Not Done Yet – A History of Innovation in the Valley – Part 1
For every Steve Jobs or Dean Kamen there are countless others whose creations have made our lives safer, easier or more fun. Pop culture barely celebrates innovators and inventors, but they are the heroes in our midst. Perhaps it is because the act of creation often occurs inside the inventor’s head and we can’t share the experience; or because the complexities involved are beyond our comprehension and make appreciation difficult.
Advancements are so rapidly absorbed into our daily lives that we quickly lose our memory of what living was like before such things as sanitary drinking water, flood safety, warm fleece jackets or protection from missile attacks.
The Merrimack Valley has a proud history as an incubator for innovation, starting with the mills. Attracted by the water power of the Merrimack River, the textile business brought some of the world’s best minds to this area. These days, a constellation of world-class universities nearby provides the raw brainpower that innovation needs most to survive.
The ability to create something that wasn’t there before is a great gift, one that combines courage, determination and a touch of madness.
Here are just a few life-changing inventions and innovations that originated here in the Merrimack Valley.
Francis Cabot Lowell, Integrated Textile Production – Lowell, Mass.
The Merrimack Valley became central to America’s Industrial Revolution thanks to the vision and near-photographic memory of Francis Cabot Lowell. Born to a wealthy Newburyport family in 1775, Lowell injected his prodigious nervous energy into the development of modern business practices. Our young country was dependent on expensive imported textiles from the British Empire, and our relationship with England wasn’t always reliable. In 1810, Lowell visited England and committed to memory the design and function of the then-superior British power looms. Back home and working alongside a talented mechanic, Lowell made significant improvements to the British loom that helped propel America toward industrial independence. In 1814, Lowell’s mill on the Charles River in Waltham became the world’s first completely integrated textile factory. Raw cotton came in, and finished cloth went out, a concept that became the model for the modern American factory system. Lowell and others (later referred to by historians as the Boston Associates) formed the Boston Manufacturing Company and worked with the federal government to ensure that the fledgling business was protected by tariffs on imported goods. Lowell contracted pneumonia and died in 1817 at the age of 42, but he had helped to create a well-run business engine that was able to survive and flourish without him. The Charles River was underpowered for large-scale textile production, so the Boston Manufacturing Company looked north toward the more vigorous water power of the Merrimack River in what was known then as East Chelmsford. A planned industrial community named Lowell was dedicated to his memory in 1822, and within a few years was producing extraordinary amounts of homegrown cotton cloth, just as he had envisioned.
James B. Francis and the Francis Gate – Lowell, Mass.
James B. Francis spent much of his career masterfully moving around large amounts of water. His many inventions included the world’s first sprinkler system, and the Francis turbine, a water turbine that’s still in use today at the Hoover Dam. Locally, he’s best known for saving Lowell from disaster by building a life-saving floodgate called the Francis Gate. The thick wooden guillotine gate sat open over part of the Pawtucket Canal and could be shut by knocking away restraints with a sledgehammer. In 1845, the mills needed more water power, so as chief engineer of the locks and canals in the city, Francis retooled the canal network to take advantage of the raw power of the mighty Merrimack River. Though water power was a wonderful source of energy, Francis understood that it also had the potential to be a naturally devastating force. Critics of the gate, completed in 1850, referred to it as “Francis’ Folly” and ridiculed him for thinking this expensive flood-protection was necessary. But within two years the Francis Gate proved critics wrong when it saved much of Lowell from the flood of 1852. The wooden gate was dropped again and saved the city during flooding in 1936. A modern steel replica has since replaced the function of the still-visible wooden gate, and the entire structure continues to provide flood protection. Francis’ engineering feat is remarkable in both its concept and its execution, and Lowell certainly wouldn’t have survived the elements without this marvel.
Roller Toboggan – Haverhill, Mass.
Many historians believe the term “roller coaster” was first used to describe a ride built in Haverhill in 1887. The world’s first figure-eight roller coaster debuted that year on Sept. 7, when inventors Stephen Jackman and Byron Floyd opened the Haverhill Roller Toboggan Chute on Locust Street. Fifteen-hundred feet of track ran around the walls of the Globe Skating Rink in a descending figure-eight pattern, using the force of gravity to pull the car along the tracks. Visitors could roller-skate on the rink floor or hitch a toboggan ride by taking an elevator-platform up to the top of the room. Several hundred tiny wheels, or rollers, were built into the tracks, and the toboggan would literally glide over the rollers. Safety standards were not what they are today, and several accidents led to a decline in the coaster’s popularity. Fractious business relations ended the partnership, and by early 1890 the building that housed the skating rink was torn down.
Click here for Part 2 of ‘A History of Innovation in the Valley.’ ( available 4/28/20) >>>