A Twist of Fate: The Invention of the Rubik’s Cube

Happy 40th birthday, Rubik’s Cube!

I’ve practically grown up with the toy, which I first encountered around 1981 when my elementary school classmate Matt dazzled us with his ability to solve it in mere minutes while the rest of us struggled to master the 3×3 cube. We didn’t have the advantage of online instructions or videos to give us helpful tips, since we didn’t have the World Wide Web yet. So puzzle-loving kids and adults invested hours solemnly twisting the cube segments over and over again. This was at the height of the toy’s popularity in the U.S., which quickly waned but never quite died.

Original Rubik's cube prototype.

Original Rubik’s cube prototype.

Today the toy and its inventor are celebrated in Beyond Rubik’s Cube, a traveling exhibition at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey. Born 70 years ago on July 13, 1944, Hungarian Ernő Rubik is the man behind the Cube. His mother, Magdolna Szántó, was a poet and his father, Ernő Sr., was an aircraft engineer known for his glider designs. He said of his father: “Beside him I learned a lot about work in the sense of a value-creating process which has a target, and a positive result too.” (1) Young Ernő studied sculpture, design, and architecture in Budapest and eventually became a professor of architecture.

In 1974 he thought up the idea for the Rubik’s Cube in order to help teach 3-dimensional design to his students. Initially, he created a 3x3x3 rotating cube out of wood. “There was a workshop in the school, and I just used wood as a material because it is very simple to use and you don’t need any sophisticated machines. So I made it by just using my hands—cutting the wood, drilling holes, using elastic bands and those kind of very simple things.” (2) The following year he applied for a patent, which he received in 1977. Since this was Soviet-era Hungary, when the “Iron Curtain” divided Eastern and Western Europe, Rubik’s options were limited for manufacturing and marketing his invention. He worked with a small Hungarian company Politechnika to start selling colorful plastic versions of his “Bűvös Kocka,” translated into English as “Magic Cubes.”

A disassembled Rubik's cube, via wikimedia commons.

A disassembled Rubik’s cube, via wikimedia commons.

Buvos Kocka packaging.

Buvos Kocka packaging.

Rubik’s big breakthrough came when an expat Hungarian entrepreneur took the Magic Cube to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany in 1979. There Tom Kremer, who owned a games and toys company called Seven Towns Ltd., saw the Cube and believed it could be a great success on the toy market if he could just find the right company to license it. Fluent in Hungarian and English, Kremer negotiated a deal with the Ideal Toy Company, who renamed it the “Rubik’s Cube” and launched it on the international market in 1980.

Hungarian patent.

Hungarian patent.

The Rubik’s Cube was an immediate worldwide sensation, winning many Toy of the Year awards in 1980 and 1981. Approximately 100 million were sold by 1982, but almost as quickly as it rose to fame the Cube seemed doomed to become a one-hit wonder. By 1986, The New York Times reported it had been “retired to the attic, the garbage heap and, with a bow to its elegance and ingeniousness, to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.” (3) However, the colorful toy never really disappeared, and over time it morphed into a popular culture icon. Today the number of Rubik’s Cubes sold worldwide is estimated at about 350 million.

Hungarian stamp honoring the Rubik's cube.

Hungarian stamp honoring the Rubik’s cube.

In Hilton, New York, Northwood Elementary School students are petitioning to get the Cube inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. “The project started in Jenny Ames’ and Julie Fiege’s sixth grade classes in November… Students worked in groups to pick a toy that they thought should be inducted, conducted research and then presented their argument to a panel of judges…The presentation included criteria set by the Hall of Fame—icon status, longevity, discovery and innovation. The Rubik’s Cube won! So now the entire C Core—six teachers and 160 students—is working to get the Cube nominated for its 40th birthday this year.” (4) Hopefully, the Rubik’s Cube might win induction into the Toy Hall of Fame in November also to honor Ernő Rubik’s 70th birthday.

Northwood Elementary School students

Northwood Elementary School students.

For teachers and families, there is now an educational program called “You Can Do the Rubik’s Cube” focusing on math learning and 21st Century Skills. As Ernő Rubik said, “If you are curious, you’ll find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.” (5)

Sources:

(1)    http://www.create2009.europa.eu/ambassadors/profiles/erno_rubik.html
(2)    http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/10/tech/rubiks-cube-inventor/
(3)    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/26/nyregion/rubiks-redux-a-colorful-cube-puzzles-anew.html
(4)    http://www.hilton.k12.ny.us/news/RubiksCube.htm
(5)    http://rubiks.com/history

Invention Hits the Beach

As I was preparing for my summer vacation, I realized I needed a new beach chair. The one I had was starting to rust, the seat fabric was fraying, and it was difficult to unfold no matter how much WD40 I sprayed on it. I thought this would be a 10-minute errand, taking longer to drive to the store than it would for me to select and pay for my chair. Clearly I hadn’t shopped for a beach chair very recently, though, because there were what seemed like dozens from which to choose. They all looked pretty similar at first glance, but upon closer inspection there were many varieties: chairs that sit low in the sand, chairs that sit high; ones that recline and others that lie flat; chairs that are backpacks, have coolers built in, or have wheels.

