An interview, an author, and 500 local innovations
Before Moderna, there was the chocolate chip cookie.
Before the chocolate chip cookie, there was the telephone.
And before the telephone, there was the first constitution in North America.
What is it with all these innovations flowing out of the Boston area? Is there something in that dirty water?
It turns out there are multiple “somethings,” according to a new book, Boston Made, by authors Robert Krim and Alan Earls, which chronicles the ever-present innovations emerging from Boston and Massachusetts and why this area represents a particularly fertile ground.
“It did not just happen since World War II, to compare with Silicon Valley in California or San Diego now,” Krim said in a Zoom interview between the authors and DigBoston. “It goes back to the first four to five years of the British colonists living in the town.”
As he pointed out, not long after Boston’s founding in 1630, its residents were “developing the idea of a public school [the Boston Latin School, the first public school in North America]. It was only three years after 20% of the population [had] died of starvation in Boston. Taking public money to develop a school was quite innovative.”
The authors have counted around 500 innovations emerging from Boston and Massachusetts, well past the next-highest total—80 or so from California. Of the many innovations from this area, the authors selected 50 to profile in the book.
Some speak to advances in human rights, such as the first court cases that freed enslaved individuals, brought by two separate plaintiffs in Massachusetts—a woman named Mumbet and a man named Quock Walker, with the state’s highest judicial court basing its ruling on another innovation, the first-ever state constitution in North America, drafted by future President John Adams. Much more recently, there’s the Supreme Judicial Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, in 2004.
Other innovations in the book address technological progress, including the still-emerging robotics industry and the rise of Kendall Square, including as a biotech hub. There are nods to the first newspaper in the British colonies, the invention of basketball in Springfield by James Naismith, and the oh-so-tasty Toll House cookie, created in Whitman by trained nutritionist Ruth Wakefield.
Krim is a professor in the College of Business at Framingham State University and the founder of its Entrepreneurship Innovation Center. Earls is a longtime journalist who has covered high-tech for decades. They have been working on the topic of innovation in Boston since 1998 when they designed an innovation-centered tour of the city. They collaborated with experts from different fields to track innovations in the area. Their original number of innovations was 45, but it climbed to 200, then 300, then between 400 to 500 and, the authors say, they have stopped actively looking. They asked what made Boston such an innovation center.
As Krim explained, there were “four or five different factors coming together that we found made the difference.”
“We found, number one, you needed to have an incredibly dynamic, forceful entrepreneur or group of entrepreneurs working,” Krim said. “Number two, that there was a network of people they were working with. Virtually no innovation is [done] with work totally alone,” although he noted the unusual example of 19th-century inventor Charles Goodyear, who worked on developing all-weather rubber while in debtors’ prison.
“Third, there has to be local demand, people who are early adopters,” Krim said. “In some cities, you invent [something] and people don’t buy. Here … they’re banging at the door, they want to buy. … Manufacturing can start.” And, he added, “We tend to have funding, people who have some money and are willing to take more of a risk than happens in many other cities. Once innovation gets going and we’re good enough at business techniques, we take it from an innovation in one city [to one that] gets sold to other places.”
Although not included in the book, the most recent innovation from Greater Boston—the COVID-19 vaccines—illustrates these concepts, according to Krim.
“You look at the anti-COVID drugs, Boston has had more impact than any other city in the world,” he said. “Greater Boston not only has Moderna, but Pfizer’s early production plant had 3,000 employees working on it north of [Boston]. The Johnson & Johnson medicine was largely developed by the virology labs at Beth Israel.”
Krim said, “AstraZeneca was not here, but three out of the four major ones early on all had Boston connections, with Moderna being the biggest. Moderna was able to raise $850,000 in venture capital to make that happen. A lot of that was raised in New England [by] venture capital. It turned out they were willing to take a risk on something, a company that never actually sold a pharmaceutical before.”
The book details a Boston innovation used to combat another infectious disease outbreak 300 years ago. In 1721, during one of the many smallpox epidemics that hit colonial Boston, an African slave named Onesimus gave valuable medical information to the powerful Puritan minister who owned him, Cotton Mather, who in turn passed it along to a Boston doctor named Zabdiel Boylston.
Onesimus came from a community in Africa that had learned to fight smallpox by taking pus from an infected individual and inserting that pus into other people, who would develop antibodies. It led to the first inoculations in North America.
Not everyone accepted this innovation, as the book explains. There was local opposition, including from a young Benjamin Franklin, and someone lobbed a grenade into Mather’s house. The authors also cite the racism of the era that made it a taboo to use the testimony of a Black slave in medicine, and the mistrust that Great Britain had toward Boston in general—“sort of a provincial town across the ocean,” in Krim’s words. Yet the proof was in the numbers. Among people who did not get inoculated, one in 12 died, but among the inoculated, just one in 40 died.
“Boston had a culture that allowed for enough differences to get to the truth, [which] may have been stifled more in [other] early major cities,” Krim said. “It was a culture of innovation.”
If this concept sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve seen the authors’ previous project, an exhibit on Boston-area innovation at Logan Airport. One person who saw it was publisher Mary Ann Sabia from the Waltham-based book publishing company Charlesbridge. As Krim recounted, she thought it was a book-worthy idea and got in touch with him about it.
The origin story of the book sounds like an example of a concept explored throughout its pages—“bump and connect,” a recipe for innovation that the authors say is well suited for Boston.
“It’s the idea that, somewhat randomly, you have connections around people,” Krim said, “based around the idea that somebody is looking for a solution to an idea and speaks with a whole bunch of different perspectives. That sort of bump and connect is really crucial to most innovations that happened.”
When it came to Earls and Krim working together on the book, Krim quipped, “We connected and we did bump a little bit,” adding, “it’s been great these three years.”
As for the future of innovation in the area, the authors expressed a mix of hope and caution.
“Having venture capital here means new things can get funded much more easily,” Krim said, adding, “we have a lot going for us among the five drivers [of innovation], whether it was in the 1600s funding the Boston Latin School or whether in 2021 funding Moderna. It’s sort of the same thing.”
However, Earls notes, “I was very close to the high-tech sector in the ’80s. Even then there were huge concerns about having no place to put people [or] large plants in Massachusetts. They had grown to the limits, to some extent. In this state there are very high costs of transportation, housing, schools, and energy, and that continues to put a little bit of a brake on industry. If we don’t fight to protect where production happens, by making the state more competitive in these fundamentals, decision-makers in most cases will go to other locations where things can be produced less expensively.”
He added, “What’s interesting for me about the whole story is it’s not a constant renewal, but people [in Boston] seem to be never satisfied with where they’re at, more than other places. They want the next frontier.”
Whatever the future holds, at least Bostonians can take comfort that in the area of innovation, whenever you compare Boston with a certain other East Coast city, Boston always comes out on top. Take the case of yet another example from the book, the first subway in the Western Hemisphere.
“The subway in Boston was seven years before New York City,” Krim noted. “It was not that New York City was not trying over time. There were two brothers, one financed in Boston and one financed in New York, in rivalry with each other [to build a subway]. How’s that for a full comparison?”
Rich Tenorio is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in international, national, regional and local media outlets. He is a graduate of Harvard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a cartoonist.