Lowell through the Lens

This is a guest post by Jessica K. Wilson, Executive Director of Lowell Telecommunications Corporation—the  American Textile History Museum‘s  community partner in the Places of Invention (POI) Affiliates Project

 

We were thrilled when our friends at the American Textile History Museum (ATHM) approached us to be a part of the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention Affiliates Project. It seemed a natural fit. For nearly twenty years, the Lowell Telecommunications Corporation—or LTC, as our members lovingly call us—has been a place where the Lowell community has visually translated their stories and ideas into multimedia shared worldwide.

We’re what in the 1970s was called a public access television station and in the late 1990s and early 2000s a community media center. Now with the advent of a movement towards all things local, we like to think of ourselves as a farm where we grow local video by doing what we do best and most often: train people from throughout the city to produce digital film and video using professional media equipment.

Locally-made video introduction to LTC featuring members of the Lowell community

LTC’s goal is to help our citizens communicate with the largest possible audience—to say something about the space they live in, people they encounter, and things they value in our community. Once this was only possible over Lowell’s cable TV broadcast signal; now with tools like YouTube and iMovie, online broadcast channels are seemingly infinite.

We’re delighted that the Smithsonian’s POI Affiliates Project provides an opportunity to take Lowell’s unique story to an even broader audience. Working with ATHM, we’re developing videos that will become part of the interactive map in the POI exhibition and website. One of the things we’re particularly interested is the way historic technology continues to shape contemporary innovation in Lowell. Textile mills and other spaces are used and re-used for new purposes. The city’s physical advantages and constraints inspire—and require—new solutions. Our POI Affiliate team plans to develop video topics around these themes.  

LTC is moving full-steam ahead. Firm believers that anyone can be a video producer with the right education, we have taken the same approach to becoming local historians. Our staff has donned our “historian” hats and are enlisting members of the Lowell community in our documentary efforts. Conversations with ATHM’s David Unger, Director of Interpretation, have made us think more deeply about the 19th-century textile industry and the way it affects city growth today—economically, demographically, and architecturally. We look forward to working with the Museum and sharing our findings with you.

LTC’s recent tour of Lowell’s City Hall building shows how it has been used and re-used to meet the changing needs of city residents.

 

On the Road with Smithsonian Affiliations: Places of Invention in Western Massachusetts

This is a guest post by Jennifer Brundage, a National Outreach Manager for Smithsonian Affiliations and a Lemelson Center Advisory Committee member.

Working in a Smithsonian office devoted to national outreach, I am very fortunate to travel a lot for my job.  My department, Smithsonian Affiliations, fosters long-term collaborative partnerships with museums and cultural institutions nationwide. In our ongoing quest to identify potential partners, I recently found myself traversing western Massachusetts. Both of the museums I visited have recently opened exhibitions that interpret their cities and regions as centers of invention. Having keenly followed the Lemelson Center’s research on the relationship between innovation and location for their upcoming Places of Invention (POI) exhibition, I was struck (and inspired) by how many similar characteristics were highlighted in the museums I visited.

A glimpse at the Museum of Springfield History's exhibition on the city's history of innovation. Photo by Jennifer Brundage.

The Springfield Museums’ new, recently opened Museum of Springfield History documents the many innovations that sprang from this city. Through the lens of POI, I immediately wondered, Why here? The answer was the Springfield Armory. The Springfield site was chosen for an armory in 1777 by General George Washington and closed during the Vietnam War in 1968. (Because the Harper’s Ferry Armory and Arsenal was destroyed during the Civil War by another Springfield native, abolitionist John Brown, the Springfield Armory was America’s first, and last, federal armory.) As is well-documented by the POI team, research and development funded by the government is often a magnet for invention—in this case, for cutting-edge engineering and manufacturing processes. Because of the need to produce firearms quickly and easily during the War of 1812, the Springfield Armory combined the use of interchangeable parts (already done in France), with a rapid method of production. The result, called the “American System,” was precise mass production that revolutionized industry worldwide. (The Springfield Armory is now a National Historic Site.)

"Springfield Bicycle Club--Bicycle Camp--Exhibition and Tournament, Springfield, Mass, U.S.A., Sept. 18, 19, 20, 1883." Color lithograph by Milton Bradley and Co., Springfield, Massachusetts. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Not only did the Armory’s workers contribute to this culture of innovation, but so did the network of contractors in the surrounding region. During the Civil War-era, inventor Milton Bradley moved to Springfield to set up the state’s first color lithography shop. Looking for additional purposes for his lithography machine, Bradley created a board game called “The Checkered Game of Life,” a popular game, now revised, that is still available today. Seeing bored Civil War soldiers stationed in Springfield, Bradley also began to produce chess, checkers and backgammon sets. A board game empire was born. The Milton Bradley Company also was the first American company to make croquet sets.

Board games weren’t the only entertainment to be born in Springfield. Basketball originated here as well, in 1891. A physical education teacher at the YMCA International Training School, James Naismith, introduced the game to his class of 18 young men (literally using a basket tacked to a balcony 10 feet above ground). Within three years, it was being played around the world.

Later, bicycle makers Charles and Frank Duryea, also of Springfield, founded the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1896, one of the first companies to build and sell gasoline powered vehicles. (A Duryea automobile is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.)

Dr. Seuss and the Cat and the Hat, Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden at the Springfield Museums. Photograph by Jennifer Brundage.

Springfield’s most famous native son, though, might be Theodor Geisel—otherwise known as Dr. Seuss. The Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden at the Springfield Museums does a great job of juxtaposing the historic images of Springfield’s main street that inspired Geisel with the fanciful illustrations of houses, cars, and people as they were ultimately re-imagined in the creative author’s books.

An hour away in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the Berkshire Museum presents its “hometown” inventors in the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation. As early as the Revolutionary War, Stephen Crane, owner of the Liberty Paper Mill in Boston, was making paper from cotton—paper that fueled the revolution through its use in patriotic newspapers and broadsides. By 1799, his son Zenas Crane founded his own paper mill, Crane & Co., at an ideal spot on the Housatonic River in Dalton, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires.

The Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Photo by Jennifer Brundage.

Even though it was eventually discovered that pulp from trees made paper production cheaper, Zenas Crane and his sons continued to insist on using only waste cotton as a suitable raw material. In 1849, they introduced silk threads into the fiber of bank-bill paper, an invention designed to prevent counterfeiting currency. Their dedication to tradition as well as innovation paid off handsomely. In 1879, Crane & Co. won the first contract to produce the paper for the United States currency. Our money is still printed on paper printed by Crane, which continues to introduce technical innovations that protect the security of currencies worldwide.

The Berkshire Museum's invention curriculum--definitely try this at home! Photo by Jennifer Brundage.

Another phenomenon documented by the POI team is the way in which an area’s creative community is fed by, and in turn, nourished by, its place of invention. This is certainly true in the Berkshires, home to many of America’s greatest artists and thinkers. It is in the land-locked Berkshires that Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, where Norman Rockwell painted some of his most iconic images of America, and where Edith Wharton created the luxurious environment that informed her best-selling novel, The House of Mirth. This mix of creativity and invention is captured so well in the Berkshire Museum’s “Use Your Noodle” elementary school curriculum. Modeling the invention process itself, a box of noodles challenges students to take an everyday object—pasta—and engineer models for math, physics, geometry problems and more.

It’s exciting to experience the truth of the Lemelson Center’s assertion that, while they have chosen historic and contemporary examples for their exhibition, invention can happen anywhere. Every place with the right mix of inventive people, ready resources, and inspiring surroundings is a potential place of invention. Submit your stories and tell us about your own place of invention!