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The Innovation Trail of Boston & Cambridge: See the past, present and future of science and technology, on foot

Posted by Scott Kirsner  July 8, 2013 10:10 AM

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Update: We're doing a one-time-only walking tour of the Innovation Trail, on November 10th, 2013. Joining me will be innovation historian and Framingham State prof Bob Krim and Daniel Berger-Jones, CEO of Cambridge Historical Tours. The group is limited to 30 participants... and all ticket proceeds will go to a STEM/entrepreneurship-oriented nonprofit that you get to choose. Tickets available here.


I've been thinking for a while about Ye Olde Freedom Trail...

It was conceived in 1951. The newest of its sites, the Bunker Hill Monument, was built in 1842, but it mainly focuses on Revolutionary Era Boston. Most people have walked it a few too many times, with kids and out-of-town relatives.

I thought the Freedom Trail could use a younger, hipper, science-and-technology oriented sibling. So in my Sunday Boston Globe column this week, I laid out an Innovation Trail of Boston and Cambridge.

Like the Freedom Trail, you can actually walk it. Unlike the Freedom Trail, all of the sites are free (except for the MIT Museum, which charges admission.)

And I also set up a guide to the Innovation Trail, using an iPhone app called Moveable Feast. The app is free (get it here), and once you have it, you can access the free "Innovation Trail" tour, which will guide you from place to place using a map, and also serve up audio, video, photos, and text related to each stop.

Obviously, I felt the urge to highlight every interesting spot related to science, technology, and entrepreneurship in the area, but I also wanted to design a tour that was walkable in less than a day. The stops are below, along with a few of the videos and audio clips that you can hear with the app.

Post a comment if you go on the tour... or think that other spots ought to be included. (Also worth a look are this map of Innovation in Cambridge from the Cambridge Historical Society, and Joost Bonsen's blog post about some important locations I didn't include.)

1. 30 School St., Boston (near the Walgreen's and the Irish Famine Memorial)

African-American draftsman and inventor Lewis Latimer once worked at a law firm here. He helped Alexander Graham-Bell create the drawings used for the telephone's patent filing, and later worked with Thomas Edison to extend the useful life of the light bulb. Latimer was also the first to come up with the idea for a threaded light bulb socket, without which we wouldn't have the light bulb joke ("How many ____s does it take to screw in a light bulb?") Latimer was born in Chelsea, just outside of Boston.

2. Corner of Court and Washington streets, Boston, near the Old State House

Call it Boston's most historic sewer. Few people remember that Thomas Edison began his career in Boston. He used a sewer at this intersection to dispose of explosive chemicals he used in his lab, pouring them into sarsaparilla bottles and lowering them down gently.

3. Outside the JFK Federal Building, Cambridge Street

Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, a professor at Boston University, once rented lab space in the same building here, where inventors cultivated ideas related to the new field of telecommunications. (The building is no longer standing, but look for a pedestal commemorating it, right outside the JFK Federal Building on Cambridge Street. The old street address of 109 Court is also no longer relevant.) The ground floor was home to a telegraph supply shop, the Radio Shack of its era.

4. 55 Fruit St., Boston — The Ether Dome (pictured above)

Inside the Bulfinch Building at Massachusetts General Hospital is a top-floor operating theater known as the Ether Dome. In 1846, surgeon John Collins Warren excised a tumor from the neck of a patient who had been knocked out using ether -- the first successful public demonstration of anesthesia. The Ether Dome is also home to the hospital's famous Egyptian mummy, Padihershef, who has received better medical care than any other ancient Egyptian. You can go up and visit the Ether Dome, as long as the space isn't being used for a lecture.

Robert Krim on the Ether Dome at Mass General Hospital - Innovation Trail of Boston & Cambridge from Scott Kirsner on Vimeo.

