Friday, February 2, 2001
Chickens and Eggs
When I was a kid and trying to figure out how the world works, I was particularly puzzled by a sort of chicken-and-egg problem. I could see that one could make things with tools. Knitting needles turned yarn into sweaters. My father's lathe turned wood into dollhouse lamps. I knew that tools made cars and houses and washing machines and even other tools. But I kept wondering where it all began. If you didn't have any tools, how could you make tools to make stuff? How did it all get started?
On Sunday I got at least a partial answer at the Saugus Iron Works, a reconstruction of the first operational iron production factory in the Colonies; they cast pig iron and forged bars and "nail rods" for about 25 years in the mid-17th century. They did it pretty much from scratch; they didn't go to some industrial Wal-Mart to buy a blast furnace or forge. The whole operation was made from local materialswood, stone, bog iron and water. A nearby entrepreneur named Joseph Jenks, holder of the first patent issued on the American continent, manufactured scythes and saws from the Saugus iron.
The blast furnace itself was a stone and clay construction at the foot of a dam that provided water power for large water wheels which drove huge bellows (made of leather and wood) and forge hammers, by means of hand-carved wooden cams on the shafts. Molten iron ran from the furnace into trenches dug by hand in the dirt. Ingots so roughly cast went to the forge that turned them into iron, from which blacksmiths created shovels, saws, and nails to supply the first building boom on our continent.
Saugus was in business a good 200 years before the Industrial Revolution, and management was not a well-developed practicehence the short lifetime of the project. They still relied on the imperial model of labor, where one acquired indentured servants (in this case Scots captured by Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650) and simply ordered them to work. The ultimate discord brought an end to the experiment. Management was a vital element still needed before large industry could survive.
Surely such forays into industrial revolution happened over and over, in Saugus, The City of Carlisle, the Roman Empire, the midlands of England and the great river valleys of Germany. Small successes inspired people to try again, until someone finally learned how to make tools, shoes, textiles and semiconductor chips without starting from scratch each time. "Chicken" industries sprang from many such "eggs," most of them (like Saugus) infertile.
The ingenuity of these early engineers and budding industrialists is astounding even now. They emerged from a cottage-industry world, lifting themselves by bootstraps into an industrial economy that would still be debated over a century later and realized (in the USA) in the mills of Lowell and Lawrence and the Blackstone River Valley in another 50 years. Little ventures like Saugus made the first tools to make tools to make more tools and goods. My childhood question was answered at the tiny, rustic furnace of Saugus.
Go there and be amazed; the water wheels start turning again in April. It's about five miles from exit 43 on Route 128.
Give METCO a Break
Carlisle's finance committee is to be commended for the hard work they are doing. They have managed, for the most part, to steer the ship of Carlisle finances along a conservative and fiscally responsible course. It is understandable why they would balk at the suggestion of a 21.4 percent increase in the Concord-Carlisle High School's budget. Their prospect of a potential remedy for the high school's budget woes, that CCHS "look seriously at getting rid of METCO," (Mosquito, January 26) is an example of taking the wrong tack.
Poor METCOit was begun 35 years ago as an attempt to offer minority students the chance at a better education, as well as a way to help desegregate suburban schools. Lately, it seems that whenever an issue of school performance arises, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunities (METCO) comes under fire. Whether used as a scapegoat for causing poor MCAS scores in a North Shore school system, or vilified as an unnecessary drain on school budgets, the program seems to provide an easy and expendable target. The problem, as one member of our finance committee pointed out, is that what METCO provides is "non-quantifiable." How do you measure the importance of a diverse population to our children's high school experience? How do you "quantify" the experience of going to school with fellow students who highly prize what our children often take for granteda chance to be educated at one of the top high schools in the state? METCO students rise before dawn every school day to catch the 6:15 a.m. bus that leaves Boston, put in a full day of school and, if they are fortunate and don't have to get to a job, participate in after-school activities such as athletics and band, and then arrive home in the evening to face the same hours of homework that our children face. How do you assess the value of a program that has been running successfully at our shared high school for 34 years?
The cost of most items in the CCHS budget is high, and the state has level-funded the METCO program for a number of years now, only serving to increase Concord and Carlisle's monetary commitment. The FinCom is right to be cautious when it looks at the high school's budget, but METCO has proven itself to be an asset to CCHS and generations of students. Challenging its very existence, while not meant to be hard-hearted, we are sure, was nevertheless wrong-headed.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito