Lowell Innovation and Invention Tour Script

While doing historical tours of downtown, I’ve often said that Lowell was the Silicon Valley of 19th century America. Back on September 16 & 17, 2017, I provided some evidence for that assertion during the Creaticity Art and Maker Festival in Downtown Lowell when I joined with Olu Ibrahim, the founder of Kids in Tech, to lead a tour on Innovation and Invention in Lowell. Here’s the script we used on the tour:

Begin on Market Street at COOL Tent, outside parking garage.

STOP 1 – Homage to Women sculpture at Market Mills Park

Lowell was founded on innovation as America’s first planned industrial city, the place where all the constituent parts of the Industrial Revolution – the accumulation of capital, the physical plant for large scale manufacturing, the power needed to run the machines and a skilled workforce valued by the employers – all came together in one place for the very first time.

Most of the workers in Lowell were young women lured to the mills from New England farms by the offer of cash wages and comfortable board and lodging. Mill owners constructed boarding houses for the women mill workers to live in. This was partly because there was no existing housing, but also as a kind of utopian idea that would distinguish the living conditions of Lowell’s workers from the squalor that existed in English textile manufacturing cities. Living four to a room, Lowell’s mill girls worked long hours and generally remained two or three years before marrying or returning to the farm.  The boardinghouses provided structured living under the watchful eye of boardinghouse keepers as well as intellectual stimulation and companionship. Most were demolished in the 1960s.

STOP 2 – Market Mills Courtyard

Lowell National Historical Park was an innovation for the National Park Service which was used to large natural spaces like Yellowstone or battlefields like Gettysburg. When the Secretary of the Interior came to Lowell, he asked, “So where is the park?” The then Superintendent replied, “The park is the city and the city is the park.” Instead of the National Park Service buying large portions of the city, it created a partnership with local business owners and with city government in which federal low interest loans would be made to building owners in exchange for them renovating their buildings in a historically consistent manner. In that way, the entire downtown came to resemble at 19th century American city.

Lowell Telecommunications Corporation. Founded in 1991 to bring technology to the people, both through public access television and computers. When first opened, the ground floor was a food court with LTC on the second floor with a smaller space in the front corner of the building. A major renovation in 2011 consolidated LTC in its current configuration.

STOP 3 – Past Brush Gallery and upstairs to plaza alongside NPS Parking Lot

Lowell Manufacturing Company became Bigelow Carpet. After the Civil War, Erastus Bigelow invented a new way to make carpeting. He made it cheaper and affordable to a growing middle class. Bigelow left Lowell in 1914, but in 1917, U.S. Cartridge Co rented the entire facility to make ammunition for World War One. US Cartridge was founded after the Civil War by Ben Butler. His son, Paul Butler, went to work for the company and obtained numerous patents for machinery that revolutionized the production of small arms ammunition. During World War One, US Cartridge was the largest producer of small arms ammunition in America.

STOP 4 – far end of NPS parking lot

Lowell Machine Shop – The machinery for Lowell’s first mill was built in Waltham but the Merrimack Manufacturing Company soon established its own machine shop to construct machinery for use in the city’s expanding mills. Incorporated in 1845 as a separate company, the Lowell Machine Shop was soon producing cotton machinery, water turbines and even locomotives for companies across America. The multiple building facility was torn down in 1932.

Freudenberg and Pellon occupied the building now known as 110 Canal Place and a building that stood on the adjacent parking lot. In the 1930s, Dr. Carl Nottebohm, a Freudenberg researcher in Weinheim, Germany, was developing new backing materials when he discovered a method of manufacturing textiles directly from fibers – creating non-woven textiles. To describe the new technology, the name Pellon® was created. ‘PEL‘ was taken from ‘pelos’, the Spanish word for hair since interfacing was primarily made from hair canvas. ‘LON’ comes from nylon, the first synthetic fiber and a key component in the new fabrics. In 1950, Pellon® interfacings were introduced in the United States. The new materials were resilient, lightweight and lint free and they forever changed the textile and apparel industry. Soon after its introduction, the name Pellon® was synonymous with non-woven fabrics.

110 Canal Place – The UMass Lowell Innovation Hub is leading the way to new technology alongside a new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators from many fields. It Innovation Hub offers more than 11,000 square feet of space and resources that help development new ventures in the Mierrmiack Valley. It houses the Massachusetts Medical Device Development (M2D2) Center which is an incubator space for small medical device companies and inventors. One notable inventor is UMass Lowell chemistry professor Rudolf Faust who has developed plastics used in coronary stents, considered one of the most successful medical devices in U.S. history.

