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Massachusetts was the nation's first major industrial state, and during the later part of the 19th century, it was the US leader in shoemaking and textile production. By 1860, the state was a major producer of machinery and milled nearly one-fourth of the country's paper.

Massachusetts remains an important manufacturing center, ranking 17th among the 50 states in the value of manufacturers' shipments in 1997. Nearly all the major manufacturing sectors had plants in Massachusetts's eastern counties. Significant concentrations of industrial machinery employment are in Attleboro, Wilmington, Worcester, and the Springfield area. Much of the manufacturing industry is located along Route 128, a superhighway that circles Boston from Gloucester in the north to Quincy in the south and is unique in its concentration of high-technology enterprises. Although Massachusetts ranked 14th among the states in manufacturing employment in 1997 (at 441,770), nearly 3,200 manufacturing jobs had been lost from 1992 to 1997.

Massachusetts's future as a manufacturing center depends on its continued preeminence in the production of computers, optical equipment, and other sophisticated instruments. In 1997, the value of shipments by manufacturers was $83 billion. Important manufactures included: electronic and other electronic equipment, instruments and related products, industrial machinery and equipment, printing and publishing, chemicals and allied products, food and food products, and fabricated metals. As of 1997, the state was the headquarters for 16 Fortune 500 companies.

Earnings of persons employed in Massachusetts increased from $143.2 billion in 1997 to $154 billion in 1998, an increase of 7.5%. The largest industries in 1998 were services, 35.5% of earnings; durable goods manufacturing, 11.6%; and finance, insurance, and real estate, 10.3%. Of the industries that accounted for at least 5% of earnings in 1998, the slowest growing from 1997 to 1998 was state and local government (9.1% of earnings in 1998), which increased 4.1%; the fastest was services, which increased 8.7%.