Boston Firsts: A History of Innovation in the Boston Area

Since 1621, the Boston area has been one of the leading cities for innovation in the world It was here, in the young Plymouth colony, that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated. Pilgrims shared spit-roasted deer, corn porridge, and New England mussels with the local Wampanoag Native Americans.

Creativity and ingenuity seem woven into the very fabric of this city, which is now home to some of the world’s leading thinkers and entrepreneurs—and, consequently, such revered establishments as Harvard University, the first institution for higher learning in the United States.

There are so many “firsts” we can trace back to Boston—it would require an entire novel to assemble them all (Lynda Morgenroth may have been the earliest to do so, in her nearly 300-page text appropriately titled Boston Firsts). But to give you an idea of just how fundamental Boston has been to America’s distinct trailblazing spirit, we’ve collected a few of the most pivotal inventions and novelties that originated in humble Beantown.

The first public park.

Just a few years after the first Thanksgiving, Bostonians agreed to pay taxes to purchase a farm, and transform it into a community square. For centuries, it served countless public purposes (military training ground, hangings, even a shared cattle pasture). Notably, cattle from many families roamed the so-called Boston Common until the early 1800s. The beloved public space—clearly a park by the early 19th-century—has been fiercely maintained and protected by locals, who opposed a trolley line across it and forced the creation of another Boston first.

The first college.

As we already mentioned, Harvard University isn’t just one of the most respected centers of academia in the country: it’s also the oldest. In 1636, Massachusetts Bay Colony voted to open the first institute of higher education in the colonies. After the passing of the school’s primary benefactor, minister John Harvard, the college was endowed with his name. But it wasn’t until 1642 that the university had a commencement ceremony. The first class had nine students.

The first baking chocolate—and the first chocolate factory.

We all know the Aztecs discovered chocolate. But according to Morgenroth in her book Boston Firsts, two immigrants from the United Kingdom created Baker’s chocolate in Dorchester (incorporated into Boston in 1870) as early as 1765. Dr. James Baker and John Hannon opened a factory on the Neponset River, and began selling their highly successful bricks of slow-melting chocolate. We still use these cubes of cocoa to prepare baked goods and, on occasion, hot chocolate.

The first subway system in the nation.

Remember the trolley line that was rejected by Boston locals defending the Boston Common? On September 1, 1897, by way of necessity, Park Street Station opened for business. More than 100,000 people rode the underground train on opening day.

The first microwave.

Fast forward exactly 50 years after the nation’s first subway system, Boston became the site of another great technological advancement. Perry Spencer, from Cambridge, developed critical radar detection technology for World War II. Similar experiments eventually resulted in the world’s first microwave oven (a 750-pound behemoth that wouldn’t exactly fit in the modern kitchen).

In no particular order, the first printing press and, as a result, the first newspaper; the first organ transplant (a kidney, specifically); the nation’s first marathon; America’s first lighthouse; the first chocolate chip cookie; these are just a handful of other firsts that were conceived in the all-too-modest city of Boston. And with more than 100 colleges and universities in the Boston area (including MIT, Tufts, and the very first of its kind in the country, Harvard) we can expect many more firsts will follow.