My shopping experience made me curious about the origins of the beach chair, and whether the design had changed much over time. My research led me first to the story of Wilhelm Bartelmann, a German basketmaker who invented the “strandkorb,” a wicker chair designed for the beach. In 1882, the basketmaker is said to have been approached by a woman who had been advised by her doctor that sea air would be good for her—but that she was not supposed to sit on the sand because of another ailment. She asked if Bartelmann could create a chair that would allow her to enjoy the beach while keeping her off the sand. Thus, the strandkorb was born. The basket-like chair provided comfortable seating on the beach, while also protecting its users from sun, sand, and wind. The next year, Bartelmann began making two-seater chairs, and also established a successful strandkorb rental business.

Wilhelm Bartelmann seated in a strandkorb with his wife Elisabeth and their children. Image courtesy of Bartelmann.com

Wilhelm Bartelmann seated in a strandkorb with his wife Elisabeth and their children. Image courtesy of Bartelmann.com

Advertisement for Bartelmann’s strandkorb business. Image courtesy of Bartelmann.com

Advertisement for Bartelmann’s strandkorb business. Image courtesy of Bartelmann.com

So what about beach chairs in the United States? Canopied chairs like the strandkorb were certainly used in the U.S., but I was curious to learn whether there were other designs that would look more familiar.

Atlantic City, NJ, 1908. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-DIG-det-4a23070

Atlantic City, NJ, 1908. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-DIG-det-4a23070

The earliest patent I discovered that specifically mentions a chair for the beach is Helen Petrie’s 1892 “Seaside Seat.” While there are other, earlier U.S. patents for folding, reclining, and convertible chairs, Petrie’s patent (number 470,255) specifically references the beach: “My invention relates especially to a foldable reclining seat or lounge for use in camps, on yachts, at beaches, and in similar places.” Unlike Bartelmann’s rather substantial chair designed to shield the user from the elements, Petrie’s design appears open, more compact, and easily movable—not unlike many of today’s beach chairs.

Patent drawing of Helen Petrie’s “Seaside Seat,” 1892

Patent drawing of Helen Petrie’s “Seaside Seat,” 1892

Indeed, beach chair designs do not seem to have changed all that much since Petrie’s time. Materials and manufacturing technology have changed, but the basic concept of what a beach chair is (and does) is fairly similar. Still, inventors have found creative ways to elaborate on the basic “seaside seat.” Here are a few of my favorites:

Drawing for Nathan Rikelman’s 1951 patent “Folding Adjustable Beach Chair.” One of the first references I found to an adjustable chair

Drawing for Nathan Rikelman’s 1951 patent “Folding Adjustable Beach Chair.” One of the first references I found to an adjustable chair

Drawing for Arthur H. Roberts’ 1965 patent “Convertible Beach Chair-Suit Case Combination.”

Drawing for Arthur H. Roberts’ 1965 patent “Convertible Beach Chair-Suit Case Combination.” Think of all the gear you could take to the beach with this!

Inventor Michael Deming and his wife Karen. Deming was inspired to invent a wheelchair that could be used on the beach after Karen was in an accident which left her a quadriplegic.

Inventor Michael Deming and his wife Karen. Deming was inspired to invent a wheelchair that could be used on the beach after Karen was in an accident which left her a quadriplegic. (http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2011/07/27/Wheelchair-gives-beach-access-to-disabled/UPI-55091311787282/) Deming completed his prototype in 1994 and was awarded a patent for an “All-terrain Wheelchair” in 1997. Image courtesy of Beachwheelchair.com

Shannon Nation with her “Pregnancy Beach Chair.”

Shannon Nation with her “Pregnancy Beach Chair.” When she was pregnant, Nation was frustrated that she could not comfortably lie on her stomach on her beach chair so she invented her own solution! The chair has a hole for a woman’s pregnant stomach. The hole can also be covered by a piece of fabric attached to the chair with Velcro. Nation received a patent for her idea in 2001. (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/19/technology/19PATE.html)

So with all these cool, innovative beach chairs on the market, which did I decide on? I opted for one that I can carry like a backpack, reasoning it would be easiest to get to and from the beach with all the other paraphernalia that a visit to the shore always entails. (My store, sadly, did not have a suitcase beach chair for sale.)

My new backpack beach chair

My new backpack beach chair.

James Hamilton received a patent for a “Combination Backpack/Beach Chair” in 1985. Thanks, Mr. Hamilton, for making my vacation to the beach both comfortable and convenient!

Drawing for James Hamilton’s backpack/beach chair patent

Drawing for James Hamilton’s backpack/beach chair patent

The Rise of Innovation Districts

On June 9, 2014, I attended a program at The Brookings Institution with my colleagues Laurel Fritzsch and Lemelson Center fellow Matt Wisnioski. The program marked the release of a new report entitled “The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America,” developed by Bruce Katz, Vice President and Co-Director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program (MPP), and Julie Wagner, a non-resident senior fellow with MPP. The report and accompanying program provided a present-day and more policy-oriented perspective on many of the issues the Lemelson Center is exploring through Places of Invention, our exhibition (and accompanying book) set to open in Summer 2015.

“The Rise of Innovation Districts” is a new report developed by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of the Brookings’s Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Courtesy of the Brookings Institution.

“The Rise of Innovation Districts” is a new report developed by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of the Brookings’s Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Courtesy of the Brookings Institution.

In their report, Katz and Wagner trace what they call “a remarkable shift…in the spatial geography of innovation” away from the suburbs and back to cities. As documented by historians like Bill Leslie and Scott Knowles, many high-tech firms moved to the suburbs in the years after World War II where they built sprawling, space-age corporate campuses and R&D facilities. Some of the best known examples include the General Motors’ Technical Center (Warren, MI, in 1956), IBM’s Thomas Watson Research Center (Yorktown Heights, NY, in 1961), and AT&T’s Bell Laboratories (Holmdel, NJ, in 1962). The thinking at that time was to isolate industrial scientists from the suits and bean-counters at headquarters (and from other competitors) by plopping them in an idyllic university-like setting where they could invent new cutting-edge technologies.

In 1962, AT&T opened  a sprawling 472-acre campus for Bell Labs in suburban Holmdel, NJ.  It was designed by modernist architect Eero Saarinen, who created similar suburban campuses for General Motors (Warren, MI) and IBM (Yorktown Heights, NY).  Photo courtesy of user MBisanz on Wikimedia Commons.

In 1962, AT&T opened a sprawling 472-acre campus for Bell Labs in suburban Holmdel, NJ. It was designed by modernist architect Eero Saarinen, who created similar suburban campuses for General Motors (Warren, MI) and IBM (Yorktown Heights, NY). Photo courtesy of user MBisanz on Wikimedia Commons.

However, according to Katz and Wagner, by virtue of their suburban locations, these campuses were “accessible only by car, with little emphasis on quality of life or on integrating work, housing, and recreation.” Thus, “a new complementary urban model is now emerging” giving rise to what they call “innovation districts.”

These districts, by our definition, are geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators. They are also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.

In contrast to the post-war suburban campuses, think Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA; University City in West Philadelphia, PA; and South Lake Union district in Seattle, WA. These urban districts feature big research universities (MIT, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Drexel) and big high-tech firms (Amazon, Microsoft) that serve as anchors for attracting additional high-tech startups, plus the housing and complimentary retail businesses that support them.

As Bruce Katz argues in this short video, innovation is increasingly taking place where people come together, not in isolated spaces. Courtesy of the Brookings Institution, via YouTube.

Katz and Wagner explain some of the reasons for this geographic shift back to cities. First, in terms of demographics, married families with children—the residents most likely to enjoy the suburbs—now constitute less than 20% of all U.S. households. Young professionals and retired empty-nesters increasingly prefer to live in cities where they can walk to the gym, visit a museum after work, or meet a friend at a coffee shop or tavern.

But a more interesting observation concerns the changing nature of innovation strategies and why today’s innovators and entrepreneurs favor the inter-connectedness of cities. During the mid-20th century, the big high-tech firms pursued a linear model of innovation, in which they believed pure scientific research (R) would lead directly to the development (D) of marketable new technologies, all within the confines of the firm’s suburban R&D labs. That strategy worked for a while: for example, researchers at Bell Labs developed transistors and lasers while earning 11 Nobel Prizes. But Bell Labs would eventually fall victim to the “campus curse” as the isolation and insularism of its pristine suburban labs slowed the pace of innovation. In fact, AT&T sold off Bell Labs to Alcatel-Lucent in 1996, and the famous Holmdel, NJ laboratories, designed by modernist architect Eero Saarinen, now sits empty. It may be converted into a medical center…or razed.

Instead, most small and medium-sized businesses are increasingly turning toward an “open innovation” strategy, in which they develop some of their own in-house technologies, while also partnering with other firms to buy or license certain new inventions. As Katz noted in his talk, this mixed, open innovation strategy “craves proximity” and “extols integration” in order to make the necessary connections. So in terms of geography, it makes more sense to locate a startup in an urban innovation district where the density of development increases the odds of finding new ideas and technology partners—at the “incubator” next door or in a serendipitous exchange at the corner coffee shop.

Coffee shops (like Detroit’s Great Lakes Coffee) are now places for entrepreneurs to work and network. Photo credit: Marvin Shaouni, originally published in Model D, and featured in the Brookings report.

