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Week of 14 February 2003· Vol. VI, No. 21

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A quirky, not quacky, tour
Innovation Odyssey showcases Boston as mother of invention

By Brian Fitzgerald

“This is not the Duck Tour,” warns actor–tour guide Frank Ridley at the beginning of the Innovation Odyssey. “Please don’t quack, because we will not quack back.”

On October 18, 1892, Alexander Graham Bell places the long-distance call that inaugurated service from New York to Chicago. Bell, who invented the telephone in 1876, was a professor of the mechanism of speech at Boston University from 1874 to 1879.
  On October 18, 1892, Alexander Graham Bell places the long-distance call that inaugurated service from New York to Chicago. Bell, who invented the telephone in 1876, was a professor of the mechanism of speech at Boston University from 1874 to 1879.

The Innovation Odyssey is a slightly offbeat bus tour of sites in Boston and Cambridge where life-changing inventions, like the telephone, the microwave, and e-mail, were born.

BU’s Photonics Center is one of the stops on the weekly two-hour Saturday excursion. It also visits such places as the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital, where the first surgery using ether as an anesthetic was done, and the MIT Museum, which showcases cutting-edge research being performed at the institution that gave birth to the computer.

The groundbreaking technology being developed at the Photonics Center makes it a natural for the tour, says Gloria Larson, chairman of the Massachusetts Convention Authority. Researchers there are making products that find trace amounts of pathogens in food and water, for example, and three-dimensional imaging systems that can detect small cancer lesions -- abnormalities as small as one or two millimeters in diameter.

“What we do at the Photonics Center goes beyond the traditional role of a university in developing entrepreneurial ideas, beyond teaching and research,” explains Clifford Robinson, assistant director of corporate relations at the center. He tells tour-goers that BU gets involved in the next step -- working with company founders to help raise funds from the region’s venture capital community. “In the past five years, we’ve launched 10 companies,” he says.

The sites of Boston breakthroughs
“The Innovation Odyssey tour tells captivating stories that showcase Boston as the seedbed of innovation, and it provides guests with special access to undiscovered places in the city,” says Larson. “The actor-guide, who plays more that a dozen roles, captures the spirit of the city’s visionaries, as well as the spirit of Boston that fosters this creative genius.”

The tour goes a little off the beaten path of sightseers -- it doesn’t serve up the usual tourist fare offered by the fake trolleys and amphibious vehicles that are ubiquitous on Boston’s streets. Its special format, however, makes it informative and entertaining, according to those who took a recent tour. It is also eye-opening: Boston and Cambridge are indeed home to some of the most intriguing innovations and inventions, such as the disposable razor blade, the mutual fund, and the world’s first acrobatic robotic helicopter.

Ridley, a Boston actor who some tour-goers will no doubt recognize as a detective when they see the upcoming Clint Eastwood film Mystic River, even portrays for the tour Farouk El-Baz, a CAS research professor and director of BU’s Center for Remote Sensing. In the 1960s, El-Baz was asked by NASA to train astronauts for the Apollo space program to find a significant selection of moon rocks. “You see, the astronauts were basically fighter pilots,” says Ridley, mimicking El-Baz’s Egyptian accent, “and they figured, if you’ve seen one moon rock, you’ve seen them all. But that’s not true. With training, the human eye can distinguish subtle differences in color and texture on the lunar surface that cameras can’t record. It was my job to get these -- what would you call them? -- speed junkies, yes, daredevils who were brought up on the right stuff to want to best one another in rock finding the way they’d best one another in plane flying. To hone their observation skills, we even dynamited a moonscape in the Arizona desert that was an exact replica crater by crater of a slice of the Sea of Tranquility. At 20,000 feet it looked just like the moon.

“It was gratifying to me, then,” continues Ridley as El-Baz, “when one of the astronauts on Apollo 15 was able to discover from orbit small volcanic vents on the moon by the pattern of dark haloes and a reddish hue. This observation led to the selection of that site for Apollo 17 and a rethinking of the moon’s volcanic history. The astronaut radioed back from orbit around the moon: ‘After the King’s training, I feel like I’ve been here before.’ That was their nickname for me: the King. Because my given name is Farouk. You know, King Farouk. My last name is El-Baz, and you probably haven’t heard of me unless you are a devout Trekkie. On Star-Trek: The Next Generation they named a shuttlecraft El-Baz in recognition of my contribution to the Apollo missions. What an honor. Years later I turned these imaging techniques on my native lands and discovered evidence of ancient riverbeds and water sources under the deserts. This is what technology was meant to do -- throw light on our world to benefit those who need it the most. That is an even greater honor.”

The name rings a Bell
Ridley also plays Thomas Edison as the bus heads toward the Telephone Museum in the Verizon building near Boston’s Government Center. “Here we are,” he says, “outside my laboratory on Court Street.” Edison lived in Boston in 1868 and 1869, trying to find a way to send multiple signals over the telegraph wire simultaneously -- multiplex telegraphy -- so businessmen could keep up with the changes in the stock market. “Two years after I left, Alexander Graham Bell was busy inside the very same lab experimenting with the liquid telephone,” says Ridley-Edison.

Bell, who was a professor of the mechanism of speech at Boston University from 1874 to 1879, made the first intelligible phone transmission to his assistant, Thomas Watson, in 1876. At the Telephone Museum, Ridley portrays Watson and describes the pair’s painstaking work as “flogging a dead horse.” Working without much sleep, they were trying to moderate an electric current so it would reflect and transmit modulations of the human voice.

“Usually we worked at this until well past midnight because we kept getting nothing but garbled sounds,” says Ridley in his Watson persona. “Then one night in March 1876, I went into the other room to catch a catnap, when suddenly, unbeknownst to me, Bell spilled some acid on himself -- sulfuric acid-- so he called out: ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.’ Suddenly I felt a great elation, because I realized that the sound was not coming from the other room, but clear as a bell, so to speak, from the box. Well, we cleaned his pants off, and danced around the room a little. I danced around the room -- Mr. Bell was more restrained, always more restrained -- and then we both got back to work. It just goes to show you what all inventors know: to make a breakthrough, you have to flog a dead horse until it rises from the grave.”

In Bell’s time, Ridley points out, Boston had the technology, the financial capital, and the intellectual atmosphere to support inventors and entrepreneurs -- and it still does. “Boston is reinventing itself for the 21st century,” he says, “because it still has the smarts, the technological tricks, and the big fiduciary bucks to create new revolutions in innovations.”

The Innovation Odyssey is a cooperative effort run by the nonprofit
organization Boston History Collaborative and institutions such as Boston University, Harvard, Northeastern, MIT, and the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. Aside from the stop at the Photonics Center, BU is involved with the tour in other ways, from CFA Associate Professor Jon Lipsky writing Ridley’s script to the Office of Publications Production designing an informative booklet about the excursion. The tour runs every Saturday at 2 p.m., departing from 28 State St., opposite the Old State House. Ticket prices are $25 for adults, $21 for students and seniors, and $15 for children under 13. For more information, call 617-350-0358, or visit www.innovationodyssey.com.


14 February 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations