Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Merrimack Valley Then and Now

We have our own weather in the Merrimack Valley, and Boston weathermen are always pointing that out when they predict snowfall amounts. At a recent event, while discussing the predicted pattern of the coming snow (which has come and gone by the time I write this), someone asked where I lived.  I replied "In the Merrimack Valley." To my surprise, the person I was talking with had no idea where that was. At lunch the next day, a friend pointed out that many people in Boston/Cambridge really don't know much of Massachusetts geography outside of Metro Boston. That got me thinking about where the Merrimack Valley fits in with the Boston media's definition of Boston when they talk about Boston's loss of tech dominance to Silicon Valley.

Even the Megaboston proposal 100 years ago this month, going around the Twitterverse today,  wouldn't have extended this far north. Of course, 100 years ago, cities like Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill were still important cities on their own. Maybe they weren't quite the world class cities they were in the 19th century, but they were definitely still on the map. There's a long and rich history of tech and innovation in the Merrimack Valley. So, completely serendipitously, I came across this video from the AT&T Archives about  Western Electric Merrimack Valley Works (in North Andover), later known as AT&T Merrimack Valley Works, now known as Osgood Landing.

The video reminded me of Alexander Graham Bell's Haverhill connection. Bell's story is not just about technology but also about venture capital back in the day. Say what? Yup. Bell's principal financier for the telephone was Haverhill leather merchant Thomas S. Sanders. Bell, a specialist in teaching the deaf, was tutor to Sanders' son. Bell and Sanders became friends, and lots of Bell's telephone experiments actually happened in Haverhill. Sanders invested $110,000 in Bell's telephone. Sanders was one of the founders of Bell Telephone Company in 1877 along with Bell, Thomas Watson, and Gardiner Hubbard (Bell's soon to be father-in-law).

Haverhill claims that the first business telephone call was between Sanders' home on Kenoza Avenue and his sole cutting business on Merrimack Street.  Haverhill was right up there with Boston (first phone call) and Cambridge (first long distance phone call). Nearby North Andover was at that time home to Davis & Furber, makers of textile machinery, and so home to many skilled machinists.  With good reason the AT&T video treats the valley as a whole as a good place to build a huge tech complex.

Osgood Landing (formerly Merrimack Valley Works) in North Andover

The successors to Bell's telephone company continued to be a big presence in North Andover until well after the Merrimack Valley Works was built in the 1950s.  With Alcatel-Lucent now gone, the building houses everything from laser optics to laser tag. The tradition of innovation in the Merrimack Valley goes back a long way and continues to this day. 

The valley has gone through transitions from the textile and machine industrial economy, to the old-style tech economy, and into today's New Economy. To ease the transition to the New Economy, entrepreneur Desh Deshpande, founder of Sycamore Networks, in the Merrimack Valley town of Chelmsford, founded the Merrimack Valley Sandbox to develop and enhance the innovation ecosystem in the cities of the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, including Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill.

In April, Mass Innovation Nights will be coming to Lowell, the very heart and soul of the Merrimack Valley. Boston/Cambridge innovators and entrepreneurs will be able to see for themselves exactly where the Merrimack Valley is.


  1. Nice article Janet - I loved the old video there. He does a really good description of transmitting many phone frequencies on a single line too! People always say, oh you live in Lowell - and I like to say, no I live in Lo-Well!!! lol

  2. Thanks, Fiona. The many frequencies on a single phone line part really makes the video!