Innovation Odyssey

Tour Reinvents the Odyssey of Boston’s Most Famous Scientists
AAA of Southern New England

By Joe O'Shea

Innovation Odyssey tours explore Boston’s fascinating science history.

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 spreadsheet.”

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 a chuckle.

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 razors.

“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.