From the Tea Party till our modern days, Boston has always nurtured rebellions who challenged the status quo and inspired to build foundational truths. With the establishment of higher education, such mindset gave birth to unparalleled innovations ushering the world into heights never thought possible before. Below we highlight the history of Boston Innovation and honor what this city had to offer. Subscribe to receive our monthly innovation story highlight.
From slave to saviour, Onesimus, whose name translates to “useful” – is a West-African man who spurred the first recorded innoculations in 18th century smallpox-ridden Boston. Kidnapped from his hometown and sold into Massachusetts Bay Colony, Onesimus’ revolutionary practices contributed to the eradication of the disease and the development of the first vaccine in Western medicine 75 years later.
Samuel Morse, a Charleston native, met Charles Thomas Jackson of Boston, a man well-versed in electromagnetism, while returning to the United States by ship from Europe in 1832. After witnessing several experiments with Jackson's electromagnet, Morse decided to set aside the painting he was working on 'The Gallery of the Louvre', and devise the concept of a single wire telegraph. This meeting of chance, would eventually lead to 'Morse code', the world's most widely used telegraphy language- it remains the industry standard for rhythmic transmissions of data today.
There are three things you cannot escape in life –– death, taxes and vulcanized rubber. Think bowling balls, tires, hockey pucks and the soles of your shoes. In 1839, Charles Goodyear discovered this material when accidentally dropping rubber and sulfur in a hot frying pan. Realizing that the rubber does not melt, but instead, hardens, Goodyear discovered a new durable commercial product.
Spencer Massachusetts born Elias Howe believed in ease and efficiency. He was determined to invent a method to out-sew the fastest hand. In 1845, he launched the first lockstitch sewing machine, which radically shifted domestic labor and revolutionized the garment industry.
“Gentlemen! This Is No Humbug” announced, John Collins Warren, after publicly administering the first successful use of anesthesia during The Ether Dome surgery in October 1846, at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. Warren’s pain-free demonstration was a game-changer for the way physicians cared for patients around the world.
Before he invented the light bulb, Thomas Edison flopped, fiddled and failed. The greatest American Inventor was once 22 and working in Boston for the Western Union Company. On the side, he launched his first invention, the vote counting machine. Despite its use in today’s presidential elections, it was considered a failure by his contemporaries, leading Edison to vow, “never waste time inventing things that people would not want to buy.
From defying MIT’s male-only admissions acceptance to climbing in a petticoat to collect research samples, Ellen Swallow Richards pioneered home economics and environmental science and engineering. Richard’s pioneering study of drinking water in Massachusetts, led to the establishment of water-quality standards and modern sewage treatment plants.
While the true inventor of the telephone is a subject of debate, the patent for the device was ultimately granted to Alexander Graham Bell while he was a faculty member at Boston University [which was funding his research]. The Scottish-born American scientist and teacher at the Boston School for Dead Mutes, was inspired to work on 'electronic speech' while visiting his hearing-impaired mother. Coincidentally, Bell's wife was also hearing impaired. His fascination with speech and sound ultimately led to his invention of the 'electrical speech machine' otherwise known as the first telephone.
Epidemiologist and bacteriologist, William Thompson Sedgwick, also known as the Architect of Public Health, shaped the theory and practice of sanitary science. Sedgwick’s dedication to sewage experimentation and water purification led him to locate the severe typhoid epidemic to the pollution in the Merrimack River. This discovery was published in 1902, after he had launched the first curriculum in sanitary engineering at MIT, and co-founded one of the nation's first ever public health schools, the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers in 1913
The space race would never have been won without the enterprising Robert Goddard, otherwise known as, the Father of Modern Rocketry, who created and built the world's first liquid-fueled rocket in 1914 while at Clark University in Massachusetts. The Worcester born physicist and professor was ridiculed for his revolutionary research, till he became known as the man who ushered us into the Space Age.
