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Posts Tagged ‘nineteenth-century Boston’

THE TECHNOLOGISTS by Matthew Pearl: Book Review

When something has been around for your whole life (and longer than that), you often don’t think about its beginnings.  I certainly never thought about how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came into being–it was just always there. But, of course, it had to start sometime, and that time was in 1861 in Boston (not Cambridge, another fact I hadn’t thought about).

The Technologists, Matthew Pearl’s latest historical mystery, takes place in 1868, the year the Institute will hold its first graduation. The middle of the nineteenth century is usually seen as the end of the Industrial Revolution and its incredible technological breakthroughs–the steam engine, the mechanization of cotton mills, the telegraph.

But, of course, these technologies impacted on the lives of workers, many of whom were fearful of losing their livelihood to these improved means of manufacture or transportation.  Then there were those who thought all technology and science was the work of the devil and vowed to oppose any advancements.  And to add to this mix was the immediate rivalry between Harvard College, then a mature two hundred and twenty years old, and the upstart Institute of Technology.

As the novel opens, the Institute is ready to graduate its first class, but it is rapidly running out of funds, its president will shortly suffer a major stroke, and some of its small faculty want to have the school incorporated into the vastly larger and more prestigious Harvard College. To add to these problems, someone is terrorizing Boston with a series of horrific events–a massive collision of boats in the harbor, glass melting in the windows of the Financial District, deadly explosions on the city’s streets.  Many of the citizens of the city are certain that the new Institute is to blame.

Four of the Institute’s students, led by Marcus Mansfield, a “charity scholar” and former worker in the Hammond Locomotive Works, band together to try to use their technical knowledge to find the perpetrator of these crimes. They are a diverse group that, in addition to Marcus, includes his close friend Bob Richards; the lone woman at the Institute, Ellen Swallow; and the student vying for the position of class scholar, Edwin Hoyt.  Working secretly in a basement room of the Institute, they race against time and prejudice to discover what is behind the disasters that are plaguing their city.

The Technologists is a fascinating book.  The city of Boston comes alive.  You can see what life was like in this proud City on a Hill that regarded itself as the Hub of the nation; along with New York, it was the financial center of the country in the nineteenth century.  The city was ruled by a small class of people who came to be known as the Boston Brahmins, people of social connections, money, and educational pedigrees, and many of those leaders were proud alumni of Harvard College.

Indeed, one of the themes running through The Technologists is the fact that Marcus Mansfield is a “factory boy” and, regardless of his expected degree from the Institute, he will never be seen as more than that.  Certainly not in Boston.  And to more than one of the Harvard men, it is inconceivable that Marcus’s friend Bob Richards would have chosen the Institute rather than the College that many of his family had attended.

Matthew Pearl has added to his previous books about Boston–The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, The Last Dickens–with this excellent novel. You can read more about him at his web site.