Is there anything more boring than a button?

Maybe not, but it wasn’t always this way.

Buttons were the future in the 1860s, and it was a young entrepreneur named Emil Vogelsang who brought that future to Berlin (now Kitchener), Ont.

Shortly after he emigrated from Germany, Vogelsang secured a tax exemption from the village, leased space from the Simpson Furniture Company and launched The Pioneer Button Works. Other local merchants and businessmen later helped him erect his own factory building.

His was the first button works in Canada, and the first of several to appear in Berlin as the clothing industry embraced factory production and turned away from hand-tailoring and hook-and-eye fasteners.

As for the Simpson Furniture Company, its founder – an Englishman named William Simpson – was nicknamed Daddy for giving rise to Berlin’s then-burgeoning furniture industry. One of Simpson’s former plants on King Street in downtown Kitchener now houses Vidyard, a fast-growing video marketing software firm backed by Silicon Valley venture capital.

If the Berlin of yesterday sounds a lot like the Waterloo Region of today, it should: Then, as now, this was a place of makers, mentors and first movers who embraced collaborative innovation with little regard for ethnic, religious or class differences.

“It’s a community that makes no demands on you, and allows you the freedom to be innovative and to be creative,” says Ken McLaughlin. “And that’s an unusual thing.”

McLaughlin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at the University of Waterloo, knows as much about this community’s past as anyone else drawing breath today.

I sat down with him this week in the Communitech Hub – housed in another of Berlin’s once-thriving factories, the former Lang Tannery – to talk about his latest book project.

Titled Innovation and Entrepreneurship are in the Waterloo Genome, the book won’t see release until later this year, but McLaughlin was kind enough to give me a sneak preview and answer a few questions.

The book focuses heavily on the University of Waterloo, and specifically on “the culture of research, innovation and entrepreneurship” that have defined it from its earliest days as an upstart institution – and a decidedly unorthodox one, with its emphasis on co-operative education.

The wild success of the once-controversial co-op program is, of course, evident in the growth of Waterloo Region’s tech sector, and especially in the explosion of startup activity of the past few years.

But that same success owes to cultural factors that were coming into play a full century before UW’s emergence in the late 1950s.

Most of us already know about the large Germanic presence here, of which we’re reminded annually through events such as Oktoberfest and the Christkindl Market. Lesser known are the reasons why, in the mid-19th century, so many skilled farmers, craftsmen, artisans and tradespeople left German-speaking communities in Europe to settle here.

“When I looked into it, I discovered that the Germans leaving Germany – the group that we got, so we’re really talking about 1830 to 1860 – were driven out by the restrictions of the guild system and the feudal system, where they couldn’t practise their trades in their hometown,” McLaughlin told me. “Hometown is the key word.”

England was industrializing and dumping cheap goods into German states, but the restrictions on the Germans’ ability to practise their trades at home made for a lot of frustrated would-be entrepreneurs. And so, they left for friendlier locations like Berlin, Ont.

“So we welcomed all these people who are loyal to their local community, driven out of Germany, and they came here with a skill or a trade, and that’s their identity,” McLaughlin says. “But they tied into Berlin here as their hometown. This becomes who they are.”

By the end of the 1800s, factories were everywhere in what was nicknamed “Busy Berlin,” pumping out a seemingly endless list of goods from an unlikely location: a landlocked community at a physical and cultural remove from the larger, Anglo-Saxon power centre of Toronto.

The town’s manufacturing prowess in turn pumped up the hometown pride of its residents, whose “intense loyalty to Berlin would create a mystique about the town and its economic success as well as its societal values,” McLaughlin writes in his 1989 book, Made in Berlin.

Those values included the fact that “they were tolerant. They liked new ideas,” McLaughlin told me.

Evidence of that tolerance and affinity for innovation, which is so clear in our tech sector today, can be found in the records of the Board of Trade of Berlin.

“Those guys were mentoring small businesses; they would bring companies in, which is exactly what you’re doing (today), and they would sit down with them,” McLaughlin says. “This is almost unbelievable, because these are rivals or competitors, and they’re helping them and raising money for them.”

Locally founded insurance companies, whose boards were dominated by Berlin industrialists, provided lower mortgages to entrepreneurs, which McLaughlin likens to a form of angel financing, while the cities of Berlin and Waterloo granted significant tax exemptions.

“Now we’ve got all these bright young students coming down here [to the Tannery] and being mentored. It’s exactly what was happening with the Board of Trade,” he says. “This is the culture of this community. This is not strange; this is, in fact, what they’ve always done.”

In his new book, McLaughlin goes into great detail about how this culture underpinned the founding of UW and its famed co-op program, the success of which was anything but assured in those early days.

Other universities dismissed the program to the point of lobbying the Ontario government not to fund the new institution, until they realized the co-op concept had won some key allies in the provincial cabinet.

Today, no one is questioning the value of UW’s co-op program – which has placed students into 5,200 companies in 50 countries – to Ontario, to Canada or to the world.

And some of the program’s most promising graduates – from D2L’s John Baker to Vidyard’s Michael Litt to Thalmic Labs’ Stephen Lake – have consciously chosen to  build their innovative companies right here.

Just as it did for Emil Vogelsang, this region offers “a level playing field,” McLaughlin says. “There’s nobody there to get in your way. Whatever you want to do, you can actually do in this community, and no one’s going to say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that because…’

“Everybody from Breithaupt to Seagram had a sense that this was their community, this was their hometown, and they weren’t going to go somewhere else,” he says. “This is where they were, and this is who they were. For local business leaders, this is their town.”

Photo: Ken McLaughlin near the former Lang Tannery, a once-thriving leather producer and now home to Communitech, the UW Velocity Garage, Google, D2L and dozens of early-stage technology companies.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.