What: Ironbridge Gorge: When Technology Changed the World
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Telford, England
The 19th-century Industrial Revolution, as taught in most schools, can be a dull and dreary subject. Not so here, at this complex of historic museums in the English Midlands, just north of Birmingham. The Ironbridge Gorge Museums vibrantly bring to life how this 19th-century burst of technology changed the world.
The iron-rich Severn Valley was like the Silicon Valley of its time. In 1709 a Quaker ironmaster named Abraham Darby invented a new iron-smelting process, marking the beginning of new transportation and engineering innovations that started the area buzzing. The most impressive feature of the site is the famous Iron Bridge across the River Severn, cast in 1779 by Abraham Darby III. An engineering marvel of its time, its great arch drew tourists from all over the world; the original tollhouse, at the southern end, has exhibits about its history. At the Museum of the Gorge, a Gothic-style riverside warehouse from 1834, exhibits detail the history of the Gorge, including a 12m (40-ft.) scale model of the river valley as it was in 1796.
In the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron and Darby Houses you can tour the first modern ironworks, with its vast water-power system and great blast furnace, and peer into the ironmasters' houses, workers' cottages, chapels, and church. There are even more historic re-creations at the Blists Hill Open Air Museum, which presents an entire small Victorian town complete with bank, grocer's shop, chemist, printing shop, bakery, and sweet shop; the back streets are busy with small offices, works, and factories including a working foundry and iron rolling mill, all explicated by costumed staff. Lots of ancillary industries sprang up around the ironworks, and these sites offer lots of hands-on activities for children: the Jackfield Tile Museum, with its wealth of decorative tiles and ceramics; the Coalport China Museum, in a restored china factory; and the Broseley Pipeworks, a wonderfully preserved example of an ancient local industry, the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes. Of course, abundant natural resources made all this manufacture possible, a fact underscored when you visit the underground Tar Tunnel, where natural bitumen oozes freely from the walls.
The site's newest and most high-tech attraction, Enginuity, is an interactive museum full of gadgets; kids can pull a locomotive, harness water power to generate electricity, or compete against a robot.
Contact: Ironbridge Gorge Museums (tel. 01952/433522 weekdays, 01952/432166 Sat-Sun; www.ironbridge.org.uk).
Best Time: Easter to early Nov (some sites closed mid-Nov to Mar).
What: Edison Historic Site: The Light Bulbs Go On
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: West Orange, New Jersey, USA
"I always invented to obtain money to go on inventing," Thomas Edison once said. The romantic notion of a genius tinkering alone at night over a breakthrough invention? That wasn't Edison. Yes, he was a gifted chemist and visionary, but he was also a shrewd businessman who amassed a fortune. Touring the Edison Laboratories is a fascinating look at one of the most efficient R & D operations in history.
Though Edison's first lab was in Menlo Park, New Jersey, this larger West Orange complex was in operation for over 40 years and accounted for over half of his patents. Notice how closely the ivy-covered red-brick buildings are set together -- Edison designed it this way so he wouldn't waste too much time scurrying from chemistry lab to machine shop to drafting room. The kids may be surprised to learn that, of the 1,093 patents credited to Edison -- the most any American has ever obtained -- many were actually invented by other scientists who worked for him.
Walking around the restored lab complex, you can visualize his team of some 200 researchers, hired to refine and improve existing inventions. There were light bulbs before Edison's, but his was more reliable, long-lasting, and easy to manufacture; the telegraph, the phonograph, the stock ticker, the movie camera and projector were all devices that other scientists pursued at the same time, but Edison's versions worked better. Another 10,000 workers in the attached factory (not part of the historic site) then mass-produced these inventions for commercial sale -- he controlled the entire cycle. Accessories, too -- there's a music recording studio you can peek into, where Edison engineers made sure phonograph customers would have something to play on their new machines.
One mile from the lab complex, you can see the fruits of Edison's labors in Glenmont, a 29-room red Queen-Anne-style mansion in Llewellyn Park which Edison bought for his second wife, Mina. All the original furnishings are here, reflecting the formal Victorian style of the era, with lots of ornate carved wood, damask wallcoverings, and stained-glass windows; things get comfier upstairs in the family living room, where Edison's children sometimes helped him look up scientific references in shelves full of books. One thing's for sure: This was probably the first house in the neighborhood with a phonograph, let alone the Home Projecting Kinetoscope -- the Edison children must have been very in demand for play dates.
Contact: Main St. and Lakeside Ave. (tel. 973/736-0551; www.nps.gov/edis).
