Business & Tech

Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

This Boston museum is off-limits to almost everyone

It’s not easy to get inside the Verizon Innovation in Communications Museum. In 2014, a costumed tour guide showed lucky visitors around.
Scott Kirsner for The Boston Globe
It’s not easy to get inside the Verizon Innovation in Communications Museum. In 2014, a costumed tour guide showed lucky visitors around.

I confess to (at least) three different kinds of nerdiness: I’m a tech nerd, a museum nerd, and a history nerd.

That’s why it drives me bonkers every time I walk by the always-shut metal door at the intersection of Cambridge and Sudbury streets, a few steps from Boston’s City Hall Plaza. The sign above the door announces it as the Verizon Innovation in Communications Museum.

But it’s hard to find anyone who has ever been inside, and good luck stopping by on a day when it’s open. Stephanie Lee, a Verizon spokeswoman, explains that it is open by appointment only, “primarily with groups that Verizon has relationships with — trade organizations, schools, nonprofits, and business partners.”

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Even if you’re part of one of those constituencies, you will need to be extra sleuthy to get an appointment. The museum has no website, no phone number, and no information on the roll-down door explaining how to gain entrance.

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Inside, a small exhibition gallery captures a fairly important moment in Boston’s technology history: the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in June 1875.

Somehow, the nonprofit Massachusetts General Hospital can keep the Russell Museum of Medical History and Innovation, a few blocks down Cambridge Street, open six days a week. In Nova Scotia, a museum near the site of Bell’s summer home, run by the Canadian government, is open five months of the year, seven days a week. But Verizon, with $30 billion in net income for 2017, cannot open its Boston museum to the public even on March 10 to mark the fateful day when Bell spilled acid on himself, shouted “Mr. Watson! Come here,” and his assistant heard him through the prototype phone they’d been working on.

The invention ushered in an era of real-time communication that eventually linked most people and businesses in the country. But it was also one of the earliest and best examples of the convergence of things that make Boston such a powerful petri dish of innovation.

Bell benefited from financiers who were trying to push forward the technological status quo. (At the time, the main goal was being able to send multiple messages simultaneously down a telegraph wire, and the telephone was a byproduct of that.) He also had steady income from Boston University, where he lectured on elocution and taught deaf students to read, write, and speak. There were patent attorneys who helped Bell protect his invention. Bell worked in one of Boston’s early “incubator” spaces, which also for a time housed Thomas Edison. And there were early customers eager to put new technologies to work — namely Charles Williams Jr., who owned the incubator building and ran the first telephone line from Boston to his home in Somerville.

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The equation is pretty much the same today: academia plus money plus entrepreneurs plus inventors plus incubator space plus early customers equals societal and economic value.

The Verizon Museum captures much of that, focusing on the creation of a global voice network in the years following 1875.

Yes, I’ve been inside. In 2014, after only a year of trying, I cajoled Verizon into opening the doors on a Saturday, for a walking tour that I occasionally run to raise money for science and engineering nonprofits.

Verizon pulled out all the stops for our short visit, which included bringing in two costumed re-enactors, one of whom portrayed Bell’s lab assistant, Thomas A. Watson, the other an early telephone operator.

The museum has a collection of vintage phones, switchboard equipment, and a beautiful old wooden phone booth. (Remember phone booths?) But the focal point is a replica of the garret laboratory in which Bell and Watson worked, whose creation was supervised by Watson himself.

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I have three suggestions that would enable others to get inside:

 First, let’s bring the museum up to date. Boston’s contributions to telecommunications didn’t end in the 19th century. In the late 20th century, a startup called Wildfire Communications created the first intelligent phone assistant, which could ask callers what they were trying to do, take messages, or try to connect them with someone.

A Wildfire cofounder, Rich Miner, later cofounded a startup called Android, which was acquired by Google and then created the operating system that today powers roughly 85 percent of all smartphones worldwide.

Nuance, the publicly held speech-recognition company in Burlington that gobbled up SpeechWorks, provided much of the original technology that powered Apple’s Siri assistant.

 Second, Verizon needs help. That could come from the Museum of Science. (Is this space naturally an offshoot of that museum, in the way the ICA now operates two exhibition spaces?) It could also come from the Boston Athenaeum, the Beacon Hill library that hosted the first public demonstration of Bell’s telephone. It could come from Boston University, which has an engineer as its president, Robert Brown, and yet has no public memorial or display related to Bell on its campus.

These groups should consider whether there is a way they can support the museum as it exists today, or whether it needs to be set up as an independent nonprofit with its own executive director. (If you’re involved with any of these groups, drop me an e-mail at the address below and I’ll happily set up the first meeting.)

 Third, in advance of that, is it too much to ask whether Verizon could spare a few bucks to open its museum three or four days each year? The date of “Watson, come here” was March 10. The date of that first public demonstration at the Boston Athenaeum was May 10. The first “long distance” call, from Boston to Cambridge, happened Oct. 9. (That last date, as it happens, lands smack in the middle of HubWeek, the annual festival celebrating art, science, and technology. Nice coincidence!) Any or all of those days would be good choices for opening the museum to the public. A Web page with some information about the museum would be swell, too.

Graham Bell “is almost ignored in Boston — blotted out by Verizon,” writes Charlotte Gray via e-mail. Gray authored the Bell biography “Reluctant Genius” and has been inside the museum as part of her research. “It is a shame that he is largely forgotten in New England,” she says, “given his role in technological innovation in a city that still prides itself on cutting-edge thinking.”

My ultimate objective, as a confessed tech-museum-and-history nerd: Verizon has a prime piece of property and a great collection that captures an essential part of Boston’s innovation history. It deserves to be seen by more people.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.