Bonded by their love of filmmaking and science, MIT graduates class of 1904, Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock, with their business partner W. Burton Wescott, invented processes for creating films in color. Together, they founded Technicolor in 1915, a company used for such groundbreaking films as The Wizard of Oz and Fantasia. In 1935, the film “Becky Sharp” was the first full-length three-color movie; five years later, Technicolor won an Oscar for the color photography in “Gone With the Wind.” And, yes, the “tech” in Technicolor was Kalmus’s tip of the hat to his alma mater.
We have been freezing foods as a way of preservation since 1000 B.C., when the Chinese used ice cellars to keep their goods stored. However, after observing how indigenous Canadians freeze their fish, Clarence Birdseye moved to Gloucester and developed a freezing process that could deliver food with its original taste- tackling problems such as how could he freeze it quickly without deforming the food tissue? What kind of packaging would he use? What method would he use to convey the goods? Birdseye's freezing method ultimately heralded a new era of diet into the industrialized world.
The oil future was ultimately unlocked by MIT chemical engineers H.C. Weber and Herman P. Meissner. In the 1930s, with an increased demand for gasoline, Meissner soon discovered there was no accurate method to calculate the pressure-volume-temperature (PVT) relationship for gas mixtures at elevated temperatures and pressures. However, working in conjunction with Weber and longtime MIT Chemical engineering professor Hoyt C. Hottel, Meissner figured out how to crack oil into smaller molecules, essentially setting the foundations for the modern oil industry.
During World War II, MIT graduate researcher and later on nuclear engineering professor Manson Benedict developed a novel gaseous diffusion method for separating isotopes of uranium. Although this breakthrough discovery was used to build the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. Benedict devoted the rest of his life to advocating for the peaceful use of atomic energy and its ability to sustainably power the world.
Other than tending to his vegetable garden, editing movies and building kayaks and coffee tables, Professor Hoyt C. Hottel, also found the time to be a leading solar energy pioneer and MIT chemical engineering professor. Data from Hottel’s 1930’s R&D program at MIT provided the foundation of today’s practices and understanding of energy, radiant heat transfer, fuels and combustion. The Department of Energy is currently shifting to incorporate practices from Hottel’s 1939 design, Solar 1 –– the first solar-powered house ever built.
From developing metal alloys for thermocouples, to a solar distillation device for sailors and soldiers during WWII, to later developing solar-powered ovens- Inventors Hall of Famer, Maria Telkes, aka the ‘Sun Queen’ has received the highest recognition for her work in solar with the creation of solar power storage. At MIT, Telkes worked on the Dover Sun House, which employed a method using sodium sulfates to store energy from the sun. As the only woman on the MIT team, and an ardent believer in solar energy, Telkes continued her work with renewables in an independent capacity even after the conclusion of her project with the MIT solar fund.
Developed by MIT Radiation Laboratory, misleadingly named by design, the revolutionary microwave radar technology created over 100 radars, including costal defence systems, the early warning radar, long-range navigations systems and airborn-bombing radar. Along with this defining invention, it was also a unique demonstration of collaboration between government, industry and academia. It is often said, although the atom bomb ended WWII, it was the radar that ultimately won it!
"“We arrived at the night club and Armstrong was already playing. I introduced Bob to my friend saying, “This is Bob Woodward.” My friend turned around impatiently, shook his hand, and returned his attention to the music. I said, “Look, Bill, Bob Woodward is to organic chemistry what Louis is to the trumpet!”. Boston-born, grandfather of organic chemistry, Robert Woodward birthed a new era of synthesis. With careful applications of the principles of physical organic chemistry, Wooward synthesized many complex natural products that we use today, including quinine, cholesterol, cortisone, strychnine, lysergic acid, reserpine, chlorophyll, cephalosporin, and colchicine.
“When you have a child, you don’t ask what return you can expect... if you build great businesses, returns will come.” said French-American, dean of Harvard and father of venture capital, Georges Doriot. Founding the first firm in 1946, American Research and Development Corporation (ARDC), the ex military director and Harvard professor demonstrated major success when his 1957 investment of $70,000 in 'Digital Equipment Corporation' would be valued at over $355 million after the company's initial public offering in 1968.