What: Hoover Dam: Concrete Colossus of the Southwest
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Boulder City, Nevada, USA
U.S. 93, which runs between Las Vegas, Nevada, and Kingman, Arizona, lays its ribbon of concrete right across one of the great engineering wonders of the world, Hoover Dam. Built between 1931 and 1935, this behemoth Depression-era project redrew the map of America: If it hadn't been for Hoover Dam, Arizona and California would never have had enough electricity and water to sustain their subsequent population boom. And yes, the dam also created the largest artificial lake in the United States, 110-mile-long Lake Mead. Driving across Hoover Dam, traffic crawls as motorists gape at the view, with smooth Lake Mead on one hand and a plummeting gorge on the other. But why let the kids be content with a mere view, when you can go inside the belly of the beast?
Going face to face with this much concrete is an awesome experience. Hoover Dam stands 726 feet tall from bedrock to the roadway atop it. At the top, it's 45 feet thick, which is stout enough, but it widens the farther down you go, until at the base it's a whopping 660 feet thick. The dam was named after Herbert Hoover (see ), not just because he was president when the bill was signed to build it, but because the Boulder Canyon dam was in many ways his idea -- as Secretary of Commerce in the early 1920s, Hoover, a civil engineer himself, first urged the southwestern states to consider such an undertaking.
While much of the Hoover Dam story is told via historic photographs in interpretive galleries, the part kids really remember is taking elevators 500 feet down into the wall of Black Canyon, then walking down a 250-foot-long tunnel to look at the guts of the power plant, with its eight huge generators. At the end of the tour, don't miss going up to the observation deck to get that panoramic view of Lake Mead and the Colorado basin. Functional as it is in many ways, the dam still has a streamlined Art Deco flair -- check out the sculptured panels decorating the central two elevator towers rising from the top of the dam, the Nevada one celebrating the dam's benefits -- flood control, navigation, irrigation, water supply, and power -- the Arizona one paying tribute to Indian tribes that once lived here.
Hoover Dam makes a handy day trip from Las Vegas, 30 miles away, though I'd recommend combining a Hoover Dam visit with a stay on Lake Mead in a houseboat (contact Seven Crown Resorts, Box 16247, Irvine, CA; tel. 800/752-9669; www.sevencrown.com). Another fun way to visit the dam is on a paddle-wheeler cruise from Lake Mead Cruises (tel. 702/293-6180; www.lakemeadcruises.com).
Contact: U.S. 93 (tel. 866/291-TOUR or 702/294-3517; www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam).
What: The Louisville Slugger Museum: For Big Swingers
Who: Ages 4 & up
Where: Louisville, Kentucky, USA
No one has ever properly explained to me why major-league baseball players still hit with wooden bats instead of aluminum, but they do, and 60% of them buy their wooden bats from this century-old company. You can spot its headquarters as you drive up Main Street in Louisville's historic downtown area -- no place else has a 120-foot-tall baseball bat leaning against the outer wall, a replica (made of steel, but painted to look like wood) of Babe Ruth's power-hitting bat.
Inside is a museum of Sluggers used by famous sluggers -- everyone from Ty Cobb to Ted Williams to Hank Aaron -- as well as several interactive areas, such as a batting cage where you can swing replicas of those historic bats, a diorama of a dugout/home plate area with audio-clip commentaries, and a brief film. Little kids can climb all over a 17-ton limestone sculpture of a giant baseball glove. But to me the coolest thing about this attraction is the half-hour walk through the factory itself, a throwback sort of place where sparks fly and machines whine as skilled craftsmen give personalized attention to every handmade product.
The H & B Company also makes baseball mitts, golf clubs, ice hockey sticks, and, since 1978, aluminum bats, but all of these are made somewhere else. The wood bats, though, are still crafted in Louisville, where teenager Bud Hillerich, an apprentice in his family's wood-turning shop (manufacturers of bedposts, bowling pins, and porch balustrades) first shaped a baseball bat on his lathe in 1884 for a local pro player. Although Bud's father resisted this new line for years, eventually the bat business took over. Today H & B -- still run by the Hillerich family -- produces one-million-plus Sluggers a year.
Walking through the factory, you'll see actual blocks of finely grained white ash being turned on the lathes by hand, the handles and barrels shaped into Louisville Sluggers right before your eyes -- down to the final coat of lacquer, carefully applied to give the pale wood that major-league sheen. Warn the kids that the factory floor will be noisy, with wood dust flying around in the air -- after all, this is a factory. Just be sure you arrive before 3pm, when the production line shuts down. (And there's no work at all done on Sun.) Don't tell the kids, though, about the surprise they'll get at the end of the tour: their own miniature Louisville Slugger to keep as a souvenir.
Contact: 800 W. Main St. (tel. 877/7-SLUGGER; www.sluggermuseum.org/visitorguide.aspx).