Coffee shops (like Detroit’s Great Lakes Coffee) are now places for entrepreneurs to work and network. Photo credit: Marvin Shaouni, originally published in Model D, and featured in the Brookings report.

As Katz and Wagner note in their full report, these 21st century innovation districts are in many ways a return to the original 19th and 20th century industrial districts that flourished in the first wave of industrialization. In these districts, firms from the same industry would cluster in a city neighborhood as workers walked to work and patronized local businesses. We see this clearly in some of our Places of Invention exhibition case studies. For example in 19th-century Hartford, skilled machinists in the Coltsville neighborhood lived in company-built housing and walked a few hundred yards to Samuel Colt’s famous armory where they mass produced revolvers with interchangeable parts. After their shift, they might walk next door to Charter Oak Hall to practice with the Colt Armory band, take in an evening lecture, or use the lending library while mingling with fellow workers. To use Katz and Wagner’s language, the Colt Armory was the “anchor firm” of the Hartford “innovation district,” which grew to include the Weed Sewing Machine Co., the Pope Manufacturing Co. (bicycles, automobiles), both the Underwood and Royal Typewriter companies, and Pratt &Whitney (machines tools), the last of which was a spin-off founded by two former Colt machinists. Similarly, in the 1950s several medical device firms clustered around two Twin Cities anchors—the University of Minnesota’s Variety Club Heart Hospital and Medtronic—in “Medical Alley” Minnesota.

This is a black and white birdseye view of Coltsville and the CT River.  It is a black and white detail from the original color lithograph, print, O.H. Bailey and Co., Boston, “The City of Hartford,” 1877.

A bird’s-eye view of “Coltsville,” 1877. This industrial village along the Connecticut River in Hartford included Samuel Colt’s famous onion-domed factory (foreground), and behind it, workers’ housing, a baseball field, and a church. To the right of the armory and below the church is Charter Oak Hall, where workers could engage in numerous leisure activities. A detail from the lithograph “City of Hartford” (1877) by O. H. Bailey, courtesy of The Connecticut Historical Society.

Katz and Warner believe there is strong potential for the growth of innovation districts in several U.S. cities. Indeed, as new urban innovation districts emerge in cities like St. Louis, Detroit, and Boston, civic leaders would be wise to brush up on their history to learn lessons from earlier Places of Invention.

Sources:

Chesbrough, Henry.  Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.

Godin, Benoit. “The Linear Model of Innovation: The Historical Construction of an Analytical Framework.” Science, Technology & Human Values 31 (2006): 639–667.

Katz, Bruce and Julie Wagner. The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2014.  Accessed 19 June 2014.

Leslie, Stuart W. and Scott Knowles.  “Industrial Versailles: Eero Saarinen’s Corporate Campuses for GM, IBM, and AT&T,” Isis 92, no. 1 (March 2001): 1-33.

Rigby, Bill and Alistair Barr. “Will Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon fall victim to the ‘campus curse?’” San Jose Mercury News, 28 May 2013.  Accessed 19 June 2014.

Inspiring Inventor: Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014)

I want to pay homage to one of our favorite inventors, Stephanie Kwolek, who passed away June 18 at the age of 90. The DuPont chemist who invented Kevlar®, Kwolek came to the Lemelson Center in 1996 to participate in an “Innovative Lives” program, speaking with middle-school students about her childhood inspirations, life, and career. We were so intrigued by her personal and professional stories, and the impact of her invention, that we highlighted her in the Center’s “She’s Got It: Women Inventors and Their Inspirations” video, podcast, and educational materials. We also prominently featured her in our award-winning exhibition Invention at Play.

Kwolek with Kevlar Button.

Of the diverse inventors in Invention at Play, evaluations showed that Kwolek was the most inspiring for museum visitors of all ages and backgrounds. They were impressed by the fact that she was a female inventor who started working at DuPont in 1946 when few women were hired as scientists. Of course they were impressed also by her important invention in the 1960s. The polymer fiber that Kwolek created―Kevlar®―is very light weight, stiff, and, pound for pound, five times stronger than steel! It’s also chemical and flame resistant. Today Kevlar® is used in bullet-resistant vests, cut-resistant gloves, fiber-optic cables, helmets, tires, sports equipment, and even the International Space Station. If you look around your home or office, you’re bound to have at least one product that contains Kevlar.

Kwolek with Kevlar products

Kwolek with Kevlar products.

International Space Station

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Kwolek earned many important awards and professional accolades, including being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995 and receiving the National Medal of Technology in 1996 and Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. As our senior historian Joyce Bedi said, “She was a wonderful person and an inspiration to many, especially young women interested in science and invention.” We were indeed lucky to have known her.

Kwolek, age 3, on a horse.

Kwolek, age 3.

