and found that “the coffeehouse” model, which emphasizes dynamic effects of interaction, is vastly superior to the “microscope” theory of how big breakthroughs develop. Johnson looked at how and why two famous British scientists at Cambridge University—James Watson and Frances Crick, one with a physics background and the other in chemistry—successfully conceptualized and revealed the twin upward spiral structure, or the double helix of DNA, and won the Nobel Prize for their work. Together, they spent considerable time between labs ambling along country roads discussing how DNA might be structured and eventually achieved an insight that proved correct. At the same time that Watson and Crick were walking, talking, and meeting at the local pub, Rosalind Franklin, a biologist in London who believed that microscope-based research would allow her to find out the then-secret structure of DNA, ended up coming up short and missing the prize. Johnson documents dozens of similar dynamics in his book.
To add more weight to the notion that the interaction of inventors and innovators with others is at the core of the process, Martin Reuff conducted a California study examining conditions under which one group of MBA entrepreneurs make large breakthroughs, while other groups make much less. Reuff found that those entrepreneurs who reached out to people from different backgrounds, or with whom they had “weak ties” (people who wouldn’t ordinarily travel in their professional or social circles), were three times more innovative than the group that didn’t reach out to such a diverse set of people. The power of reaching out to those who are different is what makes bump and connect so valuable.
The takeaway is that you are more apt to get some of your best ideas when talking with a work colleague from a different division of your large company, a relative who works in a different field, or a stranger who doesn’t have a similar background. These connections are vital to overcoming the most challenging barriers to innovation while helping you to invent something new or different. As some of your tough problems lay dormant in the back of your mind, the interruption and interaction with someone or even something different can contribute a new perspective in solving problems. Most innovations are an amalgam of different pieces of existing ideas or technology: new views stimulate and lead to ultimate success.
As you read the fifty innovation stories in Waves of Innovation, drawn from such a wide variety of fields, you will see how important interaction, as well as the other four drivers, are in almost every case. The concept of bump and connect is not just the interconnecting; networking, while critical, is not enough to make the innovation happen. The interweaving of the other drivers, including local funding, local demand, and the never-say-die entrepreneur, taken together, make Boston so unusually successful with innovation.
A Core Example: Kendall Square in Cambridge
Over the past thirty-five years, Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, once a manufacturing area, has been transformed into the epicenter of a global biotech industry. Using vast new knowledge about genes and DNA, companies based in Kendall Square have made major breakthroughs in treating a wide variety of illnesses, including hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis (MS), and cystic fibrosis. In 1990, there were just two biotech companies in Massachusetts, both in Kendall Square; now there are more than a hundred in that one neighborhood, with nearly one thousand in the state. Together, they employ more than seventy thousand people statewide, helping Massachusetts earn its spot as the top employer for biopharma in the country and around the world. And even in the digital age, biotech executives in Cambridge tout the benefits of proximity in innovation.
The five driving forces are all there in Kendall Square, of course: motivated entrepreneurs, many from nearby universities; networking and information exchange over coffee or on a random walk in the neighborhood; local funding from venture funds, many based right in Kendall Square; local demand, especially from five large research and teaching hospitals within a radius of a few miles; and global demand, with international pharmaceutical companies always on the watch for the next important breakthrough. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that in 2006, when Novartis, the world’s largest pharmaceutical firm, decided to move its global research center from its home in Switzerland to a better-connected site, it scoured the world, from China to California to Burlington, Massachusetts, and in the end selected Kendall Square because of this proximity.
Diversity in Innovation
Innovative breakthroughs are made by people of various backgrounds and ethnicities from all over the world. Twenty of the top fifty innovations in our study had significant involvement from women, people of color, and immigrants. Today, one of every five patents originating in Massachusetts is filed by a first-generation immigrant. When you listen to coworkers, colleagues, or acquaintances from other nations and from different racial, ethnic, cultural, and educational backgrounds, your good ideas can become even better and completely new ideas may be spawned.
Massachusetts didn’t begin as a diverse community, but its trading relationships introduced global influences and eventually led to greater human diversity in the region. The first enslaved Africans were brought to Boston just eight years after its founding, and by the 1760s, nearly one in twelve Bostonians were African or African American, some free but most enslaved. Thanks to language in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, the state became the first effectively to abolish slavery and went on to become a hotbed for abolitionism in the nineteenth century.
An enslaved African American named Mumbet, who listened to the words of the new Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 about “equality of all men,” was inspired to contact a local lawyer who agreed to bring her suit for freedom to the local court. She won not only her freedom but also damages. The case was a test of the state’s eighteen-month-old constitution, and the new state supreme court ruled that the case had no standing due to the “equality of all men” clause in the preamble to the US Constitution. By implication, slavery had already been abolished with approval of the Massachusetts Constitution two years earlier, and Mumbet was free. She chose the name Elizabeth Freeman as her new name. From the 1830s to the 1910s, Boston was seen as one of the two or three most racially tolerant large cities in the country. (It is worth noting that tolerance then is much different than what most would accept as equality at the beginning of the twenty-first century.)