STOP 5 – Swamp Locks – near trolley stop and boat launch

James B Francis succeeded George Whistler as the chief engineer of the Locks and Canals Corporation in 1837. For the next 47 years, Francis re-designed the canals, invented a water turbine that is still used around the world today and created a modern fire suppression system of sprinklers in the mills. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the publication in 1855 of his Lowell Hydraulic Experiments book which documented two decades worth of his analysis of water power in Lowell. This distinctly American work replaced the European texts previously in use and was employed by every industry in America that used water power. Francis also did much to promote engineering, teaching his techniques to professional colleagues and serving as the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. UMass Lowell named its college of engineering the Francis College of Engineering.

STOP 6 – Merrimack Canal walkway along Dutton Street, across from Hess Gas Station

Ymittos Candle Manufacturing Company is one of the premier makers of candles in America, specializing in slow burning candles that have been used extensively in Hollywood in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Lincoln. Ymittos was founded by Greek immigrants who made beeswax candles to illuminate Orthodox Churches. The company is now owned by Mark Kaplan, a former high-tech executive who purchased the company from the founding Dristiliaris family. Artisan craftsmanship has kept New England’s oldest continuously run candle manufacturer in business since 1910.

Moxie – The Gates Block, 307 Market Street, originally housed Josiah Gates and Sons, manufacturers of leather goods, whose products were distributed throughout the country from 1845 until the company closed in 1909. Also located here by 1885 was the manufactory for Moxie Nerve Food, a patent medicine that later became a soft drink. Moxie was invented in Lowell by Dr. Augustin Thompson. After serving in the Union Army and attending medical school, Augustin Thompson (1835-1903) opened his medical practice in Lowell. Like other physicians, he mixed his own medicines including one he claimed was introduced to him by a fictional character named Lieutenant Moxie. The medicine was so popular that Thompson gave up his medical practice and devoted all his effort to manufacturing and selling Moxie Nerve Food which became Moxie, a soft drink still sold today. Moxie Nerve Food, a concoction of gentian root, sassafras, wintergreen, caramel, sugar and water, was recommended to help the appetite, calm the nerves and restore sleep. The company used the image of President Theodore Roosevelt, an enthusiastic exponent of the strenuous life, in its advertising. After taking the oath as President, Calvin Coolidge exclaimed “Guess we better have a drink” before toasting the occasion with a Moxie. In a 1885 trademark application, Thompson claimed that Moxie Nerve Food “cures nervous exhaustion, insanity, blindness, paralysis, and loss of manhood.”

STOP 7 – Mack Plaza (across Market street, at corner of Shattuck)

The Worker Statue – Located across from the National Park Visitor Center and designed by Elliott and Ivan Schwartz in 1985, The Worker depicts an Irish laborer widening one of Lowell’s canals. The first such laborers were led to Lowell from Charlestown in 1822 by Hugh Cummiskey who became a leader of the Irish community in Lowell until his death in 1871. No image of Cummiskey is known to exist. Historian Brian Mitchell, author of the 1988 book, The Paddy Camps: The Irish of Lowell, says that his most recent research finds that these Irish were not unskilled laborers but had previously worked in English cities in constructing textile mills and canals and they brought expertise gained there to Lowell with them and played a larger role in the construction of the city than they have been given credit for.

STOP 8 – along Shattuck Street to Victorian Garden, opposite Middle Street

James C. Ayer Company Factory – 90 Middle Street – the James C. Ayer Company employed 300 workers who used 325,000 pounds of drugs, 220,000 gallons of spirits, and 400,000 pounds of sugar to produce one year’s worth of medicine. Its inventory of bottles alone was worth $1.5 million. The Ayer Company issued multi-color trade cards and almanacs to advertise its medicines which were sold the world over. Born in Groton, Connecticut, James C. Ayer (1819-1878) came to Lowell at age 13 to work in an apothecary. Opening his own drug store in 1841, Ayer began concocting his own medicines and through the shrewd use of advertising built the most successful patent medicine company in America. The $20 million fortune derived from patent medicine sales financed Ayer’s diversification into mill ownership and his many acts of civic generosity. Ayer’s Sarsaparilla was the company’s most successful product. Introduced in 1859, Sarsaparilla was recommended for a range of ailments, including jaundice, dyspepsia, pimples, boils, ringworm and “female weaknesses.”

STOP 9 – cut through Victorian garden to Huntington Hall plaza, corner of Merrimack and Dutton streets

Boston and Lowell Railroad – The Lowell Machine Shop was one of the first in America to build steam locomotives. One of the first was called Patrick in honor of Patrick Tracy Jackson. From 1835 to the 1860s, the Lowell Machine Shop built 100 steam locomotives. This locomotive, No. 410, was built in Manchester in 1911 and operated on the Boston and Maine Railroad. It is part of a railway exhibit in the Lowell National Historical Park. Lowell’s rapid growth taxed the available transportation systems. Stagecoaches and ox carts were slowed by snow and mud and the Middlesex Canal froze over in the winter making it impassible. By 1830, the directors of the Locks & Canals were eager to establish a steam-powered railroad between Boston and Lowell to handle the 24 tons of freight and 100 passengers that passed between the two cities each day.