The Elusive Perfectly Roasted Cup

My family is obsessed with Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. The ubiquitous pink and orange logo is emblazoned in my memory. Grandpa Andy’s routine consists of a daily walk to the nearest Dunkin’s — about 500 yards from the house he built — for two cups of medium regular. Those cups sit on the counter until the moment comes to zap one in the microwave for a minute before he sits down with the daily crossword. His affection for the beverage is so well known that people bring him souvenir coffee cups from all over the world. His collection now contains over 2500 unique cups. The irony? He always drinks his coffee out of Dunkin Styrofoam, never out of a ceramic cup.

So when I flew the coop at the age of 18, the best coffee I’d ever had was a Dunkin iced hazelnut extra extra. Now, not an insignificant number of years later, I can’t even bring myself to drink the stuff. What changed? Sure, my tastes have changed. But back then, that’s all that was available in the small city I called home. These days, the proliferation of specialty coffee shops has fundamentally changed how the world consumes coffee. Innovations in coffee consumption are at the heart of this transformation.

Coffee History, In Brief

The roasting and brewing of coffee didn’t change much between the 1400s and late 1800s. From Yemen to China to Ethiopia, the process by which green coffee beans were converted into the dark, caffeinated liquid was pretty much the same: small batches of dried beans were cooked in a pan over a source of heat, then pulverized and steeped in hot water.

That all changed in 1880s, when Jabez Burns patented his coffee roaster.

coffee-roaster-patent

Suddenly, coffee could be roasted in volume. At the same time, the industrial revolution introduced workers to unnatural sleep patterns and long hours. While coffee roasters previously had paid particular attention to sourcing good quality coffee beans, producing in large quantities to satisfy the needs of workers resulted in lower quality roasts. The invention opened a new market from which iconic brands such as Folgers and Maxwell House emerged.

Then, in 1890, an inventor from New Zealand named David Strang created instant coffee, and (in my opinion) the quest for the perfectly roasted cup took a huge leap backwards. I know some people swear by instant coffee. But instant coffee is a poor substitute for the real thing. Despite this, the popularity of the freeze-dried substance grew. It was sent overseas with the troops during the two world wars, and it became a staple in many households throughout the century. This was known as The First Wave of coffee.

Coffee Consumption

Folgers and Maxwell House may be the most well known mass producers of coffee, both instant coffee and the traditional kind. And up until the 1950s, most coffee consumption was done at home, in sit-down restaurants or on the fields of battle. But then came the second wave of coffee, with the introduction of the quick stop coffee shops like Dunkin’ Donuts, Peet’s Coffee, and Starbucks. It might not be fair to put all those in the same category, and depending on your loyalties, you might be offended by this notion. Peet’s Coffee is known to have been the first to rediscover, if you will, that coffee—depending on the origins and roasting methods—could have nuances in flavor. It was also at a Peet’s coffee that many Americans first encountered espresso and the myriad drinks that have since proliferated.

With this second wave, the emphasis shifted from the need for mass production to the desire for a better cup of coffee, and retail prices rose in conjunction with it. This lead to inventions such as the French Press coffee maker, the moka pot, the Mr. Coffee automatic coffee maker, and (my personal favorite) the Chemex.

The moka pot. From Wikicommons.

The moka pot. From Wikicommons.

CHEMEX from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum.

CHEMEX from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum.

Chemex is my favorite because it was invented and is still produced in a town I consider a second home, Pittsfield, MA. It also, until recently, produced the best cup of coffee I have ever tasted.

The Third Wave

Last year, I discovered a coffee shop in Portland, ME, called Speckled Ax. It’s a specialty coffee shop where the owner, Matt Bolinder, is the roaster and also the main importer. He is part of a growing trend of coffee aficionados who will travel the world looking for the best coffee beans to bring home and roast. The third wave, according to Climpson and Sons, well-known coffee experts,

“…is focused on craftsmanship; where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries and roasting is about bringing out unique characteristics of a bean. …third wave is in the throes of achieving the same level of detail and understanding from bean to cup that wine connoisseurs have demanded for decades – farm, harvest, processing style, roast date, coffee variety and tasting notes.”

At Speckled Ax, and countless other small, independent shops popping up around the country, the emphasis is on creating a unique cup of coffee, unparalleled in flavor, color, texture, aroma, etc.

The quest for the perfect cup has lead to many innovations in roasting and brewing. At Speckled Ax, for example, Matt Bolinder roasts his coffee beans using wood fire—“Our object is to complement the distinctive flavors inherent to our select coffees with the subtle aromatics that only a wood fire can impart.”

On the brewing side of things, I recently came across a process called “Steampunk” at a coffee shop here in Washington, DC called La Colombe. This process produces the best cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted, using beans selected with utmost care by Todd Carmichael, a celebrity in the coffee world. The Steampunk process takes concepts as old as coffee brewing itself, and aims to use modern technology to achieve the perfect cup.

Steampunk Press.

Steampunk Press.

But can there really ever be a perfect cup of coffee?

No. No there can’t be. Perfection is impossible. But I’d love to be proved wrong.

Concerned about Inequality? Blame the Ancient Coppersmiths.

