Business

America's forgotten forerunner to Silicon Valley

Wright Bros fly plane Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Wright brothers, the pioneers of flight, developed their ideas in Dayton, Ohio

Before Silicon Valley became a world-renowned technology hub, the home of US innovation was in Dayton, Ohio. It's almost impossible to go one day without using one of its inventions. But how is it faring now?

One particular valley springs to mind when thinking of American innovation. It's where brilliant engineers and scrappy entrepreneurs tinker late at night in their garages, until they come up with the perfect solution to a problem. And then they found start-ups that make them fabulously wealthy.

But before Silicon Valley there was the Miami River Valley near Dayton, Ohio.

And if Silicon Valley has a prototype, it's Dayton.

By the early 20th Century, Dayton had the most patents per capita of any American city. It was home to one of the world's greatest concentrations of scientists and technicians. A sixth of all corporate executives had spent a portion of their careers in the city.

"You can hardly get through a day today in 2015 without having a connection to Dayton," says Alex Heckman, director of education for Dayton's Carillon Historical Park, full of exhibits paying homage to inventions from the area.

There's the aeroplane. The cash register. The ring pull mechanism on a can of soda. Refrigerants and air conditioning. The electric wheel chair. The modern parachute. Magnetic strip technology for credit cards. Stealth technology for aircraft. Barcode scanners. Batteries used on satellites. Scratch and sniff stickers.

Silicon Valley loves to celebrate the whole trope about coming up with a world-changing product in your garage. Well, before the garages that sheltered Hewlett and Packard, or Jobs and Wozniak, as they tinkered - there was Deeds Barn, in Dayton.

Deeds Barn is where, back in the 1910s, two Ohio farm boys from modest means, Edward Deeds and Charles Kettering, tried to solve one of the biggest problems facing the nascent auto industry: How to start a car without having to kneel down in the mud and turn an extremely heavy crank by hand. (Something only the strongest of men, and barely any women, had the strength to do.)

Image copyright SPL
Image caption Charles Kettering

"They'd sometimes work for 36 hours in a row," Heckman says. "All night, all the next day. There's a story of Kettering literally falling asleep out of exhaustion underneath the car."

Finally, they perfected an electrical part that would make it possible for anyone to start a car. They called it the Delco self-starter.

The self-starter went on to make these two Ohio farm boys, Deeds and Kettering, a lot of money. They sold the company they started in Deeds Barn to General Motors. When Charles Kettering died in 1958 he was worth $350 million.

But "self-starter" is also a pretty good metaphor for the spirit that was alive all over Dayton in its heyday of the early to mid-20th Century. The metaphor fit not just the inventors of Dayton, but also the hundreds of thousands of people who found jobs in the area mass producing all the new things being invented.

"It's a situation where success breeds success," says Heckman. "Someone could pull themselves up by their boot straps by going to work for a major manufacturing facility."

He compares the way that people now flock to Silicon Valley to "make it" in the tech economy to the way people once flocked to Dayton to climb out of poverty and become middle class.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption San Jose, California, has boomed since becoming the Silicon Valley hub of technology and innovation

"Moving from some poor rural community in central Kentucky and landing a job at 'the Cash'," Heckman says, referring to what Dayton locals called the National Cash Register factory that employed 20,000 people at its height, "you could have a life for yourself and your family."

But when Heckman goes through his museum's exhibits, celebrating the local factories and Fortune 500 companies that grew out of Dayton innovations, he can't help but think to himself: "Gosh. These companies are all gone."

James Hudson used to work at one of the last General Motors plants in the Dayton area. He lost his job when GM shut down the factory on 23 December, 2008. "That was our Christmas present from general motors," he recalls.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption One of the GM plants in Dayton, Ohio, which closed down in 2008

In the 17 years Hudson spent making trucks and SUVs on the line, he reached the middle class. Just before he lost his job he says he was making $49 per hour, including health and retirement benefits. Pretty good for a guy who never went to college, he says.

Those high wages were part of the reason GM pulled out of Dayton - they could find much cheaper labour in other parts of the world. But those high wages were also what kept James Hudson and his family -not to mention the Dayton economy and the broader American economy - running strong.

But since the plant's closure six years ago, life has been very different. Hudson received unemployment benefits and a severance package. But when that began to run out, he almost lost his house.

"It was a struggle, but I knew how to do all kinds of stuff, so I made money on the side," Hudson says. "Flea markets. Buying and selling and trading anything that I can get a hold of that I could make a dollar on. I worked to get what I got. If I lose it, it's my fault because there's too many other ways to make a dollar."

Eventually Hudson started training as an electrical line man. Now he fixes power lines across the country - although still making less than at the GM factory.

His son Adam is 22, with a son of his own to provide for. After his dad got laid off, Adam dropped out of high school and started working as much as he could, while his dad was struggling.

"I think I actually cried the day I dropped out," he says. "But I was trying to help him out as best as I could."

Image caption Adam and John Hudson

But with no high school qualifications, the only jobs Adam can get pay little more than minimum wage. He's worked at Walmart, Target, and a string of fast food restaurants - McDonalds, Steak and Shake, Bob Evans.

Part of his trouble keeping a job is because he has no reliable way to get to work. Public transport is sporadic in his Dayton suburb. And the irony is that the son of a man who used to make automobiles for a living cannot afford one.

But despite sleeping on his sister's couch for the last few months, Adam remains optimistic. His latest job is making dough at Little Caesars and we sit down to talk before his next shift.

He opens a can of Mountain Dew, using that Dayton-born ring pull technology. Then he shows me a pep talk he wrote for himself on his phone recently, when he was feeling especially horrible.

"You're the only one who can change your destiny - the only one who can find your purpose in this world. No one to hold your hand or pick you up. You must pick yourself up time after time and dust yourself off. Because you're the one who's going to do this.

"You're the one who's going to win this battle. You're the one who's going to make you happy and others may be there to help you but you're the one who has to do this, not them. So get up, get ready and show them how it's done because you CAN DO THIS."

And then he goes outside, does a back flip, and heads off to work.

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