Waltham: cradle of our other revolution

The first shot of the American Industrial Revolution was fired in a textile mill not far from the battlefields of Lexington and Concord, yet it was never heard round the world.

The story behind this yarn-spinning tale is what Michael Folsom, the founder and director of the fledgling Charles River Museum of Industry, hopes to be able to explain - if his museum gets off the ground.

The power looms of Francis Cabot Lowell's Boston Manufacturing Company set in motion the first truly modern production system in the world in 1814, turning raw materials into a finished product all under one roof, Mr. Folsom says. It was the first successful industrial corporation in the country. It was also the site in 1820 of the nation's first industrial strike, when women workers stopped the looms for two days over a pay dispute. (The women lost.)

But ''the most difficult problem we have in developing this museum,'' Folsom points out, ''is that we are trying to tell a story - which is absolutely basic to understanding American society - that people don't even know there is a story of. . . . Although it draws heavily on things that happened in Waltham, . . . it is a story of the entire development of the United States.''

The fact the museum is ''perceived to be a local Waltham operation,'' Folsom says, makes support from outside Waltham harder to come by. And, he sighs, ''you just can't build an institution like this without a lot of money.''

So far, the museum has received $23,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This amount has been matched by the museum's corporation, a group of some 60 people from Waltham, local industries, and major companies with regional offices in the area who have united to back the project. Another $130,000 has been provided for an exhibit on the history of the famous site. And some $145, 000 was granted to prepare a curriculum for elementary and secondary school students for use nationwide.

The museum and its collection of industrial gadgets are housed in the cavernous, five-story boiler and engine rooms of the former mill, crowned by a giant smokestack. From a point opposite a gushing waterfall, the monstrous red brick buildings stretch in a dogleg along the north bank of the Charles River. Some $10 million in federal money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development went toward turning most of the mill buildings into housing for the elderly and landscaping the grounds. About $400,000 of that money was spent preparing the space for the museum. The yearlqZ/seum lease is $1.

As Folsom, who teaches a course in industrial archaeology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, envisions that when the museum is at its educational and operational best, there will be four basic exhibits describing the evolution of the industrial process over the last two centuries. There are plans for a cotton mill, a small replica of the Waltham Watch factory, an automobile plant, and a computer factory.

The cotton mill will include the re-creation of an early Waltham power loom. According to Folsom, ''No modern scholar has ever seen one. No examples survive; there are no verbal descriptions of any value, and no drawings - until last year when we found a sheaf of over 80 machine drawings in a small museum in Middlebury, Vt.''

Apparently, a Middlebury man came to Waltham in 1820 to work at the mill and took his drawings home with him. Although they are not complete, Folsom says, they can be used as the basis for a hypothetical reconstruction of the first American power loom.

The exhibit will show both the original drawings and the finished machinery. There will also be a flying-shuttle hand loom alongside the power loom to help visitors understand the difficulty of attaching power to such a contraption.

''If you present a technical problem like that simply enough, people can really get intrigued by it and try to figure it out,'' Folsom says. ''And they come up with all kinds of weird and wonderful designs. . . .''

The watchmaking factory will let people experiment with some of the unusual tools used to build Waltham watches. These watches were the first mass-produced, high-precision consumer goods in the world, Folsom notes. The Waltham Watch Company was the first to apply the technique of precision manufacturing with interchangeable parts. ''Overnight, this t5rned the watchmaking industry upside down,'' Folsom says.

Plans for the auto plant include disassembling, or as Folsom says ''exploding ,'' a basic black Model T Ford and painting each part in garish colors. The idea is: ''Let's look at this thing and see how many pieces it's made of,'' he explains.

The computer factory will show how computers are made and tested. Folsom hopes to obtain a computer that would let visitors experiment with graphics displays.

Each exhibit will try to include as many opportunities as possible for people to become involved. Folsom says the idea is ''not simply to look at an object, read an exhibit text, and move on to the next one, but to get curious, to be presented with problems, and to solve them.''

But new ideas and plans are not always so easy to turn into reality. And as sunlight bounces off the swirling Charles below the mill windows and streams into the former engine room, Folsom reflects on the project: ''We've been going for more than two years now and we haven't opened. To be frank, money is a critical issue. And there is a strong possibility that the museum will fold before it even opens.''

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