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Route 128 Opens Boston's High Tech Age
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On This Day...
      ...in 1951, the first segment of Route 128 was opened. By 1956, the expressway stretched 65 miles from Gloucester to Braintree. While officials were confident the road would relieve traffic in Boston and help ease travel between the region's growing suburbs, they did not foresee that Route 128 would become a destination — and an economic engine — in its own right. But it did. Real estate developers came up with their own innovation — the first modern industrial parks — that were ideal locations for the growing number of technology companies in the state. The proximity to university labs and to expanding suburban communities drew so many high tech companies to the area that Route 128 was dubbed "America's Technology Highway."

Route 128 has its roots in the 1920s, when the state Department of Public Works sought to relieve the traffic congestion that came from the rapidly growing number of cars and trucks on Boston's streets. The DPW stitched together a "Great Circumferential" or "Boston Bypass," as Route 128 was then called, out of existing two-lane roads that connected the Boston suburbs.

However, it soon became apparent that the bypass was a bypass in name only. Driving on it was almost as slow as driving through Boston itself. The state began to plan a modern limited access highway. Some construction took place in the 1930s, but it was interrupted by WW II. Work resumed in the late 1940s, and by 1956, the finished expressway provided a way for drivers to circumvent Boston traffic. But Route 128 turned out to be much more than a convenience for motorists; it quickly evolved into the nation's first "high tech corridor."

Massachusetts had a long history of technological innovation. The state could claim to be the birthplace of numerous industries, perhaps of the industrial revolution itself. In the early 1900s, many area scientists, inventors, businessmen, and investors were focusing on the new field of electrical sciences. Research labs at Harvard and M.I.T. pioneered technologies using electrical currents, magnetic fields, and advanced circuitry. World War II provided a big boost to several Massachusetts companies doing this kind of work, including Raytheon and General Radio (later GenRad).

In the nineteenth century, industrial activity was concentrated along the state's rivers and streams, which provided power for mills and factories. Now, in the 1950s, it was a highway that acted as the magnet. Realizing that the Route 128 corridor would be a perfect place for these growing companies to locate, real estate developers began to build the first modern industrial parks. In addition to being affordable and easily accessible by car, the parks were close to university labs and, perhaps most importantly, to each other. Raytheon was already located in Waltham, almost at the midpoint of the circle Route 128 made around Boston; before long other high tech companies were moving to the area.

Soon there was a critical mass of researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors. Two lines of experimentation proved especially fruitful and ultimately profitable: first was the commercial transistor, originally developed at Raytheon; second was the semiconductor that became an essential component of virtually every piece of modern electronics. Scientists at M.I.T. and Harvard used it to build some of the world's very first computers.

In 1957, former M.I.T. engineer Ken Olsen founded Digital Equipment Corporation in Maynard. Other computer and telecommunications companies, including Data General, GTE and Analogic followed. By the 1960s, the Route 128 corridor was becoming one of the nation's major technology centers. No one argued when, in the 1980s, Governor Michael Dukakis declared it "America's Technology Region."

When the minicomputer arrived in the 1970s and 1980s, minicomputer research and development fueled such growth in the state's economy that the media and politicians referred to "the Massachusetts Miracle." Stimulated by defense and aerospace spending, as well as increasing demand for computers for business use, the Bay State moved further and further away from its traditional reliance on heavy industry and toward a sector largely created in Massachusetts — "high tech."

However, in the late 1980s, other parts of the country — especially northern California's "Silicon Valley" — began to eclipse Route 128 as the center of the computer industry. Some Massachusetts companies, such as Digital and Wang, were slow to recognize the potential of desktop and personal microcomputers. Overbuilding, speculation in real estate, and generally deteriorating economic conditions added to their woes. Many startups and a few well-established companies failed. "For Lease" signs sprouted along Route 128.

With the growth of new fields, especially software, biotechnology, and fiberoptics, the state's high tech sector has begun to recover. Continuing commercial and residential development of the outer suburbs — what planners call "sprawl" — ensures that Route 128 and Route 495 (the outer beltway constructed in the 1960s and 1970s) are often clogged with traffic. More than 50 years after Route 128 was built, drivers still complain that it is "the road to nowhere."

Sources

Building Route 128, by Yanni Tsipis and David Kruh (Arcadia, 2003).

Route 128 and the Birth of the Age of High Tech, by Alan R. Earls (Arcadia, 2002).

Route 128: Lessons from Boston's High-Tech Community, by Susan Rosegrant and David R. Lampe (Basic Books, 1993).


 
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Rte 128 Bob 1630 2 04/24/2011 22:35
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