PITTSFIELD — On the first floor of the Berkshire Museum resides a permanent exhibition that serves as a tribute to a segment of Berkshire life that is often overlooked.
Inside the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation are panels and exhibits containing information about some of the people who have invented or developed things here.
There's Frank Sprague who developed the safe, non-sparking electric motor, a device that allowed electric streetcars to safely replace horse-drawn vehicles.
There's William Stanley, who built the first practical alternating current device in the late 19th century, the forerunner to the modern transformer. The company that Stanley formed in Pittsfield to manufacture his device was eventually purchased by General Electric.
Fast forward some 100 years and there's Tripod, developed in 1994 by a Williams College professor and two of his students. Tripod was the first company to open the world wide web up to personalized, user-generated information.
That's quite a list of innovative achievement for a small area like the Berkshires. From Sprague to Stanley to Tripod, innovation in the Berkshires spans generations and is still alive here today.
This year's Berkshire Business Outlook celebrates the county's rich history of innovation by profiling businesses that are carrying on the legacy left behind by all the other innovators who once made this area their home.
Businesses like the LTI Group, which makes cutting edge security products out of glass and laminates; Whole Life Pet Products which manufactures freeze-dried dog treats; and Apex Resource Technologies, a firm that extends the Berkshires' long history of innovative plastics applications by making high tech devices for the medical industry.
We also examine services and organizations that help prep people for work in these industries like Cloud85 in North Adams, a meeting spot for budding high-tech entrepreneurs like the ones who founded Tripod; the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, which helps to coordinate business development in the Berkshires; and the BerkshireWorks Career Center which provides services for job seekers.
Recent developments in the Berkshire economy — a major employer leaving the area, several major retailers closing — present a local economy that's still in flux. But despite all those changes, the Berkshire's history of innovation continues to thrive.
Is it in the water?
"Anyone's guess is as good as anyone else's why this happens here," said Maria Mingalone, the director of curatorial affairs and collections at the Berkshire Museum, who oversees the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation.
"I think it has in part to do with the kinds of people who made their way here and made the Berkshires their home. It's what they do when they rub shoulders with other kinds of people."
For example, Clarence J. "Clare" Bousquet and a team of engineers from General Electric invented night skiing when they erected pole mounted floodlights on the slopes of Bousquet Ski Area in Pittsfield on Christmas Eve 1936.
"That was achieved because GE was here and there were a lot of engineers around who wanted to increase the hours for skiing," Mingalone said. "You put engineers together with a ski hill and you have night skiing."
Originally a mink farmer, Clare Bousquet was quite an innovator. He also invented the rope tow gripper, which protects the arms and hands of people using rope tows. Patented in 1941, the device made it easier and safer for skiers to ascend hills so that they could ski back down them.
Berkshire County historian Bernard Drew of Great Barrington, who has written a book about the county's industrial history, believes innovation in the Berkshires began "partly out of necessity" due to the area's climate and terrain.
"Early on, people didn't want to live in log cabins with the wind blowing in all of the time," Drew said. "They wanted clothes, food and sawmills."
A great patron
People also came to the Berkshires and inspired the people who already had connections to this area, Drew said. George Westinghouse, who founded the Westinghouse Electric Co., moved to Lenox in 1886 because of his wife's health. The inventor of the railroad air brake, Westinghouse built a private power plant on Laurel Lake, the first in the world to generate alternating current. Who proved that alternating current could work safely? William Stanley.
Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Stanley had worked for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, signing a contract with the entrepreneur in 1884 that allowed him to experiment with electric current.
But Stanley ran into health problems in Pittsburgh. According to Drew, Stanley convinced George Westinghouse to let him move to the Berkshires because he had family members here (Stanley's grandmother managed a hotel in Great Barrington). Stanley rented a vacant rubber factory on Cottage Street in Great Barrington and it was there that he proved his theories on alternating current could actually work. On March 20, 1886 — 130 years ago this month — Stanley lit Main Street in Great Barrington with electric bulbs. The experiment proved decisively that alternating current could be harnessed.
Stanley's findings were groundbreaking. Their popularity was enhanced because he had Westinghouse as a patron.
"Westinghouse displayed the viability of his transformer," Drew said.
The Westinghouse-Stanley connection was forged during the Gilded Age in the late 19th century when magnates from other areas came to the Berkshires and built the huge mansions that were known as "cottages,"
"Some of the cottagers brought a different level of energy," to the Berkshires, Drew said. "And innovators were encouraged to do good work."
This history of innovation, the Made in the Berkshires idea, is still around today.
"I think they keep coming," said Mingalone, comparing the Berkshire's original innovators to today's current entrepreneurs.
"That's the thing about innovation," she said. "It's an ongoing thing."
Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413 496-6224.