5. 2 North Grove St., Boston — Museum of Medical History and Innovation

One of Boston's newest museums, opened in April 2012, The Paul S. Russell, MD, Museum of Medical History and Innovation features permanent exhibits on the first floor, and changing exhibits on the second. (There's also a roof garden.) It is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

6. 12 Lime St., Boston — Where the father of venture capital lived

The former home of Harvard Business School professor Georges Doriot. Doriot, a native of France, started what is regarded as the first venture capital firm, Boston-based American Research and Development. Among its investments: Digital Equipment Corporation, which turned the firm's original $70,000 investment into more than $350 million. Among Doriot's famous quotes: "Someone, somewhere, is making a product that will make your product obsolete."

7. One Broadway and 101 Main St., Cambridge — Cambridge Innovation Center

The two buildings known as the Cambridge Innovation Center may be home to a denser collection of start-up companies and venture capital firm than anywhere else on the planet. The Cambridge Innovation Center, founded in 1999, also served as the first Boston foothold for tech giants like Google and Amazon. If it happens to be a Thursday afternoon or evening, you can enjoy free beer, soft drinks, educational workshops, and networking at One Broadway, in the Innovation Center's "Venture Cafe" space.

Tim Rowe of the Cambridge Innovation Center - Innovation Trail of Boston & Cambridge from Scott Kirsner on Vimeo.

8. 50 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, MIT Sloan School of Management

Founded in 1914, MIT's business school was recently ranked in the top five in the country, just behind the Wharton School in Philadelphia. Its alumni have started or run companies like Ford, Zipcar, Hewlett-Packard, Boeing, Genentech, Fast Company, and HubSpot. The first floor is open to the public, and offers nice views of the Boston skyline. There's also a cafeteria with seating.

9. 1 Amherst St., Cambridge — MIT Trust Center for Entrepreneurship

MIT's Trust Center for Entrepreneurship is the place where many student entrepreneurs learn start-up skills and work on their own ventures, using free office space. MIT's living alumni have founded more than 25,000 companies that employ more than 3 million people. Their combined annual revenues are nearly $2 trillion.

10. 75 Amherst St., Cambridge — MIT Media Lab

One of MIT's best-known research labs has spawned products like Lego's Mindstorms robotics kit and companies like Harmonix Music Systems, located in Central Square, makers of the game "Rock Band." A first floor exhibition space, showcasing the work of professors and students, is open to the public. The building at 75 Amherst Street is by Fumihiko Maki, and it opened in 2010. The lab's earlier building behind it is by MIT alumnus I.M. Pei. (Because of its white tile exterior, students sometimes call it the "Pei Toilet.")

11. 500 Kendall St., Cambridge — Genzyme's headquarters

Founded in 1981 with a focus on treating extremely rare diseases, Genzyme was part of the first wave of biotechnology companies. Its headquarters here is an energy-sipping "green" building. Genzyme has a manufacturing plant in Allston along Storrow Drive, and a research and development office in Framingham. The company is now part of the French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi, which acquired it for $20 billion in 2011. You can enter the lobby for a look at the soaring atrium.

12. One Cambridge Center, Cambridge — Microsoft Cambridge

This is one of two large Microsoft facilities in Kendall Square, which house a research team as well as new product development and regional sales. Microsoft set up the outpost after acquiring several local software companies, though Microsoft itself was born in Cambridge the mid-1970s, while co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen were living here. (It later moved to Albuquerque and then the Seattle area.) This building is also home to the TechStars Boston "accelerator' program for entrepreneurs.

13. Outside the Kendall Square Marriott, Cambridge — Entrepreneur Walk of Fame

Created in 2011, the Entrepreneur Walk of Fame recognizes founders like Steve Jobs of Apple and Mitch Kapor of Lotus Development Corp.

14. 5 Cambridge Center, Cambridge — Google's local office

Google developed key parts of its Android mobile operating system in Kendall Square, and in 2011 the company paid $700 million for ITA Software, a Cambridge start-up specializing in airfare search. The office here includes both sales and engineering teams, as well as executives from Google's venture capital arm. As with Google's headquarters in California, employees enjoy free lunch and snacks every day.

Steve Vinter of Google Cambridge - Innovation Trail of Boston & Cambridge from Scott Kirsner on Vimeo.

