Not your average duck tour...

By Kristen Pounds - Portsmouth Herald
March 16, 2003


Have you used a microwave today? How about the telephone?
Checked your e-mail yet?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, then you have a Boston inventor to thank.

The Innovation Odyssey is the Boston History Collaborative's newest tour. It showcases the personal stories of the many inventors who have lived and worked in Boston since its settlement. The tour bus expertly winds through Boston traffic past the very sites where the telephone, the mutual fund, the microwave and many other innovations came to be.

Local actors Celeste McClain and Frank Ridley present the tour aboard the bus by impersonating the inventors with the cunning use of hats -sometimes, the actor plays up to four people at once!

Participants say they find this approach much more entertaining than the usual fact-reciting tour. Even with a bus filled with somber reporters and dignified patrons of local historical societies, Ridley donned his bowler and gave such a boisterous impression of a native Red Sox fan that we could not help but laugh.

Television monitors spaced every few rows on the coach supplement the tour. Material includes film clips from the 1900s, short documentaries on inventors and interviews with bioengineers. With the new timing capabilities of DVDs, the images are synchronized with the actor's sketch. As we travel over the Longfellow Bridge - locally known as the "salt and pepper shaker bridge" - the monitors play a synchronized clip filmed over the same bridge nearly a century ago.

Sightseers venture off the bus to visit the surgical amphitheater at Massachusetts General Hospital where anesthesia was first used in 1846. Electricity hadn't been implemented yet, so the surgery was built under a huge glass dome to utilize every minute of daylight. Tight rows of wooden chairs encircle an open space: the macabre site of the operating table.
The first modern surgery was performed in this very room. Before 1846 ether had been a purely recreational drug, but eventually dentist Dr. William T.G. Morton recognized ether's potential in modern medicine.

Or so history tells us … the actors of the Innovation Odyssey might reveal a different story.

Since the surgical amphitheater was built way up on the fourth floor so other patients wouldn't hear the screams, anyone unable to travel up four flights of stairs will not be able to enjoy the full scope of the tour. However, this tour involves less walking than the Freedom Trail and better protection from the winter weather as well.

Tourists also hop off the bus to explore the MIT Museum. The museum houses the first computer to use the Internet. Arthur Ganson's humorous and intriguing mechanical sculptures reside there as well.

Unfortunately, it is a short visit; left-brainers will probably want to return to the museum later and spend more time there.
The Innovation Odyssey Tour presents dozens of inventions and the stories of how they evolved. Some inventions, like the telephone, required attempt after failed attempt from the inventor. Other inventors made their discoveries purely by accident; Raytheon worker Percy Spencer just happened to have a candy bar in his pocket while he was experimenting with radar, and the kitchen microwave was born.

Here are some examples of Boston innovations: Morse Code ®, Telephone ®, Anesthesia ®, Drinkable tap water ®, Radar equipment mass-production ®, Microwave ®, First American college ®, Polaroid cameras ®, Internet ®, E-mail ®, Mutual Funds ®, Smallpox inoculation ®, Ice shipping ®.

The two-hour tour concludes with a trip through "Genetown," the section of Cambridge where more than 200 bioengineering companies thrive. Boston's Whitehead Institute continues to lead genetics into the 21st century with the Human Genome Project. Because of the college towns' trio of Harvard University, MIT and Boston University, the Boston area continues to function as a center for innovative thinking. In fact, Boston University professor Jon Lipsky wrote the Innovation Odyssey script.

The Boston History Collaborative, recently founded in 1997, attempts to unify all the smaller historical societies in Boston and connect the city's museums and tours. This nonprofit organization has funded four new major tours since its inception, including Boston By Sea and the Literary Trail. The collaborative strives to make Boston's revolutionary history come alive in ways that are fresh and fascinating.

The Innovation Odyssey successfully combines entertainment with history. The city's character manifests itself not only through the neighborhoods visited, but also by the humor and tenacity of the inventors. No matter how well you think you know Boston, this tour is guaranteed to teach you something new.

Tickets for the Innovation Odyssey are $25 for adults and can be purchased at the Boston Museum of Science or by calling (617) 350-0358. Tours run every Saturday at 2 p.m. from 28 State St., opposite the State Street T stop on the blue line. The tour also picks up passengers at the Museum of Science.