Technology Leaders Then. Design Leaders Now?
Seeing the Evolution of the Modern Global Economy in the Local & Global History of Fall River, Rhode Island and the South Coast of New England, From Colonial through Industrial to Modern Times
In this essay, I present for discussion two new narratives on the history of prosperity in the United States that are connected to the Lafayette-Durfee House (the “House” or the “Durfee House”), as an exemplar of the Colonial experience of Europeans who became Americans, and to Fall River, and the larger urban cluster, from New Bedford to New London, that is called the South Coast and Rhode Island.
One narrative tells of the important part the South Coast Urban Cluster has played in the history of prosperity in the United States and the wider world.
The other narrative tells a story about the possibility that this Urban Cluster may once again be playing an important part in shaping the prosperity of our country, and our world.
We begin in the place and time of this living history museum and its displays of artifacts of the pre-Revolutionary Colonial New England, with rooms recreated as if it were 1750.
In 1750, the spinning wheel was an important appliance in any Colonial home of means. In the day, women spun wool or cotton fibers into yarns, by hand, using this machine. They wove yarns into cloth on hand-powered looms. They stitched cloth into clothes, by hand.
By 1850, no home had a spinning wheel, except maybe tucked away in an attic. Wool and cotton fibers were spun into yarns and threads that were woven into fabrics that were cut and sewn to make fashions in steam powered factories like those that gave Fall River its name as the Spindle City.
During the post-Colonial period of the early 1800s, rivers and streams were being harnessed in Fall River and other cities and towns throughout New England to power textile mills at this time when textile manufacturing marked the leading edge of high technology. Machine-made and store-bought replaced homespun and handmade, giving people more and better clothing choices.
It is easy to forget in modern times that new choices from new technologies is not really a new experience. Long before the Silicon Valley of our times gave us the personal computers, cell phones, Internet and Social Media that we equate with high technology today, the original Silicon Valley of a young Industrial American economy, based in New England, and including Fall River as an epicenter, was treating the people of its day to the marvels of calico, broadcloth, cotton twill and worsted wool, spun, woven and stitched with marvelous precision and regularity on machines in mills and factories powered first by waterfalls and later by steam.
In between, there was that marvelous marriage of steel and steam that gave us railroads, the telegraph, the printing press, motors, motor cars and the machine tools of America’s Industrial Heartland.
Technology is not new, although Mankind is an evergreen font of new technologies, created by design to be beautifully fit for purpose, and authentically right for the times, as times change, and we evolve prosperous adaptations to life’s constant changes.
What will be the next new technology, in the coming post-Digital Age?
Where will be the new center of this new technology?
Could it come back around again, to New England, and especially to the South Coast and Rhode Island, including Fall River?
A Narrative History of the Flourish-and-Fade of Technology in Colonial, Post-Colonial, Early Industrial, Modern Industrial and Internet America, Told From the Viewpoint of Fall River and the South Coast of New England as an Urban Cluster of Regional Uniqueness
When a small band of English Separatists departed Plymouth aboard the Mayflower, sailing towards a new life of freedom to practice their religion their way in the New World, they took with them the trappings of a feudal system that concentrated control over enterprise, finance, governance and history in the hands of an aristocratic hierarchy of inherited lands, inherited titles and inherited authority.
This system had brought a history of prosperity to Great Britain and Continental Europe since the 12th Century, when the secular aristocrats took over from the ecclesiastical bishops of the Catholic Church that had stepped in to the void created when the Roman Empire collapsed in the 4th Century, AD. The prosperity this system financed was based largely on agriculture and the agricultural estate.
Since the 16th Century, it was largely responsible for organizing a new kind of prosperity, based on the Spice Trade. It was this Spice Trade that lead to the discovery of the Americas, making it for a time the Spice and Silver Trade, before it became the Spice and Sugar Trade, and eventually the Spice and Sugar and Slaves Trade. Much of this trade moved through Newport, which was the original deep-water port for Colonial Trade with Great Britain, and Providence, a city founded “as a shelter for those distressed of conscience”, that built many of its early fortunes buying and selling people. The irony is palpable!
At the time of our story, in 1620, the hegemony of this system aristocratic control over trade was being challenged by a new system of free enterprise and popular self-governance that evolved out of the Age of Discovery as commerce eclipsed agriculture as a primary driver of prosperity in an economy that was being energized by the Spice Trade, the Slave Trade and so much more trade.