Like many American cities, the Greater Boston area also absorbed waves of immigrants, beginning in the early seventeenth century, and today is among the nation’s most diverse communities, with émigrés and their descendants from Europe, Africa, the Near East, South Asia, East Asia, and the Americas. Boston is a major port of entry for immigrants gaining entry to the United States. All of which leads to a diversity of individuals and in turn contributes significantly to the culture of innovation in the region.
Innovation as Reinvention: The Four Waves
Over the course of Boston’s history, the city has had four major economic collapses or periods of stagnation, as economist Edward Galeaser first reported. Yet each time the city reinvented itself, largely because of innovative new industries. Many other US cities and regions that were once the darlings of innovation did not recover their cutting edge after economic collapse, including Hartford, Connecticut, for its precision work with interchangeable parts manufacturing; New Bedford, Massachusetts, for whale oil; and Troy, New York, for iron. But for Boston, four waves of innovation followed the collapses, continuing to give life to the region and in some cases spreading nationally or globally.
The First Wave
In the 1630s, as Puritans arrived in the Boston area, the farm economy in this region boomed. As each new wave of English immigrants arrived, the overwhelming demand for farms and cattle drove up the price of both. In 1641, English Puritans and the British parliament they controlled drove Charles I from the throne. A number of leading Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, including some of its wealthiest, returned to England to fight for the Puritan and parliamentary cause. As some of the wealthiest Puritans sold off their resources, prices dropped dramatically for land and cattle in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as the region was called. Similar to a bursting housing bubble, this collapse left many financially strapped, even ruined, forcing a number to declare personal bankruptcy, including the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop.
John Winthrop led an effort to save the Massachusetts Bay Colony by building the infrastructure for a new shipbuilding industry and mercantile economy. The tall, ancient trees of Massachusetts were a key product; they made the best masts for the British navy and new Massachusetts-built ships. Winthrop also worked with one of his sons to bring the latest ironworking technology from Britain and thus built the colony’s first ironworks, which fueled the success of the shipbuilding industry. Until that time, the British Crown wouldn’t allow iron tools or pieces used for shipbuilding to originate in the colonies. The colonists also fished the abundance of cod in the region and built a substantial and lucrative trade with the sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean. Within eighty years, Boston was the third-largest port in the British Empire, and the largest town in British North America. Nearly a third of Boston’s population was involved in the shipping trades. Innovations in trade and shipbuilding, like innovations in Silicon Valley in the past forty years, made the Greater Boston area a boom town.
The Second Wave
In the 1750s and 1760s, the economy of Boston was again stagnating. Following the costly Seven Years’ War, the British government began taxing the American colonies, and the people of Boston were especially resentful. Boston, which twenty years earlier had been the largest port in what is now the United States, was declining; unemployment was rising. Boston merchants, artisans, and dockworkers protested, most notably through their destruction of heavily taxed tea shipments at the infamous Boston Tea Party. The British retaliated and shut down the Port of Boston. The British Army occupation of Boston from 1768 to 1776, the battles of Lexington and Concord of 1775, and later the battle to end the British occupation of Boston effectively liberated Massachusetts when the British were forced to evacuate and turn their focus to New York (it would be another five years before all thirteen colonies were liberated from British rule). By the time Massachusetts had effectively won its independence in March 1776, nearly 85 percent of the population had moved, died of smallpox, or left to join the new Continental Army. Boston was struggling.
In 1783, when the peace treaty with Great Britain ending the Revolutionary War was signed, Boston’s port reopened, although it was still prohibited from trading with the British sugar islands. Boston’s economy began to return very slowly. The merchant John Hancock was elected the first governor of the newly independent Massachusetts Bay Colony. In an effort to develop new trade routes, Hancock and others established the first state-chartered bank. This bank largely funded a trip to China to establish a new trade route, which Hancock and Sam Adams, another innovative leader driving the new state of Massachusetts, created when they received a letter from John Ledyard, a New England college dropout who had visited China. That trip brought otter pelts, highly desired in China, from the uncharted Northwest, now the states of Oregon and Washington, across the Pacific Ocean to be exchanged for China’s most desirable products.
These merchant-traders made the region remarkably wealthy and developed ever-more competitive ship types Boston sea captains took a tremendous risk trading in the Northwest with the Native Americans along its coast, and succeeded. The risk of sending a ship halfway around the world for nearly two years, based on a single letter, is a great example of one of the drivers: global demand. And it could not have happened without the innovation of the first chartered bank.
The Third Wave
The dominance of Boston sea captains in shipping was ended by the Panic of 1857, a nationwide financial crisis, combined with a quick shift from sailing to coal-fired steamships. But the collapse didn’t last long. The Civil War ultimately led to a booming economy in Massachusetts: selling blankets, uniforms, and shovels to the army, as well as rifles and revolvers, all products manufactured in Massachusetts.
The region not only survived this turn of fortune but grew wealthier. Traders became investors and managers of new and growing manufacturing enterprises and railroads, turning a nascent scattering of industrial experiments into a wholesale industrial revolution of textiles and shoes that powered the region into the twentieth century. Boston played the key role in the invention of the telephone, for example, as well as the early electricity industry. In manufacturing, Boston, along with cities just south (including Brockton) and north (including Lynn), innovated in the shoe-manufacturing machinery.
The textile industry—both cotton and wool—made the city a center of manufacturing for national and international markets. Boston’s market for wool, in what is now called the Seaport District, led the world during World War I. The conversion of the horse-drawn streetcar industry to electric trolley and then to the first subway was also a major innovative breakthrough. Eastern Massachusetts, which had been a hub for carriage manufacturing and for Albert Pope’s bicycle craze in the late nineteenth century, became the national center of the new auto industry before the locus of the new industry moved to Detroit in the early 1900s.
The Fourth Wave
The fourth wave, or “The Long Stagnation,” as it is called, was really a long, slow decline of major industries and a failure to replace them with new ones. Economic growth slowed from the 1920s through the 1970s. Leading the decline were the key industries of shoemaking and textiles, made worse by the impact of the Great Depression. Massachusetts companies couldn’t compete with the manufacture of clothing either, and these industries moved to the southern United States or to other parts of the world where labor was less expensive. Boston’s port gradually atrophied.
In the 1940s, there were really two economies: the old manufacturing economy that continued to decline, and a second, smaller but expanding economy based on technology, hospitals, and universities and focused on innovation. World War II provided an impetus to innovations in electronics. Raytheon paved the way as a defense company, with its contributions to the development of radar and tube miniaturization, and there was corresponding growth in universities and hospitals. After the war, there was a new highway system that supported the creation of suburbs surrounding cities in what had been farmland. The growth of the family car and the suburbs was part of the story.
Starting in the 1950s, the computer, telecommunications, and other technological companies grew significantly. Innovation drove these sectors along with the research hospitals and universities. The pace of economic growth after World War II and since was helped by an expanding finance sector and by federal funding connected to defense industries and research hospitals.
The ability of Boston to recover from stagnation or collapse and then to thrive as a trailblazing incubator is based in no small part on the diversity of its innovative industries, which have sustained the region through several downturns. Ingrained in its culture is the drive to invent repeatedly and to generate new products and ideas that serve the city, the region, and the world in new and exciting ways. Each of the recoveries from the economic downturns was led by new, innovative industries—the new wave. The city offers a great blend of people, possibilities, resources, and consumers: the right people to develop ideas, others to fund those ideas, and the innovators to drive the ideas until they succeed. The sheer mass and breadth of innovations coming from Boston and Massachusetts are significant.
Today, the Boston region’s research universities are a meaningful supporting driver in most fields of innovation. They bring together huge numbers of intellectually curious people who are working as much on campus as they are off. They are driving innovation all the time. But that alone doesn’t explain why this region has been so innovative over four centuries. As one top corporate executive said recently in explaining why he was moving the corporate headquarters of his century-old firm to Boston, it is because of the “thick layer of innovation.” In his view much more than the research universities make the difference between Boston and other university hubs.
The production and headquartering of telephone systems, as well as other promising industries such as frozen foods, minicomputers, mainframes, and the modern defense industry, have all been part of the replacement of the old textile and shoe manufacturing industries with new, lighter industry. Shoes and textiles first moved to the South before shifting after World War II to Italy, Spain, Brazil, and other nations. Steel and metalworking, nurtured in the Boston area when the colonies and the republic was young, moved closer to the resource-rich areas at the heart of the country. More recently, information technology (IT) moved to Silicon Valley. Yet each time, Boston bounces back.
The following fifty innovations illustrate moments in time, eras of collaboration, and years of determination to make products, create solutions, heal humans around the world, capitalize on needs and desires, and entertain. Each innovation has changed Boston, the nation, or the world for the better. This group of fifty, taken from nearly four hundred examples of innovation in the Boston area, illustrates what it means to become a global center of innovation, and to maintain this status over centuries, through waves of new industries.
Boston Made: From Revolution to Robotics—Innovations that Changed the World
Copyright © 2021 by Robert M. Krim and Alan R. Earls
Used with permission by Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc.
9 Galen Street, Suite 220
Watertown, MA 02472