The Silicon Valley of the 19th Century


By Elizabeth J. Normen

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Spring 2005

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“Hartford was the Silicon Valley of the 19th century,” asserts historian Bill Hosley, member of HRJ’s editorial board and ardent keeper of the Colt Manufacturing flame. That is to say, Hartford was at the leading edge of the Industrial Revolution, a hotbed of innovation that resulted in its becoming the wealthiest city per capita in America in the late 19th century. HRJ celebrates the region’s legacy of ingenuity in this issue, and, because there are so many great stories to tell, it’s an expanded issue. (The Smithsonian agrees. Listen to Grating the Nutmeg episode 22 in which the Smithsonian’s Eric Hintz reveals why he featured Hartford as one of six places of invention in a permanent exhibition at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.)

Though Hartford came to be known for major products like guns, sewing machines, bicycles, and, later, aircraft engines, it was precision machine tool manufacturing—machines that make the machines that make the products—that first drew inventors and entrepreneurs to the city. Hartford was “renowned for the skills of its machinists for a hundred years,” noted Ellsworth Grant in “The Miracle of Capitol Avenue” (HRJ May/Jun/Jul 2004).

Capitol Avenue, the heart of Hartford’s early manufacturing story, is not, however, the only place Connectican ingenuity flourished. New Britain, Manchester, Collinsville, and Thompsonville, to name just a few area locations, also developed major industries, churning out an incredible range of products from axes to textiles to hardware. This issue picks up where Grant’s article left off, exploring not only manufacturing but also some of the “softer” innovations of the region like the discovery of anesthesia (which forever transformed the experience of surgery), education of the deaf, and the development of a uniquely American language. Two museums where you can see artifacts of our great industrial age are offered in Destinations, starting on page 54, and a new online resource for researching Connecticut’s early patents ( is featured on page 52.

As HRJ readers will learn, ingenuity has been a hallmark of the Hartford region and the entire state for 350 years, but such creativity is not strictly a thing of the past. Connecticut Innovations is a quasi-public agency building on this legacy. Founded in 1989 by the Connecticut Legislature, Connecticut Innovations invests in promising new companies with a focus in technology, bioscience, and clean energy—industry sectors that, to quote its Web site, “create high-paying jobs, and position the state to excel in the global, knowledge-driven economy.” They also encourage students to pursue science and technology through college scholarships and sponsor the annual Yankee Ingenuity Technology Competition to encourage collaboration between Connecticut’s colleges, universities, and businesses. Connecticut Innovations is part of a network of organizations and businesses working to make Hartford and Connecticut the next Silicon Valley or, through the region’s signature high quality education, collaboration, and good ol’ grit, we might more accurately say, the Capitol Avenue of the 21st century.


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