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Inventive Hartford Wins Smithsonian Recognition

Smithsonian exhibit Hartford will be featured in Washington innovation exhibit

Hartford Courant Editorial

July 29, 2012

We study history to inform the present, which is why an exhibit under development at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History — an exhibit that will include Hartford — is particularly intriguing.

The exhibit, being prepared under the auspices of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, is titled "Places of Invention" (see http://bit.ly/K2JFDd) and examines why, over the course of U.S. history, certain cities or regions became hotbeds of innovation and invention.

Hartford in the 19th century is a natural for such an exhibit. Starting with Christian Sharps and the peerless Sam Colt, the Steve Jobs of his era, the city drew many of the most brilliant tinkerers, gunsmiths and machinists in the country — Spencer, Maxim, Gatling, Pratt, Whitney, Pope and others. The city became a national center for precision manufacturing and the production of machine tools. From the Colt .45 to Columbia bicycles to Capewell horseshoe nails, Hartford products were known around the world.

Plans call for Hartford to join with other notable innovative hot spots including Silicon Valley in the 1970s; MIT and Cambridge during World War II; "Medical Alley" in Minneapolis in the 1960s; the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx in the 1970s; the rise of the scientific community inWashington, D.C., in the late 19th century and the film and sound innovations developed in Hollywood in the 1930s.

Most Smithsonian exhibits are supported by major research efforts and this is no exception. Historians already have been at work on it for a couple of years, and it doesn't open until 2015. But what they have found thus far should be of interest to leaders and economic development officials trying to replicate the magic.

First the bad news. "There's no recipe," said Smithsonian historian Eric Hintz, one of the scholars assembling the exhibit. What worked in one place won't necessarily work in another; if it did, there would be hundreds of Silicon Valleys.

But on the plus side, researchers have found that each place of invention shares some common characteristics. These start with inventive and ambitious people, and some level of luck and timing. Other common factors include:

• Knowledge base. This can be Stanford University for Silicon Valley, or the "college of mechanics" that assembled in Coltsville. Can the Hartford-Springfield "Knowledge Corridor" effort be the base for a revival of technical innovation in the Connecticut Valley?

•Cross-pollination of ideas. Mr. Hintz said vibrant areas of innovation tend to have high job mobility, a churn among businesses that passes the knowledge around. In Hartford's case, mechanics would work for Colt for a few years and then strike out on their own. On a related front, job mobility may be a factor in keeping the city's insurance sector strong and competitive.

•Out-of-office exchanges. In the Silicon Valley in the 1970s and '80s, engineers from major companies met at a tavern called the Wagon Wheel to unwind and exchange ideas. In Hartford, the Hartford Club and other institutions served this function.

The New Haven architect and planner Robert Orr has suggested that better urbanism around the state Capitol — nearby restaurants, taverns, stores and housing — would encourage the kind of out-of-office exchanges among legislators and others that would make the place more productive. Perhaps that is for a later Smithsonian exhibit.

•Government investment. In most cases, certainly Hartford and the Silicon Valley, direct and indirect government investment played a crucial role in the development of modern firearms in the 19th century — Colt had a lot of government contracts — and the microchip in the 20th century.

In this presidential year there is much discussion about the role of government in job creation, and it is another area where there is no recipe. What is clear from the Smithsonian research is that at some points in our history, public-private alliances have helped trigger bursts of economic activity. We look forward to the exhibit.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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