Bridging the innovation gap

(Nicole Vautrin)
By June Wulff
Globe Staff / January 15, 2011

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We didn’t see “Do not touch’’ signs at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation. In fact, staff members encouraged us to touch the steam engines, generators, bicycles, tools, and other inventions that make this place a great family destination.

Before you enter the museum, a short walk on the wooden bridge over the Charles River brings you back to 19th-century Waltham when the mill girls headed to work at the Boston Manufacturing Company textile mill complex.

Francis Cabot Lowell (namesake of another industrial city) went to England, memorized plans for power looms, and returned home to develop the first mill in the United States where everything was processed from start to finish. Young women turned raw cotton into a finished product all within one complex.

“I like this place because you can touch everything’’ says Cam, who studies a planer and is soon joined by a young volunteer who shows us how the belts, pulleys, levers, and other parts work. The industrial age is well represented in this brick building by a machine that made paper bags, an Orient Runabout car, Orient bicycles, a display from the Waltham Watch Company, a 19th-century fire engine, tools, and a Victorian telephone booth and switchboard that connected folks long before the cellphone. “This is kind of what I imagine Santa’s workshop to be,’’ comments Elise, who enjoys looking at the innards of old watches in the upstairs gallery.

There’s a fabulous exhibit running through May 10 called “Steampunk, Form & Function: An Exhibition of Innovation, Invention & Gadgetry.’’ A brochure describes steampunk as an “alternate history where modern technology and Victorian life meet.’’ Cool stuff in this Jules Verne and H.G. Wells-inspired world includes the Steampunk Mantle Clock iPod player, “Create Life’’ pinball machine with colorful, liquid-filled beakers, and a Steampunk Etch-A-Sketch.

If you want a great way to bridge the generation gap, start with that short walk over the bridge.

154 Moody St., Waltham (park at 19 Pine St.). Thurs-Sat from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $5, $3 students and seniors, free under 6. 781-893-5410.

June Wulff can be reached at

WHO: g writer June Wulff, husband Jim, son Cam, daughter Elise, and Sarah Crane

WHAT: An “industrial-strength museum experience’’

WHERE: Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, Waltham