Boston, A City In Ascent: Massachusetts' Fascinating Aeronautical Heritage

Harvard-Boston Aero Meet in September 1910. Image via Latinstock

APEX Insight: The flow of thinkers out of one of America’s smartest cities has made countless contributions to the airline industry, regarding everything from aircraft engineering to travel booking.

In January 1910, Los Angeles hosted the first-ever air show in the United States, drawing more than 200,000 spectators who gathered to see aerial showmen straddle the line between life and death. In September of that year, a second show of the kind was held at what was christened the Harvard Aviation Field in Squantum, Massachusetts, organized by a group of university faculty, alumni and students who joined to form the Harvard Aeronautical Society.

Bostonians raised some $50,000 for the 1910 Harvard-Boston Aero Meet, including more than $40,000 in prize money for contests in speed, distance, flight duration, altitude and accuracy in landing. The show is estimated to have attracted an audience of one million, many of whom were witnessing heavier-than-air machines take off for the first time.

“The list of people who came to the show – as either a flyer or a spectator – was just incredible,” says Frederick R. Morin, co-author of Massachusetts Aviation and past president of the Massachusetts Aviation Historical Society. “Everyone was excited because it was the first time in history that a Wright brother [Wilbur], Glenn Curtiss and Starling Burgess were all in the same place at the same time. It was just incredible historically.”

Onlookers included President William Howard Taft, Franklin D. Roosevelt (at the time, a New York state representative) and Boston Mayor John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald flew in an airplane for the first time at the show, alongside British pilot Claude Grahame-White, after which he was recorded having said, “It struck me that in a way, aeroplaning is safer than automobiling, for if anything had happened, there seemed to be very much turf for one to glide down to and alight upon safely. It is my opinion that aeroplanes will shortly be so perfected as to be safer than autos.”

The Harvard Aeronautical Society went on to organize a second meet in 1911, which drew another famous English pilot, Thomas Sopwith, creator of the World War I fighter, as well as Earle L. Ovington, a Boston native who would become the country’s first airmail pilot. The following year, William A.P. Willard, who had helped manage the previous meets, organized a third air show – the first in the US in which female aviators competed.

But Harvard wasn’t the only Massachusetts academic institution to drive aviation forward at the time, Morin says: “MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] was really the key to a lot of the technology and so much of the early work in the aviation industry. I couldn’t even begin to catalog what they’ve done.” But he does point to one key figure, Jerome C. Hunsaker, who in 1909 enrolled to study naval construction at MIT, where he developed a deep fascination in aeronautics. After graduating in 1912 and completing a two-year tour of Europe, he returned to the institute to initiate the first course in aeronautics engineering at an American university.

Hunsaker went on to build, with his assistant Donald Douglas, the first effective wind tunnel for the study of aerodynamics in the country; design the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic Ocean; and found one of the first departments for aeronautical engineering in the US. “The total effect of our graduates on the airplane industry cannot be estimated,” Hunsaker said. “But it is of interest to note that MIT graduates include the chief engineers or engineering directors of Curtiss-Wright, Glenn L. Martin, Pratt & Whitney, Vought, Hamilton Standard, Lockheed, Stearman, and Douglas, as well as the engineer officers of the Naval Aircraft Factory and of Wright Field.”


If the Harvard-Boston Aero Meet presented the possibility of heavier-than-air flying machines to the general public and nearby universities made them an increasingly viable mode of transportation, then it was in large part the efforts of software experts based in the Boston area that would go on to make them universally accessible. 

Travel tech took off in Boston in 1996 when a group of computer scientists from MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory founded ITA Software, whose algorithms were a major impetus behind the move away from mainframes and ended up forming the basis of travel website Orbitz, and at one point powered 65 percent of airline flights searched in the country. ITA landed its first deal in 1998, with leading global distribution system (GDS) Amadeus, giving it some initial exposure.

Although today a division of Google, which bought it out for $700 million in 2010, ITA still operates out of Cambridge – just 10 miles from where Amadeus established its North American headquarters and 56,000-square-foot research and development center in 2015, in Waltham, almost at the midpoint of Route 128, Boston’s so-called tech corridor.

The Amadeus office, designed by Boston architect firm Visnick & Caulfield, accommodates some 400 employees, the majority of whom work on the R&D side. “When we heard that Boston would become an innovation hub, we took advantage of designing the space around the way we wanted to work,” says Karen Fultz, director of R&D Business Operations and Planning at Amadeus in North America, referring to the agile workspace design she helped implement at the office. “We put a bunch of different people with different skill sets together in collaboration spaces we call neighborhoods to deliver small amounts of value quicker.”