What:Factories with a Homespun Touch
Who: All ages
Where: Waterbury & Shelburne, Vermont, USA
Only an hour's drive apart in the rural state of Vermont, visitors can tour two small, quirky factories that reveal another side to American entrepreneurship. Cynics may argue that these factory tours are thinly veiled advertising for their products, and of course they're right. But it's hard to resist when the end results are something kids love -- namely ice cream and teddy bears.
The bigger and more high-tech factory is in Waterbury -- the Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory. The classic "hippie capitalists," Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started the company in nearby Burlington in 1978 with $12,000 and a few mail-order lessons in ice-cream making, selling their product out of an old downtown gas station. Their free-spirited approach, along with the exceptional quality of their ice cream, built a successful corporation, with sales rising into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Even though Ben and Jerry have sold their interest to a huge multinational food concern -- a move that raised not a few eyebrows among its grass-roots investors -- the company's heart and soul (and manufacturing) remains squarely in Vermont. In summer the Waterbury plant has a festival marketplace feel to it, as crowds mill about good-naturedly, waiting for the 30-minute factory tours (first-come, first-served). Browse the small ice-cream museum, buy a cone of your favorite flavor at the scoop shop, or visit the "cemetery" where retired flavors are commemorated on mock tombstones. Be aware that ice cream is made only Tuesdays through Fridays; tours are run 7 days a week, but we came on a Monday and felt let down that we couldn't see the heavy machinery in operation. We still got the free samples at the end, though, which made us feel much better.
The Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, an hour-and-a-half's drive west in Shelburne, is as cutesy as Ben & Jerry's is hippieish, but somehow the sweet spirit of the place works, from the rainbow-colored silo outside to the open-raftered work space within. Visitors walk past various stages of the simple manufacturing process, watching cuddly stuffed bears come into being, and of course, at the end, you're funneled into a shop where it's almost impossible not to purchase a custom-made bear (with its own birth certificate and a heart sewn inside). But whereas Build-a-Bear Workshops follow much the same process, this homey factory setup was my kids' first taste of what manufacturing is all about, and for that it was worth it. We added the price of the bear to the tiny tour fee and still felt we'd bought a worthwhile experience -- and hey, we got to take our bears home and love them forever.
Contact: Ben & Jerry's, Rte. 100 (tel. 866/BJTOURS or 802/882-1240). Teddy Bear Factory, Rte. 7 (tel. 802/985-3001; www.vermontteddybears.com).
What: Moving Down the Assembly Line
Who: Ages 4 & up
Where: Eastern Pennsylvania, USA
There are factory tours and there are factory tours. My family spends a lot of time in eastern Pennsylvania -- my in-laws live there -- and we're always nosing around for something to do with the kids. These three factory tours we found are as different from each other as they could possibly be, from the heavy industrial vibe of Mack Trucks to the slick mass production of Crayola Crayons to the fine hand craftsmanship of the Martin Guitar Company.
When the kids were young and crayons were a major part of their lives, the Crayola Factory at 30 Centre Sq. in Easton (tel. 610/515-8000; www.crayola.com/factory) was right up their alley. They didn't mind that they weren't actually seeing a factory, just videos of the simple production process and a few mocked-up machines to play with, before running next door to the hands-on creativity games and the giant drawing room. When they got older, they were ready to put on safety glasses and tramp through the Mack Truck assembly plant at 7000 Alburtis Rd. in Macungie (tel. 610/709-3566; www.macktrucks.com; ages 7 and up only). It's a 1½-mile walk through a noisy, vibrating million-square-foot plant, and the sight of all those huge parts being clapped together into gargantuan heavy-duty trucks was a bit overwhelming. Ever since then, the kids check out every truck they see for the trademark Mack bulldog mounted on the hood.
But the factory tour that meant most to us -- and not just because my husband and son both play guitar -- was the Martin Guitar Company at 10 Sycamore St. in Nazareth (tel. 610/759-2837; www.martinguitar.com). Though this hour-long tour takes a bit of planning -- it's only offered at 1pm on weekdays -- it's worth it. The factory, though modern, includes a replica of the old red-brick building where Martin guitars began to be made back in 1833 (the company is still owned by the fourth generation of Martins). Many famous musicians swear by their Martin guitars, as you'll see in the visitor center, and when you see the art involved in making them, it all makes sense.
Each guitar is made over a span of 6 months, with more than a dozen artisans involved in over 300 individual steps. You'll stand right next to these craftsmen as they intently shape, glue, sand, and lacquer each instrument, from the first die-cut body shape to the final adjustment of the tuning pegs; though sophisticated computers and high-tech precision machines are involved, every guitar is also fine-tuned with hand tools, to make not only a thing of beauty but the source of a beautiful, resonant, true sound. You measure, you adjust, you let it sit, you listen to how it sounds, then you work on it some more. A pretty good work ethic for the kids to discover.
Contact: Visit Pennsylvania (www.visitpa.com).
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.