15. 8 Cambridge Center, Cambridge — Akamai's headquarters

Founded in 1998 by MIT students and a professor, Akamai Technologies uses 127,000 servers around the world to help its customers speed the delivery of digital content like web pages and videos. The company enjoyed one of the most successful IPOs of the dot-com era in 1999, when its stock rose 458 percent on its first day of trading. Tom Leighton, the MIT math professor who helped start the company, is currently CEO. Co-founder Danny Lewin, a former Israel special forces officer, was killed on September 11th as he left Boston on a business trip; it is believed he attempted to foil the hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center.

Akamai's Network Operations Command Center in Kendall Square - Innovation Trail of Boston & Cambridge from Scott Kirsner on Vimeo.

16. 10 Cambridge Center, Cambridge — Biogen Idec's headquarters

Biogen Idec's major products treat multiple sclerosis. The company was started in 1978, and two of its founders, Walter Gilbert and Phillip Sharp, have won Nobel Prizes.

Research chief Doug Williams of Biogen Idec - Innovation Trail of Boston & Cambridge from Scott Kirsner on Vimeo.

17. 7 Cambridge Center, Cambridge — DNAtrium

The DNAtrium at the Broad Institute offers free, interactive exhibits exploring new insights into human biology, and how they lead to treatments. (Broad, incidentally, is pronounced to rhyme with "road.")

18. 500 Main St. Cambridge — MIT Koch Institute

MIT's Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research works on new approaches to treating cancer, like nano-scale "smart bombs" that can find and destroy tumors with fewer side effects. Among its best-known researchers are Bob Langer, who focuses on drug delivery technologies, and Phillip Sharp, one of the co-founders of BiogenIdec. (Langer is on the left in the third picture.) The lobby is open to the public, with biologically-inspired artwork on display, and it features a cafe.

19. 32 Vassar St., Cambridge — MIT Stata Center

Inside the Stata Center are labs focused on computer science, artificial intelligence, and robotics (they gave birth to iRobot Corporation), and a small, ground floor exhibit about student "hacks" (harmless pranks) through the years. The creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, works here, as does linguist Noam Chomsky and security guru Ron Rivest, a founder of RSA Security. The building, by Frank Gehry, is located on the site of what had been known as Building 20, or the Rad Lab, which conducted pivotal research on radar technology before and during World War II. Half of the radar systems deployed by the U.S. military during the war were designed here. The Stata Center, unfortunately, was the site of the 2013 shooting of campus police officer Sean Collier by the brothers suspected of committing the Boston Marathon bombings. You can enter the first floor for a look around; there's also a cafeteria and coffee bar. CSAIL, by the way, stands for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

20. 250 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge — Novartis Institutes

One of Cambridge's best examples of architectural re-use: the former NECCO candy factory is now the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, the main research operation for the Swiss pharmaceutical company. (Oh, and the building includes a Wonka-esque set of glass elevators.) Look for the double-helix water tower on the building's roof. It used to be painted like a roll of NECCO wafer candy.

21. 265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge — MIT Museum & Tech Model Railroad Club

Open daily, The MIT Museum showcases technologies ranging from the slide rule to expressive robots, as well as archives from the Polaroid Corporation, founded just a few blocks away. It's also home to the world's biggest collection of holograms. Just to the right of the museum's main entrance is the Tech Model Railroad Club, one of the oldest clubs at MIT. It is sometimes open to the public, but also has a viewing window inside the building that offers a glimpse of the current train layout. The original definition of word "hacker" -- "someone who applies ingenuity to create a clever result" -- and the notion of "hacker culture" sprang from the club in the 1950s. "The essence of a 'hack,' according to the club's website, "is that it is done quickly, and is usually inelegant."

The Freedom Trail peters out in Charlestown, far from an MBTA stop. The Innovation Trail is more considerate: You end up just about three blocks from the Central Square T station. And even closer are two popular hangouts for MIT smarties and the start-up set: Miracle of Science (321 Massachusetts Avenue), for those who’d like a beer, or Toscanini (899 Main Street) if you’d prefer a scoop of ginger snap molasses ice cream.

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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