Huntington Hall & Alexander Graham Bell – On April 25, 1877, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his year-old invention at Lowell’s Huntington Hall and convinced many city residents, led by Dr. Moses Greeley Parker, to invest heavily in the telephone company and the city became an early center of the telephone industry in America. In 1879, Lowell experienced a measles epidemic. Dr. Moses Greeley Parker was a physician and became concerned that switchboard operation could be compromised. The Lowell Telephone Exchange was operated by four women, and if any of them succumbed to the virus, vital telephone communications would halt and it would be difficult to train replacements. So Dr. Parker thought of using numbers instead of names to identify each telephone line. He brought his idea to friend and business associate, Alexander Graham Bell. A numbering system was devised, deployed, and still used today, and that is why Dr. Moses Greeley Parker is known as the inventor of the telephone number.

Besides having a large public hall on its upper floors, Huntington Hall served as the city’s main train station until it was destroyed in a 1904 fire.  In 1910, the Lowell YMCA was constructed in its place.  Moving to other quarters in 1975, the Y sold the parcel to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which demolished the building to make way for the Lowell Heritage State Park.

STOP 10 – Enterprise Bank Plaza, corner of Merrimack and Shattuck streets

America’s First City Library – Old City Hall – constructed in 1828 with city offices and a public meeting space and commercial space rented to private businesses on the first floor. In 1844, Lowell became the first city to establish a library solely from public funds. The library opened its doors here in the old City Hall in 1845. Three years later, Abraham Lincoln spoke here while stumping for presidential candidate Zachary Taylor – that same year the Boston Public Library was established.

STOP 11 – Cross Merrimack Street to Lucy Larcom Park

Lucy Larcom Park on Anne Street were added in 1909 to the park system, thanks to the generosity of the Locks and Canals Company. The land along the canal on Anne Street, once a part of the Joseph Fletcher Farm in Chelmsford, was sold to Kirk Boott and others in 1821. They in turn sold it to the Proprietors of the Locks and Canals in 1826. In 1844, it was transferred by the Locks and Canals Company to two trustees, who were to keep this lot of land “as ornamental ground forever,” the same being “dedicated and set apart by the grantors for the purpose of beautifying and ventilating the city.” In 1909, the Proprietors of the Locks and Canals appointed as successors to their two trustees of 1844 the chairman of the park commission and the mayor of the city, under a special act of the legislature. Thus, the small tract of land set apart in 1844 for beautifying and ventilating the city, as the first of its breathing-spaces, is almost the newest of the city’s parks.”

Lowell High School – Founded in 1831, America’s first integrated and coeducational public high school. Current buildings were constructed in 1890s, 1920s, 1970s, and 2020s.

Born in Boston, James Carney (1804-1869) moved to Lowell in 1828. He was one of the founders of the Lowell Institution for Savings and also the Lowell Cemetery. In 1858 Carney donated $200 to the city of Lowell to be used for medals to be awarded annually to the top six graduates – three male and three female – at Lowell High School. The Carney Medals continue to be awarded today.

Milton Bradley, Class of 1854 was a lithographer, draftsman, manufacturer and entrepreneur who became a game pioneer. He once published a portrait of candidate Abraham Lincoln and he developed a way to use his new lithography machine to conceive and create the “Checkered Game of Life”. The Milton Bradley company became the largest game manufacturer in the United States producing games like yahtzee, connect four, twister and battleship.

In 1960, Lowell High graduate Billy Sullivan purchased one of the charter franchises of the American Football League and ran the team, called the Boston (later “New England”) Patriots until he sold it in 1988.  William H. Sullivan Jr., one of the great visionaries in the history of college and professional sports, was the founder and original owner of the New England Patriots. Mr. Sullivan worked his way through Lowell High and Boston College writing for the Lowell Courier Citizen Evening Leader. In 1959, Mr. Sullivan started the Boston (New England) Patriots. He found a fan base and eventually a home in Foxboro where he built a stadium with private funds, a first in America during that era.

Ted Leonsis graduated from Lowell High in 1973. After graduating from Georgetown University, he founded America Online, Inc. (AOL). He also founded 6 personal computer magazines, authored 4 books, and worked on the introduction of IBM PC and the Apple MacIntosh. He is the majority owner of the NHL’s Washington Capitals hockey team and minority owner in the NBA’s Washington Wizards basketball team, WNBA’s Washington Mystics women’s basketball team, and the MCI Arena in downtown Washington, D.C.

