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A history of firsts

At sea, over the airwaves, and in the kitchen, region boasts sturdy tradition of cutting-edge innovation

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Manny Veiga
Globe Correspondent / July 3, 2008

Florence spurred the cultural growth of 14th-century Europe. Silicon Valley has produced many of the major advances in computer science over the past half century. And Boston's southern suburbs? Well, the region may not be as well known, but it, too, has given its share of important innovations.

The South Shore can go toe-to-toe with any region in the world in terms of major developments in human history, according to Bob Krim of the Boston History and Innovation Collaborative.

From the disposable safety razor - dreamed up in the late 1890s by King Gillette while he was staying with family on Nantasket Beach in Hull - to the idea of creating a chain of doughnut stores, starting with the first Dunkin' Donuts on Route 3A in Quincy in 1950, the region has led in a variety of "firsts."

It probably comes as no surprise to area residents that Dunkin' Donuts, started by William Rosenberg, is the world's largest doughnut chain.

"The South Shore has been pretty important as an area that has accomplished major breakthroughs that have changed the nation and the world over the last 300 to 400 years," said Krim.

The history of regional firsts began with the marine industry.

In the 1700s, the North River, which runs through Hanover, Scituate, Pembroke, Marshfield, and Norwell, was recognized as one of the top shipbuilding sites in the world. North River ships were known worldwide for their quality, built with iron ore found in surrounding marshes and from pine trees in nearby woods.

The Columbia, built in Briggs Shipyard at Hobart's Landing in Scituate, was the first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe, in 1790.

The United States Life-Saving Service began with Hull farmers who would jump in boats at the sight of a shipwreck and row out to help drowning sailors. The group became a US government commisioned service in 1889, and then became the US Coast Guard in 1915.

The Fore River Shipyard in Quincy built US warships and submarines. In 1957, Fore River laid the keel on the USS Long Beach, a guided missile cruiser and the world's first nuclear-powered surface combatant.

Farther west, an engineer named William Otis did his part to shape the New England landscape - literally. From his Canton workshop, and with help from Paul Revere's town copper mill, Otis developed a sophisticated steam shovel that would help level the hills south of Worcester so a rail bed could be laid.

Otis Shovels were also used to fill in the Back Bay area of Boston.

Along the shoreline in Marshfield, Reginald Fessenden, once a protege of Thomas Edison, made his landmark achievement on Christmas Eve in 1906: He succeeded in transmitting the first radio broadcast, from his radio tower on Brant Rock.

Fessenden would transmit signals from the tower in an attempt to send radio waves across the Atlantic to Scotland. His program - mostly just Christmas carols - finally found an audience that Christmas Eve when it was picked up on ship radios that were normally used for relaying Morse code.

Fessenden would go on to develop sonar for ships and submarines and was at the cutting edge of radio transmission and communication in the early 20th century.

Two decades later, a diagnosis for syphilis became one of the region's contributions to health and science.

Dr. William Hinton, a native of Chicago and a son of former slaves, came to Boston to attend Harvard Medical School. He graduated in 1912 and stayed in the area, moving to Canton and working in Boston hospitals. He taught at Tufts University and later would become the first tenured African-American professor at Harvard.

In 1927, Hinton changed the face of modern medicine by developing a test that would diagnose syphilis, which at the time was among the top scourges in the United States. His accomplishment earned him international acclaim, and the state labs in Jamaica Plain were recently named in his honor.

In the 1930s, Ruth Wakefield of Whitman cooked up another big South Shore innovation: the chocolate chip cookie.

"Not every invention is one that people think others will want," said Krim. Wakefield thought her cookie was one for the reject pile. She had been experimenting with recipes using Baker's Chocolate, which was America's first chocolate company and was based on the Milton-Dorchester line.

One day she ran out of Baker's Chocolate and instead, as the story goes, started dropping semisweet chocolate morsels - ones she received as a gift from Andrew Nestle - into the dough. Thinking that the morsels would melt into the batter and make a chocolate cookie, Wakefield was surprised to see the chips keep their shape. She at first considered the cookie a flop, but others disagreed.

She sold her first tollhouse cookie in 1937 and worked with Nestle to create a brand that has earned an enduring place in American food culture - not to mention our kitchens.

The spirit of innovation continues today, although it will be up to history to judge the value.

Golfers would probably applaud the contribution of Dr. Venanzio Cardarelli of Plymouth, inventor of the Aero-Tee golf tee.

The polycarbonate tee - its tooth shape is fitting, given that Cardarelli is a dentist - allows air to pass under the ball, improving accuracy, distance, and loft, he says.

Cardarelli came up with idea "just by making observations," he said.

He watched the flight of the ball off wooden tees, studied golfers' abilities to maintain consistent swings with the ball at various heights, and took a number of anatomic and physical observations into consideration.

Cardarelli's tee - perhaps the most significant innovation since the tee was created in 1899 by another Boston-area dentist, George F. Grant - has been approved for professional use by the United States Golf Association.

Cardarelli says he will release the next wave of Aero-Tees, made with of an even more durable material, this summer.

Manny Veiga can be reached at zmv818@gmail.com.

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