A Hub of innovation:
City inspires scientific and literary elite

By Mary Jo Palumbo - Boston Herald


Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone just steps from Boston City Hall. Novelist Henry James scrutinized the city's fashionable elite from his residence near Beacon Hill.
For more than three centuries, Boston has been home to great scientific and literary minds and has inspired some of their most distinguished work.

``This is a city where there has been a history of world-shaking movements and ideas,'' said Bob Krim, executive director of the Boston History Collaborative. ``The city has attracted people willing to work hard to change things in terms of science, politics and society.''

In 1870, 20-year-old Thomas Edison developed a stock ticker that improved the speed of reading stock quotations at the Boston Stock Exchange at 53 State St., just a few years before he invented the light bulb. In 1876, Bell invented the telephone by tinkering away in a lab at Scollay Square (now City Hall Plaza) and working as a professor of physiology at Boston University.

One of the nation's leading medical centers for centuries, Boston also has been on the forefront of significant medical breakthroughs. Doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital used ether to anesthetize a patient for the first time in 1840. Before then, the only method used to dull pain during surgery was a stiff drink.

Not all of Boston's great scientific achievements occurred before the 20th century. After World War II, Percy Spencer developed the microwave oven in a Raytheon laboratory near Kendall Square in Cambridge. In 1969, an audio systems company in Fresh Pond invented the Internet with funding from a defense contract. The first e-mail was sent from that firm the following year.

The city has been a breeding ground for literary genius as well. Philosophers and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell belonged to The Saturday Club, a prestigious literary group that met weekly at Boston's Parker House hotel.

The club, which began meeting at the hotel when it opened in 1855, led to the founding of the Atlantic Monthly in the 1860s. (The writing group continues today in another Beacon Hill location.)

The Parker House is also mentioned in Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1920 novel ``The Age of Innocence.'' The central character, New York lawyer Newland Archer, visits the hotel and dines at the Somerset Club, at 42 Beacon St., overlooking Boston Common. The private club - established in 1872 in a stately granite mansion built for Boston developer David Sears in 1819 - remains in operation.
Edgar Allan Poe was inspired to write his macabre short story ``The Cask of Amontillado'' by a grisly event that occurred in South Boston - a soldier in Fort Independence on Castle Island got drunk and was chained up and sealed behind a wall.

At the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne's ``The Scarlet Letter,'' the author describes Hester Prynne's gravestone in King's Chapel cemetery at the corner of Tremont and School streets. The gravestone exists, but the woman buried there in 1704, Elizabeth Pain, is not known to have had any connection to Hawthorne.

The chapel bell at King's Chapel is the largest ever made by America's most renowned silversmith, Paul Revere. The 18th century home of the legendary patriot (and Boston's first commissioner of public health) at 19 North Square in the North End is open to the public and is the oldest residence in Boston.

It should be no surprise that the city featured in many of the nation's classic early novels has been home to many great authors as well. Novelist Henry James lived at 131 Mount Vernon St. at the base of Beacon Hill. (James' heroine from ``The Bostonians,'' Olive Chancellor, had a view of the stately Beacon Hill mansions from her home just off Charles Street.) James' contemporary William Dean Howells, who chronicled the ascendance of the nouveau riche in ``The Rise of Silas Lapham,'' lived at Six Louisburg Square.

If you're interested in learning more about the city's scientific and literary achievements - or contemplating discoveries of your own - you can explore this history in more depth on tours hosted by the Boston History Collaborative.

``Boston is a seedbed for innovation, and these breakthroughs are still coming,'' said Krim. ``It happens when new students come here and mix with the companies and institutions that exist, with people at the forefront of movements to change society.''

For tours, go to www.innovationodyssey.com and www.literarytrail.org.