The following is a guest post by Edward Tenner, a senior research associate of the Lemelson Center and author of Why Things Bite Back and Our Own Devices.

More than 50 years ago, the Israeli archaeologist Pessah Bar-Adon discovered a trove of over four hundred copper objects and other priceless artifacts in a cave high in the cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea. The Polish-born scholar, who had lived for years among the Bedouin, had uncovered the “Cave of the Treasure” by a dry riverbed known as Nahal Mishmar. Originally chosen for its remoteness, the site was used by a vanished civilization over six thousand years ago. The artifacts helped define the Chalcolithic or Copper Age of technology (4500-3600 BCE), first recognized in the early twentieth century. This era marked a transition from the Stone Age to metallurgy, which brought with it the rise of villages controlled by chiefs, an expansion of agriculture, and the development of specialized crafts on an unprecedented scale.

Crown with Building-Façade Decoration and Vultures. Copper.

Crown with Building-Façade Decoration and Vultures. Copper.
H. 17.5 cm; Diam. 16.8 cm. Naḥal Mishmar, 4500–3600 BCE. Israel Antiquities Authority: 1961-177, exhibited at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority. Photo © The Israel Museum, by Ardon Bar Hama

Masters of Fire: Copper Age Art from Israel, an exhibition currently on view at the New York University Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (it will travel next to the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco), features stunning and often enigmatic objects (like anthropomorphic and zoomorphic ossuaries that held the bones of the dead) from Nahal Mishmar and other Chalcolithic periods sites. Beyond examining the artistry of the objects, the exhibition raises a fascinating question: Did mastery of metallurgy open the door to ancient, and thus modern, inequality?

Connections between metalworking and elitism have been made in other contexts. Investigations of the 5,000-year-old South Tyrol mummy Oetzi, for example, suggest that his copper-bladed axe was not only a highly efficient tool but a status symbol available solely to a small number of elite males. While the Nahal Mishmar hoard yielded clearly practical copper objects—such as heads of the maces that were the characteristic weapon of the period—it also included finely-worked “scepters,” “crowns,” and vessels that suggest the wealth and prestige of those reburied there, and the riches of their temples.

Mace Head with Vertical Rows of Protruding Knobs.

Mace Head with Vertical Rows of Protruding Knobs. Copper. H. 7.3 cm; Diam. 3.3 cm. Naḥal Mishmar, 4500–3600 BCE. Israel Antiquities Authority: 1961-108, exhibited at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Photography by Elie Posner © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Scepter with Grooved Shaft and Four Horned Animal-Head Finials.

Scepter with Grooved Shaft and Four Horned Animal-Head Finials. Copper. H. 8.2 cm; Diam. (Shaft) 1.8 cm. Naḥal Mishmar, 4500–3600 BCE. Israel Antiquities Authority: 1961-86, exhibited at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Photography by Elie Posner © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Whatever the objects mean and however they were used, the cost of obtaining, transporting, and smelting ore, and working copper—not to mention military protection of the new wealth—promoted inequality and social stratification. As Thomas E. Levy notes in the handsomely illustrated exhibition catalog, it took thirty-five hours of smelting time and fifty hours of work to produce a single copper axe. An egalitarian Neolithic society could not finance such skilled and specialized production without changing its character. “Once this transition was put in place, by the early fourth millennium BCE,” Levy writes, “there was no returning.”

If you’re in New York through this weekend, or in the Bay Area this summer or fall, don’t miss this mesmerizing exhibition (there’s an excellent review by Edward Rothstein of the New York Times).

Inventing a No-Chip Manicure

I used to think manicures were only for elegant ladies who walked poodles, had afternoon tea, and were always perfectly coiffed. In other words, not me. If it’s raining outside, even a little bit, I’m the person who gets drenched in spite of using an umbrella. If I had a choice between spending time in a salon and hiking with a guidebook, I’d choose the woods. And every time I’ve gotten a manicure—without fail—I’ve chipped it the same day or shortly thereafter.

Inventor Hedy Lamarr. Image credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Inventor Hedy Lamarr. Image credits: Wikimedia Commons.

This all adds up to skepticism of a no-chip nail innovation that was recommended to me: the shellac manicure. The shellac nail polish and manicure system is credited to Creative Nail Design, or CND, a company that spent five years testing and improving this product before releasing it to the market. Unlike a regular manicure, shellac lasts up to two weeks and is touted as chip-free.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So how does it work? There isn’t much professionally written about its exact science, but the general idea is that the specially formulated shellac nail polish is applied like normal polish. Nails are then cured by placement under a UV lamp after each coat. And unlike a normal manicure, nails are dried and ready to go immediately, which helps a lot when you’re fishing around in your purse for money to pay.