The Separatists themselves — who we know in our history also as the Pilgrims, or the Puritans — actually used free enterprise to finance their own enterprise. The merchant adventurers who underwrote the voyage of the Mayflower were enterprising individuals who contracted for supplies of timber to be shipped back from the New World to the Old as the benefit of their bargain, and their expected source of return of and on the capital they invested in the pilgrimage of the Separatists to New England, and their own new beginning in a New World.
Finance has always been part of human enterprise, and an important point of my narrative is to show the importance of finance in empowering enterprise, because finance may have an important role to play in empowering the new enterprises that will be making the new history of Fall River and the South Coast in our own times.
Throughout the Colonial Period that ran from 1620, with the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781 and the Treaty of Paris in 1783, New England was an urban cluster of uniqueness in free enterprise, centered on shipbuilding and merchant trading, that chafed under the constraints of an old aristocracy.
A continuation of the aristocratic feudal traditions is more visible in the agriculture-based plantation economies of the southern colonies, but these economies were not so much landed estates in the true aristocratic fashion, as they were the predecessors to modern “factory farms, growing the luxury goods of cotton and tobacco for trade. Aristocratic constraints on their freedom to trade these commodities with the trading partners of their own choosing certainly affected the disaffection of the southern colonies with colonial rule.
Thus we the American Revolution, that started in Massachusetts, and the more enterprise North, gain strong support from compatriots — and commercial trading partners — in Virginia and the other more agricultural and culturally aristocratic southern colonies of Georgia and the Carolinas and Georgia.
This revolution did not end with the creation of a new aristocracy. It ended with the uniquely American experiment of creating by design a new constitutional representative democratic form of federal government, a system of governance that Abraham Lincoln later described as being “of the people, by the people and for the people”.
The success of this experiment in self-government by an enterprising and engaged citizenry that accepted the responsibilities that come with the rights of free enterprise and governance by popular consensus through elected representatives “in congress assembled” marked the end of feudal aristocracy in New England, in the New World and in time through much of the Old World, as well.
Food for Thought. Although America created a new form of enterprising self-governance, can the legacy of agricultural aristocratic prosperity explain some of the continuing tension between Urban and Rural, between Blue State and Red, that we as Americans continue to struggle with in federal politics, even to this day? If so, can a better understanding of the different ways in which agricultural and entrepreneurial pathways to prosperity affect personal values and public consensus be useful in better navigating these differences, to find a more enduring consensus?
The enterprising spirit of the northern colonies in short time lead to events such as the construction of the Durfee Mill, in Fall River, in 1811, as an exercise of free enterprise moving towards the next new economy of mass standardization through motorized manufacturing and department store retail that propelled a young industrial America into the infinitely receding horizon of a Western Frontier that was so vast and seemingly empty as to be for all practical purposes, without limits.
Today, we think of Silicon Valley, in California, as the center of new technology and innovation. In post-Colonial America, New England with its many rushing rivers turning the water wheels that turned the apparatus of spinning and weaving, was the Silicon Valley of its day, a center of new technology and innovation when textile manufacturing was the very highest of hi tech.
Fall River — the Spindle City — was an epicenter of this push towards new technology. The Durfee homestead, which straddled the Quequechan River, falling from Watuppa Pond to the Taunton River, became home to many mills that were the cutting edge of technology in their day.
As rivers were powering the high technology textile mills of early industrial America, the ocean, in the form of whale oil, was replacing candlelight with lamp light in homes around the world, making nearby New Bedford in its day an global energy center and the wealthiest city per capita in the world.
Technology made the region a magnet for immigrants of French and Scottish ancestry coming down from Canada, for Irish, Italian and Portuguese from Europe, Syrians and Lebanese from the Middle East and Chinese from Asia. The South Coast of New England became the mini-Melting Pot of ethnic, national and cultural diversity that it remains to this day.
It was not long before rivers became less a direct source of energy to power mills, and more a source of water to make steam in coal-fired boilers. As coal-fired steam replaced New England rivers as the energy source that drove the factories that worked in metal, not in textiles, the centers of innovation and new technology moved West, also.
In these days, “west” meant west of the Appalachian Mountains. Pennsylvania. Ohio. Indiana. Illinois. What we speak of today as America’s Heartland. And the Rust Belt.
The movement only paused in the Midwest. It did not stop there.
Strung together by railroads and telegraph wires, the young American industrial economy of mass standardization leapt across the Mighty Mississippi, and continued on its way West, all the way to California. Then, it did stop.
