Six Routes

Finding the beta version of Silicon Valley

Marketplace Contributor Mar 20, 2015
Six Routes

Finding the beta version of Silicon Valley

Marketplace Contributor Mar 20, 2015

There is probably a particular valley that springs to mind when you think of American innovation. It’s the place where brilliant engineers and scrappy entrepreneurs with a hunch about a new way to solve a problem tinker late at night in their garages, until they come up with the perfect answer. And then they found start-ups that make them fabulously wealthy.

Forget about the valley you’re probably thinking of for a moment, and know this: Before there was Silicon Valley, there was the Miami River Valley where Dayton, Ohio is located.

If Silicon Valley has a beta version, 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. One-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, the Director of Education for Dayton’s Carillon Historical Park.

Carillon Historical Park is full of exhibits paying homage to inventions from the area.

A short list: the airplane, the cash register, the pop top on can of soda, Freon and air conditioning, the electric wheel chair, the modern parachute, magnetic strip technology for credit cards, stealth technology for aircraft, bar-code scanners, batteries used on satellites and scratch-and-sniff stickers.

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

The plaque on Deeds Barn on display at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio.

Deeds Barn is where, back in the 1910s, a couple of Ohio farm boys from modest means, Edward Deeds and Charles Kettering, tried to solve one of the biggest and most important 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 upper body strength to do.

“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” as he tried to come up with a solution.

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

But “self-starter” is also a pretty good description for the spirit that was alive all over Dayton in its heyday of the early- to mid-20th century. It 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 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 make it in to the middle class.

“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. A nice home and the rest of it.”

But of course — and you probably knew this was coming — Heckman says when he 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 area all gone.”

James Hudson, a big man with a white beard, 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 December 23, 2008.

“That was our Christmas present from General Motors,” he says.

In the 17 years Hudson spent making trucks and SUVs on the line, he climbed in to the middle class. In the last years 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 labor much cheaper 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.

“We was living comfortable,” Hudson says.

His son, Adam, elaborates: “We had vacation every summer. Like if we wanted to go out and do something — we could afford it.  If we wanted to go to the movies? We could afford it.  If we wanted to buy some new toys for Adam? We could afford it.”

Since the plant shut down six years ago, life has been very different for the Hudson family. For a while the father, James, got unemployment benefits and a severance package. But when 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,” he 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, James Hudson started training as an electrical line man, he now fixes power lines across the country. But he says he’s still not making as much as he made at the GM factory.

Adam Hudson is now 22, with a son of his own. He has a big smile and a wiry frame and twin tattoos that he says represent will-power and rage. 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.”

But with no high-school degree, the only jobs Adam can get don’t pay much more than minimum wage. He has worked at Walmart, Target, and a string of fast-food restaurants McDonald’s, Steak and Shake, Bob Evans. He’s worked third-shift job cleaning a movie theater. He’s worked temp at a few of the remaining plants in Dayton, making siding for houses.

He says he has had trouble keeping a job because he doesn’t have a reliable way to get to work. Public transit in the Dayton suburb he lives in is spotty. And ironically, the son of a man who used to make automobiles for a living cannot afford one.

“It’s kind of downhill, gradually” he says.  

Still, amazingly. Adam has undeniable optimism about his future. I visited him recently at his sister’s house. He’s been sleeping on her couch for the last few months. Before he headed out to work, his latest job is making dough at Little Caesars, we sat down for a few minutes to talk.

He offered me a lemonade and opened up a can of Mountain Dew, using that Dayton born pop-top technology. He wanted to show me something on his phone: a pep talk he wrote down for himself a couple months ago, 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 went outside, did a back flip, and headed off to work. 

Click on the audio above to hear Marketplace’s Lizzie O’Leary take a tour of the metro area with the highest rate of upward mobility in the country.

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