Wednesday, September 15, 2021

"We Wuz Robbed": A Tale of Innovation, Genealogy, and Taffy-Pulling Machines

Hildreth Velvet candy is
essential to our tale.
Thanks to
Barbara Cain Froman,
the great-granddaughter
of Nelson Hildreth,
for sharing her wonderful
collection of cards
and pictures with me,
and allowing me to
share them
with you on this blog.

When it became apparent last year that the COVID lockdown was going to last not days or weeks but months, I committed to three goals. 

First, I wanted to give Innovation on Tap a fighting chance, so I did as many Zoom presentations and podcasts as I could, casting my fate to the wind (and face to the web), from Boston and Florida to California and the Philippines.

Second, I wanted to survive open-heart surgery, which I’d put off until my cardiologist at Beth Israel made me an offer I couldn't refuse. As I wrote about here, in January 2021, I got a pig.

And finally, I decided it was time to read my grandmother’s journals, more than thirty years of daily entries beginning in the late 1950s through her death in 1993. I’m pretty sure I was the first, and almost certain I will be the last person ever to take on this task.

And therein--goal number three--lies my tale.

“Wuz I Robbed?”

If I was expecting to read all about me in those journals, I was sorely disappointed. Oh, I showed up now and then with a broken leg or maybe a new job, but I was one of a flock of grand, great and great-great grandchildren, and more or less, in literary terms, an appendage to my mother. Her generation got all the love.

In reading the journals, I was committed, as the biographer Robert Caro advised, to “turn every page” on the off-chance that Nana, as we called my maternal grandmother Baker, would drop her guard and really let loose. This reading strategy was tedious and yielded many school committee meetings and trips to the supermarket, but also an occasional juicy tidbit.

For example, I learned some things about my grandfather I. did. not. need. to. know. And then there was the relative who abandoned his wife and then returned, all while I was trying to master long division in second grade. (Who knew?) There were also the elderly great-relatives, always nice to me, maybe because, most days, they were three sheets to the wind by noontime.

My grandmother's journals. Robert Caro said, "read every page," so I did.
But the entry that caught my attention, and soon had me powering up my Family Tree Maker software along with and American Ancestors websites, was this:

"Eva’s brother was Lester. He lived in Needham. He was a stockbroker. He married Myrtle Hildreth. Her father and her uncle invented the machine that made saltwater taffy. Someone gave them a big story and talked them out of it. Then he turned around and sold it.  Aunt Myrtle used to cry over it."

What? Invented the machine that made saltwater taffy? Aunt Myrtle? Who was Aunt Myrtle?

Had I been denied my rightful inheritance and life fortune by some skullduggery that happened long before my birth?

Wuz I robbed?

This required an investigation.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

I Got a Pig: Reflections From the Cutting Edge of Cardiac Innovation


A cat will look down to a man. A dog will look up to a man. But a pig will look you straight in the eye and see his equal.” -- Winston Churchill

Of all the innovations I've been exposed to through the years, from TempTales and modern air conditioning to cotton gins and Hamilton, the one closest to my heart is the 23MM Epic Supravalve. 

Six months ago today, surgeons at Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston cracked open my chest, switched on their magic heart-lung machine, cut out my wonky, calcified aortic valve, and sutured in a new, porcine Epic Supravalve.

In another place or time, I might have received a bovine valve, or even one taken from a cadaver. Was I a little younger, I might have chosen a valve made out of carbon. 

But as it happened, on January 28, 2021, lying on an operating table not far from Fenway Park, I got a pig.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

"Innovation on Tap" Excerpt # 9: Willis Carrier, Entrepreneur (119 Years Later)

The seventh chapter of "Innovation on Tap" is the story of entrepreneur Willis Carrier and the birth of modern air conditioning, which celebrates its 119th anniversary today. The excerpt below moves the story ahead some 13 years, to the launch of Carrier Engineering Corporation as a standalone company by Willis and his partner, J.I. Lyle.

While we think of HVAC today as a multi-billion dollar, global, growth industry, the story of Carrier’s launch—in the teeth of World War I, when global trade had ground to a halt--reminds us of just how nimble, innovative, and entrepreneurial Willis and his partners had to be to succeed. 

For more on Carrier and its storied history, see here.


Carrier Engineering Corporation (CEC) opened for business on July 1, 1915. It was a classic start-up. Willis Carrier rented two rooms in the Mutual Life Building in Buffalo for himself, a secretary, and one draftsman. “We ended up with second-hand furniture—two desks, a drafting board and stool and a few files," his secretary recalled. "We had two wicker chairs for visitors, and Mr. Carrier’s friends would ask him if he had swiped them from a tavern.”

Carrier Engineering raised enough cash to run the business for six months without a sale. "This was certainly cutting it pretty fine," Willis recalled. And, for eighteen days, the new company languished. But what World War I had taken away, it suddenly returned. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Tweets for Tweets (4): My Favorite Bird Photos of H1 2021

Common Grackle, stained-glass variety

The first six months of 2021 were a blur. I checked into Beth Israel in Boston at the end of January to have my wonky aortic valve replaced and, ever since, have been working out my new normal. 

That's in addition to finding the other, post-COVID, new normal that we've all been seeking. 

Hoping we're post-COVID, of course.

Birding turns out to be the perfect activity for someone ordered by his cardiologist to walk an hour every day. And with Audubon trips just resuming, everything in the first half of 2021 has been local, gentle, and mostly solo.

I'm looking forward to the second half of 2021. Meals at restaurants. Gettysburg visits. Puffins. Old Colony cemetery walks. Nantucket. Book-talks for Innovation on Tap. The next book. A new white paper or two. A blog post or three. A wedding. Maybe a West Coast junket. My new porcine valve--monitored by Sensitech, I assume--needs only to open and close 1.3 million times to get me through to New Year's. 

Piece of cake. 😎🐷

Below are some of my favorite bird photos from the first six months of 2021.

Snowy Owl

Chipping Sparrow in full camo


Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Luxury of Feeling Good (Redux 2021)

As I recuperate from recent surgery, still too green around the gills to research and write an entirely new blog post, I'm re-upping this post from August 2016. I will never again take the luxury of feeling good for granted.

I'm also thinking today of long-haul COVID survivors, hoping we can find a way to heal them.

(August 2016) A few weeks ago I took an Amtrak round-trip to New York City.  I enjoy riding the train, which gives me four undisturbed hours each way to work.  On this particular day, however, I was feeling just a wee bit green, like that time I should have gotten off the sailboat 15 minutes earlier than I did. 

I knew I was in trouble when I opened my iPad and tried to read.  A little rumbly.  A little hazy.  A little green.  I closed the cover, and my eyes, and thought happy thoughts. 

Maybe it was too much sun the day before, or maybe something I ate. Maybe it was simply the human condition.  Whatever the case, I was just slightly off my game that day—not too sick to cancel the trip, but not quite well enough to be comfortable and productive.

There exists in our modern world the presumption--or maybe better--the luxury of feeling good. Some combination of healthy food, enough sleep, exercise, aspirin, and access to real medical care when required have been foundational to my decades in the workforce.  Yours too, undoubtedly.  I know there are unfortunate people who suffer without relief, but most of my co-workers through the years have been able to function comfortably on a daily basis thanks to the many blessings of modern life, from coffee to cold packs to dentists to Tylenol, that keep us upright and productive.

What makes the luxury of feeling good so special is that we are among the very first generations of humankind to expect each day to be pain-free and generally comfortable.

Expecting to Die on Your First Job