While at Harvard University, Edwin Land was so fascinated by polarized light that he took a leave of absence for intensive study and experimentation. By 1932, Land succeeded in aligning and embedding submicroscopic crystals into a sheet of plastic- a serious advancement at the time. After several years of different applications, including material in sunglasses, camera filters, and even military equipment during WWII, Land began work on an instantaneous developing film that was capable of producing a finished print in 60 seconds. The camera, which became better known by the name of Land's company, Polaroid, was the first so-called instant camera.
An accidental invention by self-taught scientist Percy Spencer, the primary school dropout discovered the technology when a chocolate bar melted in his pocket during an experiment with a magnetron. Uneducated and orphaned as a child, Spencer led some of the biggest breakthroughs at Raytheon, which introduced the commercial microwave in 1947. Percy’s unique ability to problem solve was attributed to his 'limitations' as someone who is self-taught. By not knowing what he doesn't know, he was not constrained as others in his quest for discovery or as his peers at MIT would say "The educated scientist knows many things won't work. Percy doesn't know what can't be done."
"I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE!!!" Oil prospecting used to be a bloody and brutal roulette business. Hitting that black gold relied more on luck than any science up until around 1948, when researchers at MIT forever changed the course of history. Using seismic activity as an indicator of where to drill for oil, modern oil prospecting was born.
Nebraska-born MIT computer engineer and systems scientist Jay Wright Forrester revolutionized memory storage. While at the Navy, Forrester realized the severe bottlenecks with memory storage systems at the time, and was the first to devise a system that stored information in 3-Dimensions, a game changer in the world of system dynamics. From the cattle-ranch to being credited as the father of systems dynamics, Forrester catalyzed the way we use systems engineering to solve non-engineering problems.
Today’s understanding of viruses and treatment was born in the Boston Lab of John Enders, at the hands of three American virologists, John Enders, Thomas Weller and Frederick Robbins. While at the Boston Children's Hospital, the trio were succesfully able to grow the virus in skin culture and muscle tissue of a human embryo- in a very forunate happenstance. This discovery, led to the development and mass production of two vaccines.
Before he landed us on the moon, father of inertial navigation, Charles Draper’s eye was set on airplanes. Affectionately known as “Doc”, the MIT professor went on to successfully realize a flight from Hanscom Air Force Base to LA using a 'novel inertial guidance system' that he developed to guide the plane using istruments alone. Doc revolutionised and implemented guidance systems in aircrafts, submarines and ultimately, space vehicles. Without this technology, pilots can not navigate independently.
“Unless we can explain the mind in terms of things that have no thoughts or feelings of their own, we'll only have gone around in a circle” - Marvin Minksy. As one of the most profound mysteries in science, Minsky was extremely curious about the human mind. After a double mathematics major from Harvard and Princeton, Minsky set out to build a machine with the capability of learning via an artificial neural network, a completely novel concept at the time. In 1951, after receiving help from Harvard psychologist George Miller, Minsky secured the funding to return to Boston and build his device.
The first successful transplant occurred at the Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston by Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, Dr Joseph Murray. Murray transplanted a kidney to terminally ill navy sailor Richard Herrick, after receiving it as a donation from his twin brother Ronald Herrick. Up until 1954, transplant surgery meant a new organ with the side effect of about 30 days to live, Dr Murray was able to successfully extend Richard's life by another 8 years! Through the use of immunosuppressive drugs, Murray was later able to carry out transplants between unrelated donors- this proved to be one of the biggest game changing medical breakthroughs for humanity.
In 1946, organic chemist John Clark Sheehan, began his career at MIT dedicated almost entirely to the quest for synthetic penicillin. It took him over 9 years to successfully create a general total synthesis of penicillin, while achieving total synthesis, Sheehan also produced an intermediate compound (6-amino acid) which became the foundations for hundreds of kinds of synthetic penicillin. His work paved the way for the development of life saving antibiotics that can specifically target bacteria. After over 4 decades of research at MIT, Dr. Sheehan was assigned over 30 patents, covering not only penicillin, but also peptides, antibiotics, alkaloids and steroids.
In 1957, MIT grads Ken Olden and Harlan Anderson, decided on the idea to start a company that would build smaller and easier to use mainframe computers than the IBM machinery that existed at the time. They called it Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) and their first minicomputer sold for $120,000 and came with 9K of internal memory. In order to fund this venture, they received backing from the first ever VC (ARDC) which gave them $70,000 USD in equity financing- DEC would later grow to become the second-biggest tech company in the world at one point, valuing ARDC's shares following an IPO in 1968 at over $355 million dollars, about 500x the original investment.
Today, there are an estimated 3.24 BILLION gamers around the world. However, it was E. E. "Doc" Smith’s book that inspired the young MIT computer programmer Steve Russel, aka “Slug” to develop the first digital video game, ‘Spacewar!’. Now known as the father of virtual adventure, Russel’s 1962 invention came from a simple idea- an interstellar duel between two armed spaceships- little would Russel know, his cosmic invention inspired generations of gamers and creators alike, giving birth to an entire new industry and fascination with virtual adventure.
On April 24, 1962 the word “M.I.T.” became the first television image ever transmitted by a communication satellite, ushering in a new dawn of communication. The message was sent from California all the way across to Massachusetts 2700 miles away, using NASA's Echo I balloon communications satellite. The satellite continued to orbit the earth at a height of 1000 miles for several years to come.
In response to the rising fear of a nuclear outbreak, America’s first air defense system, Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) was created. This system, created at MIT in the Lincoln Laboratory, was a complex invention that was required to combine multiple novel technologies including; digital computers, magnetic-core memory, large-scale computer programs, modems,and interactive graphical user interfaces, simultaneously, to achieve a cohesive working line of defense. Pioneering in its synchronicity, SAGE demonstrated how more complex systems can be used to solve bigger and harder problems at scale.
In the year 1963, MIT was tasked by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to create a system by which 2 or more individuals could simultaneously use a computer at the same time. Project Mac launched and $2 million dollars later, these age-old PCs would utilize massive reels of tape for memory, setting off the first beta version of what we now know as Cloud Computing.
Ivan Sutherland, recipient of the Turing Honor and "Father of Computer Graphics", made significant contributions that laid the groundwork for modern age computing at a time when few people had even heard of computers. Sutherland's computer software Sketchpad, written as part of his PhD thesis at MIT in 1963, paved the way for human–computer interaction (HCI) and is widely regarded as the ancestor of modern computer-aided design (CAD). It was the first application that allowed us to write directly on the screen of a computer. Sutherland also invented zoom- almost six decades later, this technology is still relevant.
What can be worse than surviving an elective surgery, only to wake up and discover you have contracted AIDS or hepatitis? Before Dr. Charles E. Huggins of Mass General Hospital, this was a very real possibility for many people. By using a novel technique of adding glycerol to red blood cells, Huggins was successfully able to freeze and store red blood cells, a landmark achievement in the medical field. This practice ultimately made it much safer for patients to undergo transfusion surgeries by using their own frozen blood.
Few ideas have had such a large theoretical and applied impact on an industry in such a short time span. Fischer Black, Myron Scholes and Robert Metron met each other at MIT and established a financial formula that invited science to wall street. Aside from being awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1997 for their work, the Black-Scholes-Merton model is responsible for thousands of publications which followed, that set the intellectual foundation for at least three multi-trillion dollar industries.
Dr. Kenneth Bird made history in 1964, when he founded the first telemedicine program as an internist and pulmonologist at Mass General hospital. This involved a virtual examination of ill travelers arriving at Boston's Logan Airport through a television system approximately 3 miles away from the hospital's main campus.
Other than being widely renowned for pioneering computer graphics, Ivan Sutherland is also credited for building the first ever virtual reality device. The device drew inspiration from infrared cameras mounted on helicopters, which allowed pilots to see what was happening around them. Sutherland had the idea to replace the cameras with computers, creating a 3D image suspended in space, allowing pilots to move their head in any angle and still capture a full 360-degree view. This research was funded by Harvard, and provides the basis for all relevant virtual reality programs we run today. O
In August of 1968, ARPA put out an RFP for an ARPANET that would for the first time connect computers in a packet-switching network. Former computer system engineer at MIT Lincoln Lab, Frank Heart who at the time was working at BBN (now part of Raytheon), assembled a team of experts in real-time systems, hardware, CS, wireline communications and debugging to bid on the contract. Using his technical expertise, ability to put together a strong core team, and an overemphasis on reliability, Heart was able to successfully install the first nodes of the ARPANET in just 9 months, effectively laying the groundwork for today's internet technology.
