Events / History / Philly Tech Week

Meet 10 legendary innovators from our city’s past for the 10th annual Philly Tech Week

These 10 historical figures with local roots were involved in some big moments, and we’ve paired them with prominent venues that speak to them throughout Philly Tech Week 2020 Presented by Comcast.

Innovators from across Philadelphia's history. (Illustration by Sean Dooley)
Innovation isn’t new — not as a word and certainly not as a concept.

The word itself started showing up at the dawn of Modern English in the 16th century, Shakespeare’s time, with Latin origins. In 1890, John Carter wrote a book with the subtitle “Architectural innovation.”

By 1972, “innovation” was already a more commonly published word than its longtime cousin “invention,” according to Google Books.

Innovation has been adopted by economic policy circles with the advent of the consumer web, but it’s had peaks before. Philadelphia, too, has had a long history with the concept.

It’s why when we at first announced in fall 2010 plans for the inaugural Philly Tech Week, we were quite precise with our intentions.

It started as a community organizing effort for the newly assembling generation of software, entrepreneurship and economic policy people. In that first announcement post, we drew inspiration then from another old industry having a revival in Philadelphia then: Philly Beer Week.

Innovation, too, had come before. As a news organization, we thought we were an ideal party to raise a flag for this community, to challenge, prod and think long and hard about its place. This wasn’t a marketing triviality but another step in a very long line of economic growth in Philadelphia.

That worldview prompted the theme for the 10th annual series, Philly Tech Week 2020 Presented by Comcast, which will take place May 1 through 9 — “Innovation Been Here,” as we announced back in the fall.

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That theme will run through our celebration of the people behind new tools and processes this spring. One way we’re doing that is by remembering major moments over the last 400 years or so of Philadelphia’s innovation history. To get to that, our team has selected 10 figures who were involved in big moments that have Philadelphia roots, and we’ve paired them with prominent venues that speak to those moments.

These venues are the Philly Tech Week “Hubs,” home of an array of the 100 events that will take place during Philly Tech Week. From the beginning, PTW events have taken place at locations throughout the region; every Councilmanic district, each surrounding Pennsylvania county and a few New Jersey locales have been represented through the years. This year we’re bringing many of the week’s events into a few local venues that symbolize innovation in some way.

Over the next two and a half months leading up to the 10th annual Philly Tech Week, our newsroom will publish a story a week with the leader behind the venue that speaks to the spirit of these 10 legendary icons. Meet them here first:

  • James Forten (1766-1842) — Born free, this Black abolitionist is the classic technical cofounder. He was an apprentice shipbuilder who developed his own products that made him a wealthy man.
  • John Coltrane (1926-1967) — Innovation is an act of creation, none more so than jazz, the most experimental of all musical forms. Philly’s rich tradition is prominently represented by icon John Coltrane. Coltrane was influenced and played with other prominent Philadelphia-based jazz icons like Dizzy Gillespie.
  • Margaretta Forten + Lucretia Mott (1806-1875 and 1793-1880) — These suffragettes and abolitionists were major players in the fight for equal voting rights. The former was an educator and cofounded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society with 10 other women, including her mother and sisters; the latter was a traveling Quaker minister and co-organized the first women’s rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention. (Forten was also James’ daughter.)
  • Chief Tamanend (c. 1625–c. 1701) — All of us know one portion of our city’s creation story: that Quaker William Penn sought and negotiated a peaceful agreement with native peoples. But consider the other half. Tamanend was just one leader of many Lenni-Lenape tribes in the area in the 1690s, but he had a reputation for diplomacy and was appointed to represent wider interests. He should be seen as much a founding father of our city as anyone.
  • Women of ENIAC (c. 1946) — Another familiar cheer is the University of Pennsylvania’s academic origins with the breakthrough supercomputer dubbed the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. Lesser known is the reliance on six female mathematicians at a time when World War II relied heavily on women’s academic work.
  • Stephen Girard (1750-1831) — The French immigrant turned influential capitalist is considered one of the wealthiest men to have ever lived. He took on a social mission in his time but his influence also runs through the complicated history of societal change in Philadelphia. A school he endowed, Girard College, became a major rallying point in the Civil Rights Era, when Cecil B. Moore, supported by Martin Luther King Jr., protested the school’s focus on white male orphans. Today, Girard College is a celebrated educator, primarily for children of color.
  • Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) — The futurist and author behind the concept of “Spaceship Earth” didn’t spend much of his life in Philadelphia. But as a fellow housed in part by the University City Science Center in the 1970s, he helped extend his concept of the “geodesic dome,” which you mostly know as the shape of Disney’s Epcot Center.
  • Susan Kare (1954-present) — Lest you think innovations of the past only happened in the distant past, we wanted to make sure to honor a living legend, too. The influential designer who currently works at Pinterest has been a newsroom favorite for since our 2011 interview focused on her creating the original Macintosh fonts — and the pivotal moment in which she named those fonts after the Main Line train stops before Steve Jobs himself renamed for more “international” cities.
  • John Wannamaker (1838-1922) — The iconic entrepreneur is largely credited with popularizing fixed pricing in stores, among an array of other groundbreaking commerce basics. His line of stores grew to a scale and size that necessitated something more formal and in his own way set a standard across the country, and world; think of it as a kind of same-day-shipping innovation of the era. Wannamaker also cofounded the still-running shelter Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission.
  • Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743-1830) — The early American socialite is known as the daughter and later wife of mayors of Philadelphia. But her impact is better understood as shaping early American policy and discourse as a kind of Founding Mother, overshadowed by the boys’ club of Independence Hall. It was widely understood that though her husband Samuel Powel served of mayor of the city that helped birth the American Revolution, it was Elizabeth who led engagement with the likes of George Washington.

Of course, this isn’t a complete list of lesser-known luminaries that operated in Philadelphia at moments of rapid change. The point here isn’t to be comprehensive, but to uncover how long this place of ours has changed.

For centuries, our city has been made better by business owners and engineers, by inventors and community leaders. They’ve led massive improvements to quality of life and economic growth. This has happened before and will continue on. Philly Tech Week 2020 Presented by Comcast is another chance to honor what has come before us.

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