Rensselaer County Historical Society

Designing Modern America

In a remarkably analogous pattern, the area around the Rensselaer Institute of the 1800s behaved very much like the Silicon Valley of the 19th century. To be sure, every event in the past is unique to its time and place, so equating any two of them is a dangerous undertaking. And calling any 19th-century site a Silicon Valley is in some ways recklessly anachronistic. Nonetheless, comparisons between the two phenomena, one centered around Troy in the mid-1800s, the other centered around Stanford in the mid-1900s, are instructive in the extreme.
The Library of Congress
The Stealth Bomber of 1862, the USS Monitor was built with hull plates and rivets from Troy and with lobbying from John Winslow, a Rensselaer president. Note the dents from cannon balls in the turret.
  "Today's Silicon Valley and its many would-be clones, including the upper Hudson's own nascent Tech Valley, are pivotal to the transition from an urban-industrial, modernist culture to a post-industrial, postmodern entity that we still don't understand terribly well. In the Troy area's Silicon Valley of the 19th century, the transition was from rural agrarian lifestyles to the urban-industrial, modernist cultural system we all tend to take for granted as the normal or default way of life. The story of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is intimately intertwined with some of the earliest realizations in people's heads that Dorothy and Toto would be abandoning the farms of Kansas for the charms of Emerald-City modernity, and with designing that modern world as well.
  First and foremost, in both Silicon Valley now and in Greater Troy then, we see a deliberate, coordinated attempt to make cutting-edge technological innovation the focus for regional economic prosperity. Stephen Van Rensselaer's almost medieval sense of responsibility for the well-being of his subjects on his lands helped make him an advocate for engineered social change in an age when "internal improvements" were a popular cause. In his lifetime of civic acts, he was one of many upper-Hudson leaders who very much anticipated Silicon Valley mastermind Frederick Terman at Stanford by advocating specific infrastructure improvements to grow the region in what we would now call a high-tech direction. He and premier Rensselaer professor Amos Eaton and others promoted educational infrastructure improvements, including of course the creation of the Rensselaer School but also including the cultivation of the Albany Academy and of Emma Willard's Troy Female Seminary, the hosting of the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Albany in 1851 and, at about that same time, a doomed attempt to create a "national university" for the whole country based in Albany. (The Dudley Observatory remains the prime enduring legacy of that failed attempt.)
   In like fashion, Van Rensselaer and others promoted transportation infrastructure improvements, most notably the first Erie Canal that opened in 1825, but also including the promotion of steamboats on the Hudson, the first American railroad line deliberately designed for use with a steam locomotive (the Mohawk and Hudson), the building of numerous area bridges, the retention of Henry Burden to construct a then-cutting-edge horse-powered ferryboat and, later, the building of numerous railroads in the area and the securing of the exclusive rights to a railroad bridge across the Hudson, at the present location of the Green Island Bridge in downtown Troy. Third, he and others deliberately promoted the creation of what we would now call an investment banking infrastructure, one that included 22 banks in 19th-century Troy alone, with many more across the river.



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