Every year in June, when Greater Boston’s universities send a new crop of graduates out into the world, the region burnishes a central part of its brand: the mountaintop of higher ed.
And every day that tourists walk the Freedom Trail — especially on July 4th, when they hear the Declaration of Independence read from the balcony of the Old State House — the city is center stage as a place to relive the story of the American Revolution.
I think it’s time to embrace and showcase another aspect of who we are. This area has been the country’s engine of innovation for nearly four centuries (yes, since before the Revolution). We have just never figured out a way to tell that story in a coherent way to tourists — or to ourselves.
Last summer, I laid down a challenge to my friend Bob Krim, a historian of innovation in our region. He had recently co-authored the book “Boston Made,” which catalogs things that were invented or first demonstrated here, from the telephone to the microwave to surgical anesthesia to the first successful human organ transplant. Bob and I would occasionally run walking tours focused on key innovation-related sites in Boston and Cambridge to raise money for various STEM nonprofits. But there was nothing that was persistently available that people could experience on their own, and it seemed that every organization doing something to showcase “innovative Boston” was doing it in its own little foxhole, with little connection to any others. I asked Bob: What more cohesive picture of innovation past, present, and future might we create if we brought the right people together?
Bob had been involved in creating what I regard as the highest-profile display of Boston’s contributions to innovation: a wall at Logan Airport’s Terminal C that presents a several-hundred-year sweep of ideas that changed the world, including social movements like abolition and women’s suffrage. It’s a great display, but he and I started to wonder where people could go next to learn about the city’s unique DNA of research, experimentation, progressivism, and startup formation.
I mentioned to Bob the surprising fact that the idea for the Freedom Trail was initially floated in a column in March 1951 in the Boston Herald Traveler newspaper. (Among the suggested names were the Puritan Path and the Liberty Loop.) Mayor John Hynes was on board with the notion before that month was out, and by June, the first set of Freedom Trail signs had been installed around downtown. It took only three months to go from concept to reality.
A three-month sprint seemed impossible to duplicate in today’s more complicated world, but Bob and I agreed that we should see how much we could achieve in two years. Both of us felt that the Freedom Trail was a good model.
We didn’t start with mayors because the mayors of Boston and Cambridge were still grappling with the pandemic. Instead, we convened a group of about 15 people from organizations such as History Cambridge, the MIT Museum, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, and Cambridge Innovation Center to help flesh out our idea.
And because people walking around town are likely to be staring at the screen of a mobile phone, we didn’t start with a painted line or street signs either. We created a mobile website, built by the Boston firm Visual Dialogue, that relies on Google Maps to guide walkers from site to site. There’s also a printable map, in PDF form, for those who like to consult a piece of paper.
Our idea seems well-timed for this moment. Mass General’s Russell Museum of Medical History and Innovation recently reopened on a limited schedule for the first time since 2020. This fall, the MIT Museum will open a revamped set of galleries in Kendall Square, and the Broad Institute will open a science-oriented education space called the Broad Discovery Center. When you include the Museum of Science, how many other cities can claim four STEM-focused museums within a short walk of one another?
The Innovation Trail highlights 21 locations between Downtown Crossing and Cambridge’s Central Square to tell the story of how, even before the American Revolution, Boston had the educational institutions and openness to new ideas to form a crucible for scientific, social, and technological innovation. Almost always, there have been scrambles over credit and battles over patents, from the days of the sewing machine to today’s CRISPR gene editing technology. Occasionally, there has been violence — as when someone tossed a homemade bomb into the North End home of Reverend Cotton Mather, who had been advocating for the new procedure of inoculation to prevent smallpox. (How did Mather learn about inoculation? From Onesimus, an enslaved African in his household who had undergone a form of inoculation that kept him safe from the disease.)
But for the most part, over the centuries this has been a city that supports people who want to do things first. That’s an important message for anyone considering coming to school here or visiting for a convention or a trade show or interviewing for a job.
Now that the Innovation Trail project is wrapping up year one, tourists and residents can experience it using the map or mobile site, along with occasional guided tours. For year two, we’re focusing on three additional goals.
First, we intend to surface more stories of women and people of color and the ways they have sometimes struggled for entry into or recognition within organizations and the science and innovation communities. We’ve identified some of these people, like the pioneering programmer Admiral Grace Hopper and the patent draftsman Lewis Latimer, who worked with Alexander Graham Bell and later Thomas Edison.
Second, we intend to create materials that will let teachers use the trail to educate students about the process of experimentation, refinement, and commercialization in the hope that more young people will be drawn to explore entrepreneurship and STEM occupations.
Third, we want to incentivize the companies, labs, and nonprofits that are part of the trail to show up for Boston’s residents and visitors. Beyond the occasional video screen you can see from the street, or a logo on a building, large companies like Akamai, Biogen, and Moderna don’t do much to engage the public in what they do. Verizon owns a wonderful little museum of telephone history, located steps away from where the telephone was invented, but it isn’t regularly open to the public. Tootsie Roll Industries owns a historic candy factory in Cambridge — the last one still making candy — but it doesn’t present much on the outside to explain what happens inside. The trail, we hope, will give the sites a reason to set up visitors’ centers, interactive displays, or augmented reality apps, or offer in-person events.
Boston can still play the fife and launch the fireworks on July 4th. We can still brag about our latest lofty rankings on the lists of top colleges. But it’s time to demonstrate that Boston has long been an incubator for innovations that have changed the world.
Scott Kirsner has written a weekly column for the Globe’s business section, “Innovation Economy,” since 2000. He is a cofounder of the Innovation Trail of Greater Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ScottKirsner.