On a related note, while researching this blog post, I came across the story of a scientist named Hope Jahren, who hacked Seventeen magazine’s #ManicureMonday on Twitter in fall 2013. #ManicureMonday is traditionally a place for girls and women to post images of their manicures, but Hope wanted to show girls that it’s not just how their hands look, but what they do with them. So she and other scientists tweeted images of their manicured hands doing all sorts of fun, science-related stuff. The Smithsonian has gotten in on the fun, showcasing the great work being done behind-the-scenes at our various museums and research centers. I think this is a great message to send girls and women who are future scientists, inventors, and innovators—that you can have fun with fashion and be a serious, smart professional in a STEM field.

A scientist takes part in #ManicureMonday. Image credit: Sara Kross (@Sara_kross), Twitter.

A scientist takes part in #ManicureMonday. Image credit: Sara Kross (@Sara_kross), Twitter.

Like many successful inventions, the shellac manicure has made my life easier and is a vast improvement from easily chipping nail polish. It seems like there are continual updates to the system and more variety in color and textures. Maybe you’ll see me on the next #ManicureMonday.

Sources:

http://www.komonews.com/news/consumer/122994693.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/gel-manicures-raise-questions-about-safety-of-the-uv-lamps-used-to-dry-the-polish/2012/02/06/gIQAQvVgeR_story.html

http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/11/20/manicuremonday_seventeen_magazine_s_hashtag_hijacked_by_scientists.html

Setting Up Spark!Lab India

It’s 11:45 p.m. local time when I land in Delhi, India. After nearly 20 hours of traveling, I’m happy to have arrived at my final destination. (I’m also jetlagged—there’s a nine and a half hour time difference and I’ve slept very little. And I’m hot—though it’s nearly midnight, it’s still about 90 degrees.) But mostly I’m excited since I’ve traveled all this way to help open our newest Spark!Lab.

For the past year, the Lemelson Center has been working with partners in India to establish a Spark!Lab in Gurgaon, a city about 30 minutes from Delhi. I’ve had several phone calls and traded lots of emails with Arti Agarwal, the leader of the Spark!Lab India project, but I’m anxious to meet her face-to-face.

The next day, Arti picked me up at my hoteI and took me to see the newest member of the Spark!Lab “family.” Unlike our U.S.-based labs and the temporary installation in Kyiv, Ukraine, this Spark!Lab is not in a museum. Instead, it’s an independent venue, housed on the sixth floor of a high-rise building. I was unsure how this set-up might affect the atmosphere of Spark!Lab, but once inside the doors, Spark!Lab India feels just like our other sites—fun, dynamic, and full of possibility.

Posters outlining the process of invention.

Posters outlining the process of invention.

View of Gurgaon from Spark!Lab India.

View of Gurgaon from Spark!Lab India.

Over the next week, I met with Arti and her team to train them on the Spark!Lab pedagogy and educational philosophy. They worked through invention challenges I posed for them, and became experts on each of the individual activities. We talked a lot about how to make the experience culturally relevant to the kids who would visit, and how to keep the Spark!Lab experience fresh for repeat visitors. As always, I feel like I learned as much from my Indian colleagues as I taught them. A favorite moment was learning how to make a traditional Indian kite, and then discussing how we could integrate this technique into an existing Spark!Lab activity that challenges kids to design their own kites.

Spark!Lab India staff teach me how to make a traditional Indian kite.

Spark!Lab India staff teach me how to make a traditional Indian kite.

Spark!Lab India staff invent a floating home to address the problem of flooding during monsoon season in Gurgaon.

Spark!Lab India staff invent a floating home to address the problem of flooding during monsoon season in Gurgaon.

Spark!Lab India staff invent a vehicle out of PVC pipe.

Spark!Lab India staff invent a vehicle out of PVC pipe.

The highlight of the trip came when we invited the first kids to visit Spark!Lab. While our team was excited and prepared, I sensed a little bit of uncertainty. Would people come? Would kids have fun? Would the activities really work as they are designed to? Yes, yes, and yes!

Spark!Lab visitors create flying inventions to test in the vertical wind tunnel.

Spark!Lab visitors create flying inventions to test in the vertical wind tunnel.

A young boy experiments with gyroscopes.

A young boy experiments with gyroscopes.

Spark!Lab visitors create their own version of the Taj Mahal.

Spark!Lab visitors create their own version of the Taj Mahal.

Our pilot group of Spark!Lab visitors had a great time exploring the different activity stations, creating, testing, and tweaking their inventions, and collaborating and problem-solving with one another. In many ways, it felt just like Spark!Lab at the Smithsonian or in Reno or Ukraine, and reminded me that no matter where we live, we are all inventive and creative.

With the Spark!Lab India team.

With the Spark!Lab India team.

Buzz… Swat: Mosquito Repellents

It’s the time of year when mosquitos are hatching in preparation to swarm us, bite us, and make us itch. Mosquitos are and always have been not only an annoyance, but also a major health risk. Mosquitos spread diseases such as Yellow Fever, Malaria, and West Nile Virus that can result in death. Many natural products have been used to repel mosquitos with modest results such as citronella candles, smoke, and various plant extracts like eucalyptus oil. The real breakthrough in repellent, however, came from the invention of DEET.

