Discovering Tech Valley

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Discovering Tech Valley
By Paul M. Bray

May 2009

The writer of a travel piece on Silicon Valley in the Escape section of the NY Times was asked by a car full of Italian tourists, “Can you tell us where we can go to see Silicon Valley?” Not easy he thought because “the valley is a much a state of mind as a physical place”.

What would I tell a visitor if asked where to go to see our “tech valley”? I would begin with our first brush with tech 400 years ago.

If you dig deep into our history, there is much more to tech valley than many people realize. When it comes to the present, we are a work in progress, as much a product of Chamber of Commerce branding mimicking Silicon Valley as a “technological powerhouse” creating new industries.

Our real claim to being tech valley goes back to 1609 with exploration of Henry Hudson and the Half Moon. Chip Reynolds, Captain of a current replica of the Half Moon, recently told visitors to the ship at the Port of Albany, “the Half Moon was the internet of its day”. Ships like it were the means of European exploration, trade, study and newly gained knowledge of the world and the universe as sailors tracked planets and stars.

Frank Dean from the National Park Service calls the Erie Canal the internet of 19th century. It carried information back and forth from the Atlantic coast to settlements in the middle of America. The Erie Canal made Albany a gateway city, a lumber and hog capital of the nation as goods along with information flowed east on the Canal.

Later in the 19th century, the Hudson-Mohawk communities of Troy, Cohoes, Watervliet, Green Island and Waterford according to Tom Carroll from the Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway were “the Silicon Valley” or industrial powerhouse of its time. The Burden Iron Works, Watervliet Arsenal, Harmony Mills and other industries flourished.

Tech valley as the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce presents it, 18 counties stretching more than 250 miles in eastern New York, is physically difficult to grasp. Let us think about an historic tech valley now centered in the counties of Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady and Saratoga and emerging today from educational and research laboratory facilities.

Some of today’s tech valley landmarks are visible like the starkly white and growing complex of the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering on the western side of UAlbany, the RPI Tech Park and the recently completed EMPAC at RPI. Scores of other research and tech facilities like the Wadsworth Center, Ordway Research Institute, GE Global Research Center are less visible. They are described on www.technologyroadmap.org.

Add up the technology assets we have today and it is awesome but below the national and international radar. It should be enough to capture the world’s imagination and make us a global crossroads, but we don’t have the notoriety of a Silicon Valley.

In part it is because our latest stage of development is still emerging and haven’t generated our Bill and Dave (Hewlett and Packard) or the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) who created entirely new industries as Henry Burden did in 19th century Troy and Thomas Edison did in Schenectady.

It may be that we don’t see the bigger picture of our cities and region or see it well enough to connect the Half Moon with the Erie Canal, the 19th century Burden Iron Works, the pre-World War II GE and what is happening now. If we don’t see how special we have been and are, we are not likely to claim our rightful place in the nation’s folklore as Silicon Valley has done.

Tech valley has no shortage of tech boosters, but what we really need are interpreters (a type of educator and communicator) who use media, publications, exhibits, signage and publications to convey the story of place or region, connect the dots from the Half Moon to today’s nanotech and bio tech and thereby use history to enlighten us and others around the world about the prospects from our many research labs. History or heritage matters.

Paul M. Bray is Founding President of the Albany Roundtable Civic Lunch Forum. His e-mail is secsunday@aol.com.