Waltham: Birthplace of an Industrial Revolution

Click here for pictures of the CRMI

Every American knows the importance Massachusetts has to the American Revolution. But fewer know how important Massachusetts was to a another revolution, an Industrial Revolution. And that Revolution started in Waltham.

The story of industrial innovation in Massachusetts begins with Francis Cabot Lowell. In the early days of the United States, most manufacturing was still performed in Europe. However, in the early 19th century, various conflicts including the War of 1812, disrupted the flow of manufactured goods to the former colonies. Lowell, while on a tour of British textile mills, studied how the mills operated, and brought that knowledge back to the US.

Then, in 1813, Lowell and a group of investors chose a site in the town of Waltham on the Charles River and set up the Boston Manufacturing Company. The mill was instrumental to insuring American freedom, according to Dan Yaeger, executive director of the Charles River Museum of Industry. “What got started up the road in Lexington and Concord really wasn’t completed until we created this industrial independence here in Waltham,” Yaeger said.

That factory was home to multiple firsts.

  • It was the first fully integrated textile mill in the world. Bales of cotton went in one end of the mill, finished cloth came out the other.

  • It was the first time in the United States young women were employed as the predominant workforce.

  • It was the first company-sponsored employee housing.

  • It was the first industrial corporation.

  • It suffered the first industrial labor strike in the United States.

These firsts were recognized by Life in 1975 as the fourth most influential event in American history, after the Battle of Saratoga, the founding of Washington, D.C. and the Louisiana Purchase.

Yaeger said that the creation of the mill started “a culture of innovation in the community that extends, actually, on into today.”

The Boston Manufacturing Company finally closed in Waltham in 1930. The building that housed the company hosted a string of other manufacturing businesses, but by the mid-1970s, the building sat vacant. There were even talks of demolishing the building, but the building was saved by a group of industrial archaeologists by getting it entered onto the National Register of Historic Places. A property developer bought the mill and wanted to develop it for use as an affordable senior housing. However, due to building requirements, a certain portion of the development had to be set aside for public use.

That public use came to be the Charles River Museum of Industry, founded in 1980. Yaeger said the mission of the CRMI is to “encourage and inspire future innovation in America by looking at the works of the past.”

There is a large section devoted to the Waltham Watch Company, founded in 1854. The company was in operation for 100 years, and by its closing had produced 30 million watches for sale around the world.

Steven Breitenfeld of Lexington said he loved the “physicalness” of the museum, and was impressed by the watch exhibit, especially watches that had “gears so small you couldn’t even look at them.”

Other highlights of the collection include:

  • The original steam-powered, horse-drawn Waltham fire engine.

  • A belt operated, 1900s machine shop.

  • An extensive exhibit on early motorcycles and automobiles, including examples of some of the first steam powered cars.

  • A refrigerator-sized computer memory unit that holds 2 kilobytes of data.

Fred Widmer, a staff member at the CRMI, said the he likes how the museum is a hands-on place. “It is a fine place to visit,” he said.

“Its not so much the nuts and bolts, the bricks and mortar, … its really the idea of innovation is what got started in this area and our Yankee ingenuity that we all celebrate as Americans is really one of the traits that we’ve got as a country and it is exhibited very well in this area and of course in this museum,” Yaeger said. “Its kind of a fun, out of the way place for people to come and discover on their own.”

The museum is open Thursdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

City: Waltham

Name of Place: Charles River Museum of Industry

Site founded: 1980

Location: 154 Moody Street, Waltham, Mass. (click for directions)

Hours: Thursday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Admission: $5, $3 for seniors and students, Age 6 and under is free

City: Waltham

City Founded: 1636

City Population: 59,352 (2006) 

Commuter Rail Stop: Waltham, Fitchburg/South Acton Line

Departs from: North Station

Zone: 2

Fare: $4.75



Charles River Museum of Industry

City of Waltham

MBTA Waltham Commuter Rail Stop Information