America is based on enterprise. In the history of Massachusetts, this innovative spirit is particularly evident. The colonists established themselves as a center of global maritime trade, and in 1795 Massachusetts businessmen built the country’s first railroad on Beacon Hill. Entrepreneurs like Paul Revere and Alexander Graham Bell consolidated Massachusetts’s reputation as pioneers in enterprise. You might be surprised at how many things you use regularly were made possible by 20th and 21st century Massachusetts inventors. Here are just a few:
Dr. John T. Dorrance changed the soup business forever. The European-trained chemist was so determined to work at Campbell’s that he accepted the token pay of $7.50 per week. His efforts paid off, though, when Dorrance discovered how to condense soup without sacrificing its rich taste. His invention allowed Campbell’s to save large amounts of money on shipping. One of his five original flavors became the kitchen staple “Campbell’s Tomato Soup.”
King Camp Gillette spent ten years trying to develop a disposal razor blade that could replace razors that needed regular sharpening. Yet he had no luck until he began working with William E. Nickerson, a MIT-trained engineer. Together they were able to find a way to stamp a blade sharp enough for a close shave from an inexpensive steel sheet. When Gillette received his patent in 1904, he began an inspired marketing scheme that involved trademarking his own portrait and signing up professional baseball players to give endorsements. This was the first time professional sports players were used in advertising. When the U.S. entered WWI, it equipped each soldier with a Gillette safety razor. After that, the Gillette disposable blade was here to stay.
In 1928, MIT professor Vannevar Bush engineered the first manually mechanically operated analog computer. His machine was capable of solving differential equations with up to 18 independent variables. Boston continued to be influential in the emerging computer technology after this discovery. In 1951, other MIT researchers built the first computer that operated in real time. They named it “The Whirlwind I,” and it was used by the U.S. Navy during the Cold War.
The British Sir Robert Watson patented radar, but at the request of the British government, the U.S. National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) worked to develop the technology. NDRC opened a laboratory at MIT to investigate microwave electronics for military use during WWII. The “Rad Lab” created more than 100 radar systems and made $1.5 billion worth of radar between 1940 and 1945.
Boston’s American Research and Development Corporation (ARDC) is widely considered the original venture capital firm. It was founded by Georges Doriot, who immigrated to Boston from France in the 1920s. In Boston he taught at Harvard Business School, and his students remember his lectures covering everything from “how to select an investment banker to how select a wife.” After working with the U.S. government in WWII, Doriot founded ARDC in partnership with two others. As ARDC was the first of the early venture capital firms to raise funds from institutional investors, Doriot is considered the “father of venture capital.”
How many times a day do you read or respond to an email? Ray Tomlinson, a young Boston engineer in 1971, made today’s daily emails possible. Like many technologies, the precursor to email (ARPANET) was designed for military use. When Tomlinson began his work, the program SNDMSG allowed you to send messages between users on the same computer. His innovation, though, was the ability to send messages to users on different computers. He set up two computers ten feet apart and wheeled his chair between them until finally a message came through. Tomlinson is also responsible for the @ sign in all of our email addresses. As Tomlinson explains, it was the natural choice, because “it’s the only proposition on the keyboard.”
Sitting in a Harvard Business School course in the spring of 1978, Dan Bricklin imagined a calculator where you could enter values into a table and then click on them to perform operations. This idea turned into the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc. Bricklin’s invention is created with turning the personal computer into a serious business tool.
In 2011, Forbes’s Bruce Booth declared Boston the #1 Cluster for Early Stage Biotech. He explained, “More seed and early stage funding is flowing into life science companies into the Greater Boston area than any other part of the country over the past two years.” This expertise in biotech has a history dating back to the early 1980s. In 1981 Genzyme started in Boston, and in 1983 the Swiss company Biogen opened an office in Cambridge.
The tech and internet giant, Facebook, began in a Harvard College dorm room. Today, its shares have reached over $40 and the website is used by over a billion users worldwide.
So this invention may not change your life on a daily basis, but watching this robotic dog climb through snow and recover from slips on ice is incredible!