Stop 12 – Down Merrimack Street to Bon Marche building – 159 Merrimack Street

Frederic Mitchell opened his first store in 1878 and was soon calling it the Bon Marché.  Advertised as the largest department store in New England, the Bon Marché sold quality consumer goods at prices that its mill-working customers could afford. This store consisted of four interconnected buildings built in various Victorian styles fronting on Merrimack and Kirk streets. The Bon Marche department store emphasized their “rock bottom” prices by calling attention to an actual piece of rock ledge that jutted out of the store’s floor.

When Frederic died in 1910, his sister Elizabeth Mitchell became president. It was unusual at this time for a woman to be in charge of a major store. Legend is this portrait portrayed her holding an infant. When she decided to exhibit the portrait in the store, the child was painted out, the dark shawl replaced it. The painting hung over the elevator on the main floor of the store.

In 1950, Jack Kerouac held a book signing here launching his first novel, The Town and the City. A Lowell native and a graduate of Lowell High, Kerouac introduced America to a new form of writing and became a leader of the post World War II Beat Generation. He is considered by literary scholars to be one of the preeminent writers of the past century.

The persistence of tough economic times in Lowell led the Bon Marché to finally close in 1976, after which the property was occupied by a Jordan Marsh store for another decade.  After several years of standing vacant, the 120,000 square foot building was purchased by the Lowell Development & Financial Corporation which enlisted two local developers, Nick Sarris and George Behrakis, to renovate the building and fill it with tenants ranging from Wang to the Lowell School Department.

Wang Laboratories was a computer company founded in 1951 by Dr. An Wang. It was located in Lowell from 1976 to 1997. During that time, it was one of the leading manufacturers of computers and word processors in America. At its peak in the 1980s, Wang employed 33,000 people and had annual revenues of $3 billion.

Wang Laboratories began construction of its new world headquarters on Chelmsford Street in 1980.  Soon three interconnected 12-story towers totaling 1.2 million square feet of space and costing $60 million made Wang the largest employer in Lowell.  After Wang’s 1992 bankruptcy, the towers sold at auction for $525,000.  Renamed Cross Point, the buildings were soon fully occupied and sold again in 2014 for $100 million.

Middlesex Community College was founded in Bedford, Mass in 1970 and expanded into Lowell in 1987, offering classes in the Wannalancit Mills. Sometime after 1990, MCC took over the former Wang Training Center at 33 Kearney Square which was since renamed the Cowan Building after long time college president Carole Cowan. The building is five stories tall and has 62,790 square feet of space.

STOP 13 – corner of Merrimack and John streets

CVS – 118 Merrimack Street (across street) When brothers Stanley and Sidney Goldstein and their friend Ralph Hoagland opened a store selling health and beauty products at affordable prices at 118 Merrimack Street in 1963, they called it CVS, short for Consumer Value Store, the first in a chain of now 7,000 stores with $100 billion in annual revenue.

STOP 14 – cross Merrimack, go to corner of Merrimac and Central (at Edible Arrangements)

Brendan Leahey, M.D.  Lowell High class of 1922 – Valedictorian and Carney Medalist. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Medical School.  He performed the first successful corneal transplant in New England at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston in 1938 and later founded the Leahey Eye Clinic. He taught Ophtalmology for 32 years at Harvard Medical School and made presentations on corneal transplantation to medical societies throughout the world. He died in 1992.

STOP 15 – Central at Middle (building across from Old Court)

On April 19, 1878, Charles Jasper Glidden and his brother J. Clark Glidden were up on that roof with what seemed to be hundreds of wires coming from every direction. Inside the building was Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson of the Bell Telephone Company. Charles Glidden had just proved to them that his switchboard could handle 50 telephone lines. Bell granted Glidden the rights to the telephone in Lowell and the Lowell Telephone Exchange soon opened and was the first Massachusetts exchange to be connected “long distance” to the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company in Boston. Eventually, the Lowell Telephone Exchange, as well as the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company and other new exchanges around the Commonwealth merged to become New England Telephone and Telegraph Company.

Although the technology worked well enough, Glidden grew increasingly frustrated with the teenaged boys who had been hired as operators of the phone exchange. The boys were constantly wrestling and fooling around when they should have been handling calls. One day Glidden remarked to his brother that in telegraph offices, female dispatchers seemed diligent and capable in their work. He wondered if they might be suited as telephone switchboard operators than were adolescent boys. Glidden called Alexander Graham Bell who liked the idea and soon hired Emma Nutt and her sister Stella as the first two female telephone operators in the world.

While not directly connected to the telephone, Charles Glidden was an innovator in another field of technology – the automobile. In 1902, Glidden and his wife Lucy were the first people to circle the world in an automobile, a feat they repeated in 1908.