Inspecting gadgets; Modern-day teens
explore historic Hub inventions

Cara Nissman - Boston Sunday Herald

Surrounded by old telephones and telegraph wires, Thomas Watson told a tale of luck and discovery recently to a group of groggy teenagers just off a bus from Nashua, N.H.

Alexander Graham Bell had spilled a bottle of sulfuric acid and yelled, "Watson, come here. I want you!" Watson said.
"I looked around the room and realized he was still in the (transmitting) room. I had heard his voice through the box!"
The telephone may have been invented in 1876, but leave it to teens to find a modern connection.

"Last week I asked what Watson first said and a kid shouted, `Can you hear me now?' " said actor Frank Ridley, who plays Watson among about a dozen other historic characters. "That just floored me. It was real funny."

Ridley wrestles with a generation gap whenever he guides kids on the Innovation Odyssey, an educational tour offered by the Boston History Collaborative that illuminates local innovations, including the microwave oven and the Internet. Students from Nashua's REACH gifted program were no exception.

"It's harder for kids because there's a lot of information," said Ridley, who frequently guides school groups during the week. Public tours occur Saturdays at 2 p.m. "With kids, you really have to turn it up a notch. But it's the best way for them to get an education. The props and the accents really make the whole thing come alive. It's not just dry facts."

During the two-hour interactive tour, participants visit the little-known Pioneer Telephone Museum in Government Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum.
Ridley, who seamlessly switches accents and props to play various visionaries, also educates his audience about historical places they pass while on the tour bus, including Beacon Hill, which used to be a poor, polluted section of Boston until Ellen Swallow Richards demanded public health standards in the 1880s.

The Nashua teens were most captivated by a lab coat-clad dentist named Horace Wells, who describes the "birth of modern surgery" - William T.G. Morton's discovery that ether could be used as an anesthetic.

"People used to look at surgery as a last resort," said Ridley, flanked in the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital by cases of antiquated surgical tools and a painting depicting the bloody removal of a neck tumor. "Before ether, you had to be awake through the whole thing. There was no anesthetic."
The teens said they were impressed by the level of advancement that had occurred since the discovery.

"It made me thank God for ether," said Dennis Rocheleau, 13, an aspiring veterinarian. "If you can get past the blood and pain stuff, you can really appreciate what they could do with a knife and a pair of scissors. I was looking at the old tools. I wonder how someone went through surgery with such blunt tools and lived through it."

Hilary Potter also enjoyed Ridley's depiction of the dentist's discovery. "It was gross, but the acting was cool," said Potter, 14. "I'm glad they don't do (surgery) like that anymore."
The teens empathized with a dashiki-clad figure largely forgotten in history books. Onesimus, an African slave of the minister Cotton Mather, catalyzed the creation of the smallpox vaccine by suggesting doctors give a sample of an infection to uninfected folks to build up their immunity. But Mather usually gets the credit.

"It's amazing how most of the people credited for these things didn't come up with them," said Patrick Insley, 13. "It's fascinating."

Discussions about the advent of the microwave, the computer, the Internet and e-mail elicited a few guffaws from the technologically savvy teens, who said inventions aren't discussed with as much fervor as they used to be.
"I think people are just improving on things now," said Gina Davis, 14. "There's not really much that's new, so it's not as talked about."

Yet Shane Artsy said learning about the origins of the modern devices he uses every day made him appreciate how much work goes into inventing.

"It's interesting to learn about how people have come up with a final product and what you can achieve if you put the work into it," said Artsy, 13. "I've always wondered how the telephone was invented. That was pretty interesting."
To find out more about the Innovation Odyssey, call 617-350-0358 or go to