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Recasting Paul Revere as high-tech pioneer

Olin professor’s book finds a complex mix

Robert Martello began studying Paul Revere for his doctoral thesis. Robert Martello began studying Paul Revere for his doctoral thesis. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / January 9, 2011

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Paul Revere’s contributions to history were only beginning with his famous midnight ride to Lexington on the eve of the American Revolution.

The patriotic silversmith had a crucial — and possibly more important — role as an entrepreneur and industrialist, leading post-Colonial America into an early industrial-scale capitalism, according to a new book by Robert Martello, a professor at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham.

“He was a real visionary,’’ Martello said. “He wanted more than anything to break into the upper classes, to be considered a gentleman, but fortunately for America he didn’t.’’

Most people know Revere was a successful North End silversmith who employed many apprentices and craftsmen. Fewer know that he also cast bronze cannons and church bells, learned to melt iron and then copper, and pioneered metal pressing and sheeting processes.

“Someone like Revere was crucial for American development. He and a few others in Boston were instrumental in helping close the technology gap’’ between the brand-new United States and England, said Martello.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Revere moved his operations to Canton, became an early government contractor providing a new process to make copper sheeting to line the hulls of US Navy war ships, and partnered with Robert Fulton to make copper boilers for steamships.

“I believe he would have done just about all of these things even if he had not ridden the horse,’’ said Martello, who began the research for his book, “Midnight Ride, Industrial Dawn: Paul Revere and the Growth of American Enterprise,’’ a decade ago while pursuing his doctorate at MIT in the history and social study of science and technology.

Revere’s ride from Boston on April 18, 1775, warning colonists that the occupying British army intended to march on Concord to secure an arms cache, made him famous only after his death, in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic 1860 poem.

There is a lot more to his story than what most children learn in their history books, said David Wood, curator of the Concord Museum, which houses one of the famous lanterns hanging in the Old North Church’s steeple on the night of the famous ride.

“Revere came within an eyelash of being Jay Gould, but it didn’t quite work out,’’ said Wood, referring to the 19th-century speculator, railroad speculator, and robber baron. “He was pursuing a transition away from the [craftsman’s] bench that was the goal of his whole generation’’ of artisans.

Revere’s rise to fame as the most famous midnight rider, overshadowing young shoemaker William Dawes, was possible in large part because of his role as a prominent artisan, Martello wrote.

As a successful silversmith, he occupied a middle rank in Colonial American society — well connected to Boston’s working class, but respected by the city’s gentlemen.

Revere was viewed as a credible messenger by all levels of society, an ideal choice for someone charged with the role of riding out from Boston to warn the patriots of the approaching British.

“You wouldn’t want John Hancock knocking on people’s doors. He wouldn’t know where to go or who to talk to,’’ Martello said.

Revere nursed a lifelong ambition to join the upper classes, but ultimately lacked the connections and background to become a merchant, or receive a prestigious government appointment, he said.

Despite Revere’s service in the American Revolution, historical documents in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection show that he was rejected as a candidate for director of the US Mint, and was unable to get a series of loans and contracts he sought to expand his business operations.

Nina Zannieri, executive director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association, which oversees the Paul Revere House in Boston’s North End, said the tourist attraction tries to introduce visitors to the business aspects of Revere’s life.

“People seem to know two things about Paul Revere — the ride and the silver,’’ Zannieri said of the 250,000 tourists who annually visit the Paul Revere House, the only residence on Boston’s Freedom Trail.

But his postwar business innovations are “in many ways Revere’s claim to fame, and the thing that made Revere special,’’ she said.

The Revere Memorial Association supported Martello’s research and the book — published in November by Johns Hopkins University Press — with a grant, she said.

Much research is ongoing about the midnight ride and start of the American Revolution, Zannieri said, but Martello “was the first person to put a scholarly spin on this area of Revere’s life, which we think is great.’’

Revere’s driving ambition to expand his business beyond silvercraft, first into bronze to provide local churches with bells (First Parish in Needham is among several that have an original Revere bell) and then into other metal-processing businesses, made him a forerunner of corporate ownership.

The success of the American Revolution created a groundswell of interest in entrepreneurship, self-determination, and barrier-breaking, which helped people who, like Revere, were eager to use new technologies and build new industries, Martello said.

Zannieri said she hopes that more people become interested in the whole Paul Revere.

“He was an interesting man, a hard worker, creative, and not all of his business ventures were successful,’’ she said.

“His social status and lack of college education were barriers. Revere may have been involved with the heads of the Revolution — but he was still an artisan and not a Harvard guy.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

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