Economists Look Back To See Future

April 28, 1994|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Sun Staff Writer

Some of Maryland's leading economists decided to spend part of yesterday seeing what remains of Baltimore's fast-receding manufacturing base.

Being experts, they knew right where to look -- in a museum.

Three dozen members of the Baltimore Economic Society put aside their computers and calculators to spend a lunch hour at the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway for a close-up of epoch-making contraptions such as the submarine and the Linotype machine, which were first built here, or the tin can, in which Baltimore led the world in production as recently as 1940.

Dennis M. Zembala, the museum's director, led a tour calculated to impress the economists not only with the steel mills and grain elevators on the industrial skyline, but also with more mundane products that gave breadth and texture to Baltimore's past.

"The tin can, which grew out of oyster canning in Baltimore in the 1830s, was a lifestyle change for 19th-century Americans -- for the first time people could have vegetables and fruits and meats regardless of the season," he said.

He held up a wooden triangle that once guided scissors as they cut cloth into umbrella sections.

"The umbrella was a Chinese invention, and because of its China trade, Baltimore made the first umbrella built in the United States in the 1820s and was the center of the U.S. umbrella industry until it basically moved overseas in the 1970s," he said.

"Partly due to those experienced cutters, Baltimore became a men's clothing center and, with Rochester, N.Y., dominated that industry by the 1920s," he added.

But Mr. Zembala's tour left some of the economists at least as depressed about the city's industrial future as impressed with its past.

"It makes you think about what this city has lost," said Lucille W. Pevsner, assistant vice president of First National Bank of Maryland.

"It makes you realize how business has changed -- the new industries just don't have to be located in cities any more," said Jay Ladin, a state fiscal planner.

Mr. Zembala, too, said he was concerned about the state's industrial future, and he offered a lesson from the past.

Maryland is placing a lot of its hopes for economic growth on an embryonic biotechnology industry, he noted, and that industry has some key differences from past pharmaceutical companies.

"The pharmaceutical business was the biotechnology business of 100 years ago, but it was dominated by businessmen who understood the need for cash flow," he said.

Today's biotechnology companies tend to be dominated by scientists, Mr. Zembala said.

"And they are people who went into science precisely because they didn't want to go into business; they sought a higher calling than just making money," he said.

The history of the pharmaceutical business suggests that an industry dominated by scientists may face rough economic going, he warned.

"The lesson from pharmaceuticals is that the companies that prospered were the ones that didn't deal exclusively in esoterica, the ones that didn't mind having some plain everyday product like Mercurochrome or aspirin to be the cash cow that supported all that science," he said.

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