There was no where else to go. Beyond California there was the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Beyond the Pacific was the land of the Ch’in, a people and a civilization older even than the Old World which America had left, to build its own New World.
Since then, we have been infilling and consolidating. Economic standardization continued, even though political expansion did not.
Until towards the end of the last century — that is, the 20th Century — when, beginning in the 1970s, something truly new began.
In Silicon Valley, in California, on the extreme western edge of the New World, computers became standardized and consumerized, giving us the Internet, then merged with cell phones to give us Social Media.
With computers in the hands of the people, mass standardization is evolving into mass customization. We all start with much the same stuff, but increasingly we are each able to customize our own selections to fit our own unique needs and opportunities.
How will this shape our economy, and the world, in the 21st Century, and beyond?
Throughout the Colonial period in American History, Fall River was a space between the major import-export centers of Boston, to the north, Newport and Providence, in Rhode Island, to the south, and New York even further south.
In the post-Colonial Period, the energetic waters of the Quequechan River — the falling river from which the city of Fall River takes its name — helped make Fall River a center of enterprise, innovation and technology when the height of new technology was textile manufacturing.
Throughout the 19th Century, Fall River remained an important epicenter in the New England urban cluster of uniqueness in textiles, importing cotton from the South, using river water (at first directly, and later, for making steam) to drive machines that spun fibers into threads, wove threads into fabrics and sewed fabrics into fashions.
In Rhode Island, spinning yarn evolved into spinning metal cables (such as those that were used in New York, to build the Brooklyn Bridge) and other forms of specialty metal manufacturing.
In New Bedford, fishing eclipsed manufacturing, and whale oil made the Whaling City an major source of energy to a burgeoning American economy in the days before kerosene, gas lamps and electric lights, and for a time the richest city, per capita, in the world.
By the middle of the 20th Century, textile manufacturing had become old technology. So old, that we know longer really think of it as technology today, when computers are all the rage. History shows a recurring pattern of “old” technology — I prefer the term ancestral, capturing the connection of technology from earlier times to technology of the present time — suffering from competition that sees price become the driving consideration, and cost reduction the primary competitive advantage. In the days of air conditioning and interstate trucking, textile manufacturing moved south, to be closer to the cotton before moving overseas, mostly to Southeast Asia, where labor was cheaper and regulations for work safety and environmental balance were non-existent.
The South Coast Urban Cluster, like many other New England cities and towns, was largely lost in this transition, and continues search for a new way to define its prosperity.
The moral of this story is that the South Coast of New England, with Fall River at its center, is unique in its experience of how technology evolves, and prosperity changes. In Colonial times, the South Coast received an influx of technologies from Europe, and flourished as the birthplace of industry in America — the original Silicon Valley. It saw river power replaced by steam power, and new manufacturing practices applied to metals that required more wide open spaces than the rugged landscape of New England could provide. Steelmaking, railroads, printing presses, telegraph wires, farm tractors and motor cars all became the new technologies of industry as America moved West into the wider spaces of a wide-open frontier. The second Silicon Valley in America evolved in the Ohio River Valley of the American Mid-West, that was in its day the western frontier for American civilization and global technology innovation.
By the last quarter of the last century — the 20th Century — the center of innovation moved all the way to California, to the actual Silicon Valley, between San Jose and San Francisco, where innovations in digital signal processing consumerized computers, emails and mobile communications giving us, in the early days of the new century and the new millennium a new reality of globalization through the Internet and Social Media.
These new technologies are now promising to drive the next evolution in global prosperity beyond mass consumerism that turned hand-made craftsmanship into machine-made, mass produced commodities into mass customization, where the benefit of machine manufacture are married to the individuality of computer algorithms.
Is this a new future for the South Coast?
We remain today heirs to a 19th Century paradigm of prosperity as the growth trend, but is the Internet giving us a new paradigm for prosperity in the 21st Century, and beyond?
Is the network a more useful model of the economy than the trend line?
What if we begin to look at the economy as a network of connections between people for doing work and sharing surpluses? What if we see these connections as a form of social contract between enterprise and popular choice?
Then we can see, learning form the experience of Fall River and the South Coast, that each of these social contracts flourishes for a time and fades over time, as times change, and people evolve prosperous adaptations to life’s constant changes. Manufactured replaces homespun. Steam replaces water wheels. Steel replaces textiles, not as a source of clothing but as the new technology driving prosperity. Computers replace steel. The economy grows. The network expands. Technology evolves.
If we map this evolving and expanding network economy as a time series, we get a portfolio of social contracts between enterprise built around technology and popular choice that each iterates through the same reiterating pattern of flourish and fade.
At any given point in time, such a map will show a diverse portfolio of diverse enterprises built around diverse technologies, some of which are new and flourishing in a classic 19th Century growth pattern, most of which are well-established and just staying strong, providing value to the people, and some of which are showing their age, and fading into history and taking up their position as ancestors of whatever it its that comes next, as times change, and people evolve prosperous adaptations to life’s constant changes.
Remembering now the importance of finance to the shaping of prosperity, which we saw in the American Revolution as a convulsive rejection of aristocratic control over finance and enterprise in favor of free enterprise, private finance and popular self-government, what if the new network economy of the 21st Century also needs a new form of finance, and a new form of financier, created by design to be fit to the function of managing this flourish and fade of technology, enterprise and popular over time?
The currently dominant and default form of finance as securities trading is a 19th Century innovation that is fit to the function of mass customization. It is really only suited to finance the flourish of new technology that it calls Growth. In consequence, it exaggerates the flourish and fade into booms that always go bust. Remember 2008.
During the same period when Silicon Valley was giving us the new digital technologies that promise to evolve our economy beyond mass consumerism to a new prosperity of mass customization, Wall Street and securities trading was giving us pensions, in particular, but also endowments for education and for philanthropy as powerful new actors in our financial system.
Right now, these Institutional Investors, or Asset Owners, as they self-identify today, are the dominant participants in a Wall Street system of securities trading in pursuit of Growth.
What if, instead of being buyers of product from Wall Street we helped these financiers discover their true identities as stewards of the shared savings of society that we set aside for retirement, for education, for philanthropy and for our future, forever, and as providers of capital to Main Street, directly?
What if we help these stewards of our shared savings discover the power they have to finance the flourish and fade of an adaptively evolving economy? To finance new technology and new enterprises while they are growing, and also established enterprises as they stay strong, and ancestral enterprises as they fade into history, gracefully?
What if we do that, right here, in the South Coast, tapping into our own collective experience as an urban cluster that has lived through this flourish and fade ourselves, more than once, and combining that with our characteristic openness to change and difference that comes from our position as a coastal community on the edge between the New World and the Old, and also our long tradition of multi-cultural diversity?
We can begin in The Macro Center, within the School of Art Architecture and Historic Preservation at Roger Williams University. This center is purpose-built to serve as a knowledge center, fiduciary space and hub for community outreach and inclusion, on-site and on-line. It has exhibition space, where a financing proposition can be presented in multiple media. It has a knowledge theater where experts from the university and elsewhere can provide context and identify risk. It has break-out rooms where students, guided by faculty, can lead salon-style discussions of the possibilities that can be open to the public, on-site and shared with a wider audience over Social Media.
In this way we can empower civic engagement in evolving community standards of prudent stewardship to guide the stewards of our shared savings — our pensions and endowments — in choosing enterprises to finance and in negotiating the terms on which that financing will be provided to fit legal contracts for sharing in enterprise cash flows, directly, inside the social contract between enterprise and popular choice, in order to generate cash flows to support good stewardship, indefinitely.
Enterprising ideas could be imported from wherever they are first conceived and developed, and brought into the Macro Center where pensions and endowments can join with academics and other exports and with an engaged citizenry in asking What if? What if we used the shared savings of society set aside for retirement, for education, for philanthropy and for our future, forever, to finance this enterprise and its social contract with popular choice? Would that be a prudent way to generate cash flows to support good stewardship?
In exchange, we would export public discourse around the proposition, and also a new framework, process and place for financial decision-making by stewards of our shared savings as financiers in their own right and important actors in an adaptively evolving financial system that is fit to function of providing good stewardship of our network economy and right for our times in the 21st Century and beyond.
To begin, I propose projects that consider new enterprises and new technologies in ecology, education and energy, that play to two special uniqueness of the South Coast Urban Cluster. One in ocean energy and ocean health. The other in design. Can we, for example, establish an urban cluster of excellence in wave energy research and development, for example, possibly leading to further research into building cities in the sea, powered by wave energy, harvesting fish for protein and algae for many other uses? And can we host work to build algorithms for inquiry-led learning, replacing the text book with the Internet?
What do you think? Let’s discuss.