In 1971, while working at Bolt Beranek and Newman in Cambridge, MIT alum Ray Tomlinson invented email over the Arpanet (predecessor to the internet). Prior to this, mail could only be sent to others who used the same computer, however Tomlinson was able to get around this by creating the "@" symbol to separate the user from the host where the message could be reached. This seemingly simple hack, completely revolutionized the way humans communicate to this very day. “Don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on”, the computer programer said, when showing his coworker the first email ever sent.
Upon graduating from MIT, Shintaro “Sam” Asano served as group leader on a joint Harvard/Smithsonian Institute project for NASA, developing an X-ray sensitive video camera payload for NASA’s rockets. However, Asano quickly realized he could not understand his fellow engineers on the launch site who had southern accents!! To get around this problem, Asano ended up inventing a simple solution- a portable machine that could transmit images over telephone lines, ensuring clear communication across all employees, irrespective of origin. This relatively simple but elegant solution turned Asano into one of the most influential inventors of the 20th Century.
In 1973, Massachusetts-based Raytheon Company, overseen by legendary scientist Ivan Getting- created technology used in GPS intended for the United States Air Force. Costing taxpayers $12 billion, eighteen satellites were launched to form man-made "stars" as reference points to determine geographical positions. Getting is credited for leading the studies on the use of satellites to map and track objects moving in a 3 dimensional plane, despite heavy resistance from the Pentagon. These systems ultimately provided the back-bone for Air Defence and Offensive capabilities, able to, in the most advanced forms, make measurements down to the centimeter.
You know your work is making a significant impact when the FBI shows up warning you of death threats from the Unabomber. Current faculty member at MIT and nobel prize winner in medicine, Phillip A. Sharp's work as a leading cancer researcher and his contributions as the founder of Biogen (currently the oldest independent biotech firm in the world) led to the birth of an entire new biotech industry. Also known as the father of biotech, Sharp helped develop treatments for various diseases including hepatitis, multiple sclerosis and cancer.
MIT graduate and Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore's 1970s discovery of reverse transcriptase transformed AIDS from terminal to treatable. By laying the proper groundwork for the discovery of drugs and treatments decades later, Baltimore's work definitively shaped today’s understanding of inflammatory diseases such as HIV and cancer.
Is the internet safe? No. Is it safer? Yes, thanks to the invention of RSA cryptography, an algorithm that secures data transmission. Named after the inventors and MIT professors, Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman, the public key encryption technique played a major role in building the digital age. The invention of RSA Cryptography was not just useful for the world, it also netted the trio $2.1 billion. The best part? They cracked the final problem after a passover party in 1977, when after a long night of drinking, Rivest decided to spend the rest of the evening writing a paper that formalized his idea for the crucial one-way function.
Dan Bricklin got the concept for an "electronic spreadsheet" or "Calcu-ledger" while sitting in a Harvard Business School lecture. It was a means for managers to handle intricate accounting using a computer or forecast how company sales may rise under different scenarios. After teaming up with another MIT alumni and renting time late at night on the MIT mainframe computer, VisiCalc., the first electronic spreadsheet was born.
“He wanted something to keep the bacteria out, and keep the moisture in.” said MIT professor Ioannis Yannas, an expert on fibers and polymers, recalling when Dr. John Burke approached him with a request for help in 1969. Traditional methods for burn treatments used human or pig skin; however this was often rejected by the body's immune system. Using a combination of cow tendons and shark cartilage, Yanna's novel solution went so far as to allow for entirely new healthy skin cells to grow! Yannas was later inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his breakthrough in 'artificial skin.'
In 1987, world renowned inventor, Hall of Famer and one of the twelve MIT Institute Professors, Dr. Robert Langer, founded Enzytech, a company that commercialized a novel microsphere drug delivery system. Dr. Langer was able to use his chemical engineering talent and science background, to achieve breakthrough advancements at the intersection of new materials synthesis and chemical engineering. His novel drug delivery system has since been used to facilitate the treatments of alcoholism, narcotic addiction, diabetes and many other diseases. Despite becoming the most cited engineer in history, Dr Langer continues to expand upon his original work into new frontiers.
Before 1987, film editing entailed cutting and pasting strips of film by hand in a linear order- a basic and time consuming process. That all changed when Bill Warner started Avid Technology Inc. from his kitchen table in Weston, MA. A digital, nonlinear editor with a graphical interface, Bill, went on to revolutionize the video and film industry. By 2000, Avid was used to edit over 100 TV and film series, including "Titanic" and "The Matrix." Bill's invention was so groundbreaking, he was even recognized in the inventors hall of fame as well as awarded an Emmy and an Oscar for his contributions.
Stars light the night sky as LEDs light today’s digital age. The ubiquitous longer-lasting energy-saving light source was co-invented by materials physicist Theodore Moustakas in 1991, when the Boston University professor discovered how to create blue light-emitting diodes. Despite this, the 2014 Nobel Prize in physics for LEDs was awarded to Isamu Akasaki of Nagoya University in Japan and Shuji Nakamura of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Unrelenting, Moustakas successfully managed to sue over 25 patent-infringing companies for using his invention, ultimately receiving the recognition he was due, and forcing big-brand names to license the tech from BU.
Dear print lovers, if you are looking for somewhere to direct your kindle contempt, find Joseph Jacobson. The MIT professor and cofounder of E Ink Corp revolutionized reading through his production of black-and-white screens found on many electronic books.
When Tim Berners-Lee, father of the world wide web, approached fellow MIT faculty member Tom Leighton in early 1995 about congestion issues, he was given a tissue. When Berners-Lee went on to explain that congestion would need much more than a simple tissue to solve for the propagation of data for internet users, Dr. Leighton decided to pose the problem to his students in class. Little did they both know that posing this problem in an academic setting, would catalyze the creation of a commercial service that would revolutionize the internet and set the foundations for a truly scalable, connected global species.
In 1999, Northeastern University dropout Shawn Fanning and former hacker Sean Parker cofounded Napster, a user-friendly file sharing application that specialized in transferring music. Using a simple but elegant solution, users were able to search for files via a central index server and then directly share and transfer the files between two private computers. Ultimately, this invention set off a peer to peer file sharing revolution, that allowed for people to directly and privately transfer information to one another.
"It's one small piece of man... one giant leap for mankind" headlined the Mirror newspaper, when MIT scientists cracked the genetic code. In a global effort to understand life, the first map of the human genome was developed in 2000.
A Chinese dissident contacts a journalist in Canada using Web-based e-mail. A foreign website is being monitored by an intelligence agency. These acts, like any other operation on the Internet, create a trail. Founded in 2006 by MIT students and computer scientists Roger Dingledine and Nick Mathewson, the TOR project, aka the Onion Router, was developed under contract with the US Naval Research Lab, with the pioneering promise of hiding said trail. This proved to be a critical function for the adoption of the internet. Today, the vast majority of online activity is processed anonymously.
Drew Houston lost his USB. This was not the first time. Fueled with frustration, the MIT student invented Dropbox, one of today’s most common file hosting services.
Driving may soon be considered a lost art as autonomous cars overtake today's roads. In 2016, MIT startup Nunotomoy stopped traffic when they launched the world's first ever self-driving taxi service. Although the rides were limited in size and scope, NuTonomy went on to form major collaborations to expand its robo-taxi service, laying the foundations for a fully autonomous, driverless future.
Katie Bouman, a 29 year old computer scientist at MIT, developed a Bayesian algorithm known as CHIRP (Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors) to perform deconvolution on images created in radio astronomy, in the hopes that one day it would piece together enough images to create the first ever picture of a blackhole. 3 years later, in 2020 her program finally realized the image of one of the greatest mysteries in our universe, an endeavor previously thought impossible. Dr Bouman credits the innovation to her team at the MIT CS and AI Laboratory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the MIT Haystack Observatory.