Tour Reinvents the Odyssey
Most Famous Scientists
AAA of Southern New England
By Joe O'Shea
Innovation Odyssey tours explore Boston’s fascinating
Despite their glaring differences, Boston and Cambridge have long enjoyed a
reputation as one of the globe's most innovative regions. Somehow, some way,
when one mixes Boston and Cambridge's stiflingly conservative Brahmin culture – embodied
by the elitism of Harvard University and Beacon Hill – with the cities'
spirit of intellectual exploration and adventure, progressive ideas emerge.
The Innovation Odyssey, a two-hour tour, explores Boston's four centuries of
unconventional thought. Although the program itself is four years old, the
current incarnation – which includes actor/narrators, visits to historic “eureka” spots,
and video accompaniment while on a motor coach – is only two years old.
“I'm not exaggerating when I say that Boston has been alone in the world
as a leader in innovation, and in reinventing itself in industry,” says
Bob Krim, the executive director of the Boston History Collaborative, which runs
the Innovation Odyssey tour.
“Bostonians are responsible for many of the
common things we live with each day and take for granted, from the telephone
to the microwave oven, and from the first home computer software to the electronic
Boston has long been home to driven people who share a few common traits that
lead to brilliant new ideas, according to Krim. Typically, these innovators
are young people who aren't satisfied with the current way of doing things.
They share an inability to quit, a desire to persevere. “As Edison said,
'I failed so many times, I failed my way to success,” says Krim, with
Not only does failure play a part, but personalities do as well. While one
person may have a clever idea, it may only bear fruit after an accidental collision
with another great mind. One such instance occurred when Thomas Edison, struggling
to make his incandescent light bulb last longer than eight minutes, began to
work with Lewis Latimer, a Civil War veteran and the son of slaves who made
their way to Chelsea as stowaways on a ship.
After some tinkering, “Latimer realized that using tungsten in the bulb
filament would make for a longer-lasting bulb,” says Krim. By extending
the life of Edison's bulb, it suddenly became commercially viable. In addition
to his work with Edison, Latimer also prepared the drawings for Alexander Graham
Bell's telephone, enabling Bell to submit a patent application only hours before
his competitors in 1876.
While Edison, Bell and Edwin Land of Polaroid fame are, of course, prominent
characters on the Innovation Odyssey tour, there are plenty of lesser, yet
no less important, lights like Latimer.
Elias Howe, for example, created the sewing machine in the mid-1800s so that
he could make life easier for his wife, a professional seamstress. The Johnson
family, which owns Fidelity, made mutual funds a household name last century.
In 1972, Ray Tomlinson invented e-mail, inserting the @ sign because it “seemed
like a neat idea.” In the late 19th century, King Gillette came up with
the idea of a safe, disposable shaving blade, eliminating the need for straight-edge
“I don't think that Boston's future lies in one field,” says Krim. “We're
always moving on multiple paths at the same time, whether it's biotechnology,
information technology, nanotechnology, finance or education.