Innovation in Gloucester? Then, now, always

By Tom Balf

Innovation? Truthfully, I love the idea. But in the 21st Century, the word is trite, to the point where it has become almost pedestrian (much like the word sustainability.) Words not only lose meaning when overused, they lose impact. After all, humans have reshaped the world and solved problems since the dawn of opposable thumbs and large cerebral cortex. In other words, to be human is to innovate.

Today, the word innovation connotes “technology” and a subsequent patent, license or trademark. Or it implies an idea that fuels visions of future financial gain. This is all well and good, but I find myself increasingly attracted to retro “old school” innovation, especially as it relates to Gloucester and the harbor.



A good idea, developed by an experienced mariner, solves a problem. Financial reward may or may not follow, but that’s not the point. Everyone knows about frozen food and Birdseye in Gloucester, or the technological wizardry of John Hays Hammond. But the history of our community is the story of many (hundreds? thousands?) of innovations that have changed our working waterfront over the years.

For example, the marine railway comes to mind, given that we have the oldest continuously operating one in the country at Maritime Gloucester. Its invention helped to expand the boat repair business that, in concert with Essex shipbuilding prowess, powered the fishing and maritime economy of Gloucester for a solid 75 years.



There’s also copper paint and the Tarr & Wonson (now Ocean Alliance) Paint factory, where anti-fouling paint was first created. Fish distribution and marketing innovations begun by Gorton’s and the Frank E. Davis companies more than a century ago are the roe of seafood industry marketing innovations pursued today by companies such as Gortons, Ocean Crest, Intershell, Mortillaros, Proteus, as well as organizations like Cape Ann Fresh Catch and initiatives around Community Supported Fisheries.

Add gear technology innovations, marine research, food processing advances and boat innovations like Rule Industries’ bilge pump and, well, you see the wealth of intellectual innovation capital in this community, both then and now.



Maritime Gloucester is here to tell the tales of innovation, present today’s fishing, ocean and maritime challenges, and, most importantly, prepare the next generation with science process skills, mariner’s perspective and hands-on experiences. An important component of that preparation means hours.

In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.  With more than 1,500 kids on Cape Ann putting in a total of 12,000 hours in our Ocean Explorers program, both at our campus and in the classroom, we hope that students are discovering their world and developing the skills to continue the great tradition of innovation on Gloucester Harbor.

Practice makes perfect. Understanding unleashes improvements. And hours on the waterfront matter to both. Innovation in Gloucester? Always.

Tom Balf is the Executive Director of Maritime Gloucester, a working waterfront museum, a marine and maritime educational organization and a visitor destination.



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