Not Done Yet – A History of Innovation in the Valley – Part 2
Yesterday we presented Part 1 of ‘A History of Innovation in the Valley.’ You can read it here. >>>
Hiram Mills, Lawrence Experiment Station and a Clean Water Supply – Lawrence, Mass.
During the 1880s, the people of Lawrence and Lowell drank untreated water from the Merrimack River, the destination of raw sewage from cities and towns all along its banks. More mill jobs meant more people adding to already overburdened sewer systems. Improvements to sanitary living standards had not kept pace with the technological advancements in textile manufacturing. Repeated outbreaks of typhoid fever would begin in Manchester, N.H., and wind their way downstream to Lowell and Lawrence. Germ theory was still relatively new, and some still believed in miasma, the notion that bad smells were the root cause of these epidemics. Luckily for Lawrence, engineer Hiram Mills would change the world of sanitation history by creating new ways to test and treat drinking water.
Mills was chief engineer of the Essex Company when the state asked him to lead the newly reorganized Massachusetts State Board of Health in 1887. He took an existing Essex-owned testing facility on the Merrimack River and turned it into the Lawrence Experiment Station. The team of scientific pioneers Mills assembled came from new areas of study including bacteriology and chemistry. As a board member of MIT, he had access to some of the brightest minds of the day and created an environment that encouraged discourse across the different disciplines. Men such as biologist William Sedgwick and chemical engineer William Hazen used the Merrimack River as one big petri dish, and within a few years the scientists were able to demonstrate that a slow sand filtration system removed both dangerous bacteria and unpleasant impurities from the water supply. Their findings convinced the city of Lawrence to spend $67,000 on a 2.5-acre filtration system that sharply reduced the outbreaks of deadly typhoid fever. Lowell eventually followed suit.
Raytheon, Radar Defense – Andover, Mass.
Raytheon, the biggest innovation engine in our area today, is a company that maintains a low profile. Established in 1922 by three engineers in Cambridge, Raytheon expanded operations in 1956 with an Andover facility in what is now known as Brickstone Square on Haverhill Street. A total of about 7,000 people are employed at facilities in Tewksbury and Andover. Though most of us know someone who works at Raytheon, we know very little else. Andover’s location, the Integrated Air Defense Center, is best known for producing the world’s top missile defense systems, but many civilian applications evolved from Raytheon’s initial radar defense research. Our daily lives have been improved with trickle-down applications such as microwave ovens, GPS systems, electronic tolls and a safe, sophisticated air traffic control system. Raytheon’s Patriot Air and Missile Defense System gained fame during the first Iraq war in 1991, when it was able to stop Iraqi Scud missile attacks on U.S. troops and Israel with what often was described as “the ability to hit an incoming bullet with another bullet.” The Merrimack Valley became a media hot spot when then President George H.W. Bush paid a congratulatory visit to workers at the Andover facility. Journalists from around the world descended on Raytheon’s local watering hole, the Ninety Nine restaurant in Tewksbury, hoping for a few quotes from tight-lipped employees. In addition to keeping us safe from things we don’t want to think about, Raytheon is deeply involved in the community through its efforts to advance science and math education in local schools, hoping to ignite an innovative spark with another generation of technological pioneers.
Social Innovations – Lowell, America’s Industrial Venice
In 1978, Lowell saved itself from becoming a post-industrial ghost town by turning remaining historic structures into a national park. The canals that once provided an inexpensive form of energy became the central defining characteristic of Lowell National Historic Park. The journey to national park status wasn’t easy for Lowell, a city without a single distinguishing event or building that could cement its historical status in people’s minds. The long process began in the late 1960s, when a diverse crew of politicians, urban planners, historians, teachers and community activists joined forces and worked together toward a common goal. Lowell City Councilman Brendan Fleming proposed the first historic district, the “Mill and Canal District,” which was approved in 1972. Urban planner Gordon Marker made palatable the concept of an urban park by basing the design on equal parts historic preservation and economic revitalization. Patrick Mogan, then superintendent of schools, was a visible and vocal advocate for a park that would help preserve and share the city’s history of multicultural experiences.
The Lowell Heritage State Park was created in 1974. Thirty-six acres of downtown property were included in this new “dispersed state park.” This helped Lowell present a more viable plan to a reluctant National Park Service, which tended to view the city’s efforts as a Trojan horse for urban renewal. Though other cities had national historic sites, the Lowell urban park was revolutionary in that it combined federal money with other funding sources, including state, local and private entities. Once approved, the National Park Service covered traditional operations, and the Department of Interior funded historic preservation, the rehabilitation of buildings not owned by the park and various community and cultural activities.
Paul Tsongas, a college intern at the time, is said to have worked on the initial park legislation for Congressman F. Brad Morse, a Lowell Republican in the 1960s. The legislation was carried forward by subsequent Congressmen Paul Cronin, a Republican from Andover, and finally passed in June 1978 with the firm guidance of Tsongas, by then a Democratic congressman from Lowell.
Malden Mills/Polartec, Man-made Fleece – Lawrence, Mass.
Do you remember New England winters without Polartec? Lawrence-based Malden Mills introduced the lightweight, quick drying wonder fabric in 1979 and helped make cold weather more bearable. Third generation owner Aaron Feuerstein bet his company’s future on technological advancements in textile production while most other textile companies were heading south or overseas. Feuerstein’s gamble on innovation paid off and allowed the company to survive a devastating fire, emerge from bankruptcy twice and continue to produce the fleecy fabric in Lawrence. Polartec is so ubiquitous in our lives that the trademarked name is often used generically to describe any brand of synthetic fleecy fabric, much like we use the words Band-Aid, Kleenex and Xerox. After the fire in 1995, Feuerstein became a national hero for choosing to rebuild in Lawrence and keep idled employees on the payroll. Sustained by his belief in the Torah and a daily midmorning snack of an orange and a banana, Feuerstein stated simply, “It was the right thing to do.” In 2007, the company successfully emerged from bankruptcy for a second time. Malden Mills officially changed it’s corporate name to Polartec LLC, and Feuerstein retired, bringing in new management to continue guiding the company into new markets and products. Under the leadership of President Andy Vecchione, Polartec had its best year in 2010, hired 80 new workers and remains one of the biggest employers in Lawrence with more than 1,000 employees. The company continues Feuerstein’s tradition of innovative textile research by constantly finding ways to increase the use of recyclables.
We are fortunate to have a network of well-established history centers in our area. Special thanks go to the following for their advice and assistance: Martha Mayo, UMass Lowell Center for Lowell History; Barbara Brown, Lawrence History Center; Jim Beauchesne, Lawrence Heritage State Park; Joe Bella, Methuen Historical Society; Jay Williamson, Historical Society of Old Newbury; Louise Sandberg, Lawrence Public Library; and Jan Williams and the mighty network of the Haverhill Historical Society.