Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Sam Jones, a guide with Cambridge Historical Tours, leads a trip Friday on “Innovations of Kendall Square.” (Photo: Molly Farrar)

The Freedom Trail tour groups swarm Boston Common, following the red brick path all around Boston’s walkable downtown. The experience, guided or not, is a look back on Boston’s most famous history – the revolution from the British.

Across the river, Cambridge is having its own revolution in biology, medicine and technology. Innovations in science, technology, engineering and math fields have been dominated by Cambridge companies and universities, and a new Innovation Trail highlights these groundbreaking companies and their accomplishments from candy to defense weapons to the beginnings of the Internet.

A new nonprofit conceptualized a trail in 2021 with stops from near Boston’s Government Center all the way to Cambridge’s Kendall Square; guided tours by Cambridge Historical Tours that began in late May take visitors on the weekends around Kendall Square with a focus on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Boston Globe columnist Scott Kirsner has been writing about tech for decades, including Cambridge’s high concentration of innovation. He pitched a digital innovation trail in a 2013 iteration of his column called “A Freedom Trail for innovators.”

“We wanted to try to just capture all of the ways that innovation, new ideas and Boston have changed the world,” Kirsner said. “We wanted lots of different people to be able to relate to it, even if they’re not into tech or into biotech, or into entrepreneurship.”

Kirsner said the trail, a collaboration with Framingham State professor Bob Krim, covered some of the same stops and was accessible through an app at the time, which is now out of business.

Kendall Square’s KSQ sculpture, installed in January 2016. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Post-Covid, Kirsner said he wanted to give it another try.

“Over centuries, we’ve been this petri dish of higher education, immigration, freedom, participation by women and people of color and immigrants in this innovation ecosystem,” Kirsner said. “We have created all these things that have changed the world.”

Trailgoers are free to experience the trail by themselves following the map online; with a guided tour by Cambridge Historical Tours; or with custom tours.

“Stunned at the research”

Custom tours is how the Innovation Trail started for Daniel Berger-Jones, president of Cambridge Historical Tours. He said his company has been running “Innovations of Kendall Square” tour for 10 years, starting when a group of Chilean entrepreneurs asked him to write a tour to explore Kendall Square.

“I was stunned at the research that was happening,” Berger-Jones said. “I had no idea how far some of the science that advanced, and I was just fascinated.”

Then Kirsner reached out, and the collaboration was born. Now, Berger-Jones’ tour company showcases the Kendall Square portion of the Innovation Trail. (Boston stops are not offered through a public guided tour, but an extended tour including Boston is available.)

Next stop, Kendall Square

The Kendall Hotel is the oldest building on the innovation tour. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Kendall Square has been called “the most innovative square mile on the planet,” and a ring erected in 2018 at the square’s entrance in Galaxy Park announces it.

“You’ll never look at this area the same way again,” tour guide Sam Jones said. The tour started with Cambridge’s history dating back to the original landfill project and the founding of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1860s.

Post-Industrial Revolution, Cambridge turned in its factories for laboratories, Jones said. These laboratories put us on the moon, mapped the human genome and kept the Internet going in the 1990s.

Kendall Square also gave us Haviland Thin Mints, the Polaroid camera and some fun public art.

From the familiar to the mind-boggling

Akamai co-founder Daniel Lewin died on Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. He’s honored with a Kendall Square park. (Photo: Molly Farrar)

The tour consists mostly of gazing up at large, brutalist buildings where some of the most mind-boggling innovations in science and tech happened.

The stories of the innovators could be familiar – Steve Jobs’ and Bill Gates’ plaques on the Entrepreneur’s Walk of Fame, or the Moderna Lab’s new security detail following vaccination concerns – or new, entertaining and informative, such as Draper Labs’ hand in the moon landing and defense weapons and security technology.

The oldest building on the tour was the Kendall Hotel, a former firehouse that had an innovation of its own: It’s the first place a rubber firehose was used. Jones also pointed to the now-defunct New England Confectionery Co.’s factory on Main Street, which, as its name suggests, created Necco wafers.

Four Stem-focused museums are within walking distance of the trail, Kirsner said, including the new location of The MIT Museum in Kendall Square. Across the street is the Broad Institute, known for gene editing research. While the tour stops outside the building, Broad recently opened a Discovery Center open to the public in the lobby, where patrons can explore their research and its applications.

“Kendall Square is starting to become a destination,” Berger-Jones said. “This is the moment for Kendall Square, and I feel like everybody’s starting to feel it.”

Next door is the Whitehead Institute, known for mapping the majority of the human genome. Moderna, Draper Labs, Biogen are other tech giant stops on the tour in Kendall Square.

A trail that’s about optimism

Kendall Square is home to offices for companies such as Google that keep it at the forefront of innovation. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Internet boom was not just in Silicon Valley. Kendall Square is still home to Google, Akamai and the Cambridge Center of Innovation, known as ground zero for many groundbreaking start-ups.

Berger-Jones said the tour is different from the Freedom Trail tours his company does. While those focus on building empathy with the Bostonians of the 1770s, the Innovation Trail is about “optimism.”

“I’m trying to instill some sense of pride in your own human race,” he said. “When you walk through this tour, and you go, ‘Oh my god, look at what we’re capable of.’”

Kirsner said more collaboration is coming with the stops on the tours. The Broad Institute’s new Discovery Center as just the beginning of transparency with these large tech companies, he said. He envisions more interactive displays and signs to engage with foot traffic.

Berger-Jones said the tour is not just for computer scientists or self-proclaimed nerds.

“Everybody will enjoy this, because it is the future of the human race that we’re talking about,” he said. “There’s no possible way that you can imagine the future without looking ahead at this technology, and what it’s going to bring, but it’s definitely historic.”

  • The Innovation Trail website is here. Public Innovation Trail Tour tickets are $20.