Boston, A City In Ascent: Rashesh Jethi, Amadeus

Rashesh Jethi, SVP of Engineering for North America, and global head of Innovation for Airlines. Image via Amadeus

Rashesh Jethi, senior vice-president of Engineering for North America and global head of Innovation for Airlines, Amadeus, also based at the Boston office, adds that innovation, however, doesn’t just come from the inside, which is why the company is actively involved in the Boston ecosystem via hackathon sponsorships, university affiliations, local hiring, internship programs and conference attendance. “We are using our domain knowledge, but are integrating into the local ecosystem, including the startup and academic scene, to bring in new ideas and projects.”

Having spent 15 years in Silicon Valley, where he worked with three startups, Jethi admits Boston doesn’t quite measure up to the Bay Area hub when it comes to attracting engineers with bright ideas and entrepreneurs who want to change the world. “It’s not just hype. It’s really how people are and how they think. When Elon Musk says he wants to send people to Mars, people think it’s a publicity stunt, but it isn’t. He really means it,” Jethi says. “I’m not doing PR for the city. There actually is an incredible wealth of capital and tolerance for wild, wacky, crazy ideas that you don’t have anywhere else in the world.”

The Bay Area may have the capital, but with only Stanford and Berkeley in its backyard, it doesn’t have the same mass of students anchored by fellowships and scholarships, spending their days solving problems that have never been solved before, Jethi says, adding, “Boston’s academic slant truly brings a love for ideas and thinking differently.” 

New APEX member Pegasystems, whose corporate headquarters is located just over a mile away from MIT, has benefitted from the proximity to academic powerhouses when it comes to talent acquisition and fostering innovations, says Elaine Fearnley, the company’s director and industry principal, Manufacturing. Founded in 1983, the company only started working in the air travel sector three decades later, but this side of the business has grown rapidly, Fearnley says. “Our airline clients are leveraging Pega’s artificial intelligence to better understand their customers and in turn provide a superior passenger experience across the entire journey.” 


Boston may lag when it comes to venture capital (VC), but it isn’t too far off. San Francisco and Silicon Valley together account for nearly 45 percent of total VC investment in the US, according to data from PitchBook. Coming in just below New York City’s 16 percent, Boston comes in third, accounting for 11.5 percent of the country’s VC investment, a large portion of which is going to the city’s booming biotech scene.

But Beantown is also home to a number of thriving travel tech startups, several of which are operating in the B2B space. “The distinction I’ve heard from venture capitalists is that Boston is better for B2Bs. A lot of the B2C stuff is coming out of Silicon Valley, but Boston is good at identifying the core B2B technologies,” says Bala Chandran, CEO of Boston-based Lumo, a flight-delay forecasting startup whose objective is to create “a single source of information all the way from booking to takeoff – whether it be for the passenger, the airline or the airport.” 

Another travel tech startup making a B2B play in the city is Lola, started by Boston native and the co-founder of travel search engine Kayak, Paul English. Lola is based in Fort Point, adjacent to Boston’s Seaport District, a South Boston area revitalized throughout Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s 20 years in office. Since the time he took office in 1993, Menino transformed the waterfront area into what he called an “innovation district,” including plenty of restaurants and apartments, buzzing tech office spaces and the $800-million Boston Convention Center, where this year’s APEX EXPO is being held. 

The area is now home to General Electric’s new headquarters, and, as announced in May, an eventual 2,000 tech professionals working for Amazon in the fields of machine learning, speech science, cloud computing and robotics engineering. “Menino said the community should develop the thousands of acres in the Seaport to create a hub for knowledge workers and creative jobs, and I really do think that was a cornerstone for furthering the Boston tech community,” says Krista Pappas, Lola’s vice-president. “The development in the Seaport is really in overdrive, and that’s exciting.”

Boston, A City In Ascent: MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratories

MIT’s computer science and artificial intelligence laboratories merged with the construction of this new building in 2003. Image: Meric Dagli

Even as software analytics and machine learning experts proliferate in Boston, the area’s rich history in aircraft innovation lives on in its universities’ aeronautics labs (MIT AstroAero lab is currently working on replacing its Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel with one that would be the most advanced in the nation), as well as with the arrival of new aerospace players. 

Last year, Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer announced plans for an EmbraerX innovation outpost in Boston, and Spike Aerospace, founded in 2012, has an 18-person capacity supersonic jet under development, with a proposed 2023 go-to-market date. “A lot of people were disappointed to see the Concorde taken out of service with no replacement for now over 15 years,” the company’s president and CEO, Vik Kachoria, says. “I think folks expected that, like computers, aircraft would get faster and faster. They haven’t for a lot of good reasons, but it is going to happen in the next 10 years.” And perhaps then we’ll all be meeting in Boston for the country’s first Supersonic Aero Meet.

“Boston, A City in Ascent” was originally published in the 8.4 August/September issue of APEX Experience magazine.