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
``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
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.