Mercer County’s History as Innovation Center Is Topic of Symposium at The College of New Jersey
As the celebration of Mercer County’s 175th anniversary continues, the focus shifts from architecture, the subject of a recent symposium, to technology. “Mercer Makes: Innovation & Technology in the Capital County” is the title of another day-long session being held this Friday, at the College of New Jersey. Professors from Princeton University, local historians, and experts are among those on the program.
“We have an amazing legacy of creativity, innovation, and industry throughout Mercer County,” said County Executive and Princeton native Brian M. Hughes. “We’re proud to share this part of Mercer’s history during our 175th anniversary year.”
It was in Mercer County, after all, that the wire rope for the Brooklyn Bridge and other suspension spans was developed and manufactured. That was in Trenton, the same location of the flourishing pottery industry in the mid-19th century. A few miles north in Princeton, the American electronics industry took off, decades before Silicon Valley became synonymous with high-tech innovation.
“We had a planning committee made up of at least five departments in the county, working together on this,” said Tricia Fagan, Mercer County’s historic outreach specialist. “When we started talking about the aspects of history we wanted to celebrate, the innovation and technology came up right away. And we realized it was also something that would be a good segue across the 175 year span.”
Emily Thompson, a professor of history at Princeton University, moderates the first session of the day. Historian and author Clifford Zink, whose topic is “Mercer Makes … Iron & Steel,” will trace the way iron and steel innovations in Trenton helped transform modern life with new methods of transportation, construction, and communications. Richard Hunter, founder and president of the archaeology firm Hunter Research, will speak on “Innovation, Technology Transfer, and Entrepreneurialism in the Trenton Potteries, 1850-1930.” Mr. Hunter will provide an overview of Trenton’s industrial potteries, their emergence in the city and their principal output.
Michael G. Littman, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University, will discuss the 19th century innovator Joseph Henry, a Princeton professor who left the University in 1846 to spearhead the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Mr. Henry was instrumental in developing the telegraph and electric motor during his years at the University.
David Sarnoff, RCA president, is the topic of another session led by Benjamin Gross, who is consultant and curator to the recently opened Sarnoff Collection at The College of New Jersey. Christine Di Bella, archivist at the Institute for Advanced Study, will discuss the history and mission of the Institute and highlight some of its key contributions to the world of ideas.
“Inventions, Communications & the Future” is the title of a session to be moderated by Katherine Kish, executive director of Einstein’s Alley. Serving on the panel are former Princeton mayoral candidate Dick Woodbridge, partner in the law firm Fox Rothschild, speaking on “Mercer County — Intellectual Property Powerhouses — Past and Future;” Greg Olsen, president of GHO Ventures and one of three private citizens in the world to orbit the earth on board the International Space Station, presenting “From Entrepreneurship to Spaceship;” and historian Alexander Magoun of IEEE History Center, speaking on “Beyond and After RCA Labs in Mercer County.”
The topics were selected after meetings with a subcommittee and much winnowing down. “There is so much we hoped to squeeze in,” Ms. Fagan said, “so many industries to choose from, like GM and Switlik Parachute, which was huge. We just had to narrow it down.”
“Mercer Makes’ is the third event in a series celebrating the 175th anniversary of Mercer County. Still to come is a photography exhibit at Mercer County Community College. Ms. Fagan is hoping that the momentum will continue even after the milestone is officially passed. “We’re getting requests to do more, and we might look at doing that as a county,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to be able to highlight not only our history, but knowledge we have here, and it would be nice to continue that down the line.”