DEET is a synthetic repellent invented by the U.S. Army for use by military personnel in insect-infected areas. Inventor Samuel Gertler of the U.S. Department of Agriculture received a patent in 1946 for using DEET as an insect repellent in the form of a cream, lotion, or powder. DEET was not registered for use by the general public until 1957.

Researchers at University of California Davis discovered that mosquitoes find the smell of DEET unappealing and consequently avoid areas that smell like DEET. Many companies have created an array of insect repellent products, including sprays, sunscreen, wipes, and sticks, containing varying concentrations of DEET.  It is estimated that each year 78 million people in the US and 200 million people globally use DEET[i].

Shelves of mosquito repellent.

Although DEET is generally considered the best mosquito repellent on the market, it is not without concerns. Even though the EPA has determined that it is only “slightly toxic,” products containing DEET have been reported to cause rashes and there have been some cases of children becoming ill from its use[ii]. In extremely strong doses, it is capable of melting plastic and nylon.[iii] Additionally, DEET is expensive for people in places that need it most—such as Africa. The results of a 2010 study by researchers who identified some DEET-insensitive mosquitos are also of concern. They found that the gene adaptation that makes mosquitos insensitive can be passed on to the next mosquito generation.

But have hope! Inventing a more effective synthetic mosquito repellent may be on the horizon. Researchers at the University of California Riverside have identified the olfactory receptors mosquitos use to detect and dislike DEET. They have also identified three compounds in natural products that mimic DEET. The research team’s leader, Anandasankar Ray, said that the compounds they identified “are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for consumption as flavors or fragrances, and are already being used as flavoring agents in some foods. But now they can be applied to bed-nets, clothes, curtains—making them ward off insects.”[iv]  “One of them is present in plum,” he says. “The other is present in orange and jasmine oil. Some of them are present in grapes. And, as you can imagine, they smell really nice.[v]

Unfortunately, the commercial development and production of such DEET-mimicking repellents are still several years away. So it seems that the only comfort from mosquitoes I’ll receive this summer will come from the belief that the invention of an inexpensive, natural, and fully effective mosquito repellant will exist during my lifetime.

Made in Golden

This is a guest post by Jennifer Brundage, a National Outreach Manager for Smithsonian Affiliations and a Lemelson Center Advisory Committee member.

Location, location, location. It’s important for real estate as we all know, but as I’m learning, also critical for innovation and invention.

The state of Colorado has no shortage of breathtaking, jaw-dropping locations. In my home state over the holidays, I rediscovered Golden, a town not only full of scenic vistas, but also packed with nuggets of invention. (Excuse the pun! I couldn’t help myself.)

A grand arch spanning the town’s main street welcomes all to Golden.

A grand arch spanning the town’s main street welcomes all to Golden.

Golden (“Where the West Lives”!) is situated near the junction of I-70, the highway that leads straight to the Rocky Mountains and the ski resorts (and former mining towns) for which Colorado is so famous. It’s also only 15 miles west of Denver, enough to be close, but not too close, to major transportation lines. During the Gold Rush, Golden quickly became an ideal stopping point between the capital city and the mining industry. In fact, in 1858, David King Wall, Golden’s first resident, innovated a way to divert the pristine mountain water from Clear Creek to irrigate crops of vegetables, providing much-desired fresh produce for city dwellers and miners alike. The access to this same pure water also attracted Golden’s most famous resident, Adolph Coors in 1873. As the Places of Invention project repeatedly shows, when access to natural resources, business opportunities, and intellectual capital come together, they create a magnet for even more innovation over time. Golden is no exception. Soon, the Colorado School of Mines started attracting engineers to the town, and mountaineers discovered its benefits as well.

View of the Made in Golden exhibition, showing a diorama of the town from 1938-39, and a list of reasons why over 150 manufacturing businesses call Golden home.

View of the Made in Golden exhibition, showing a diorama of the town from 1938-39, and a list of reasons why over 150 manufacturing businesses call Golden home.

This legacy of invention, stretching into the present day, is the subject of an enlightening exhibition currently on view at the Golden History Center, entitled Made in Golden. After establishing the primacy of location for this community, the exhibition describes how the Coors Brewery decided in the early 1950s that steel—the material chosen for selling beer in cans—was seriously flawed for a variety of reasons, including leakage, contaminants, cost, and most importantly, the unpleasant metallic taste it gave to beer. And so in 1959, Coors invented the two-piece aluminum can, revolutionizing the beverage industry. Coors continued to innovate, creating the internal coating, sterile-fill, and printing processes for aluminum cans that are still the industry standard.

Another view of the Made in Golden exhibition, showing various processes of innovation.

Another view of the Made in Golden exhibition, showing various processes of innovation.

Access and proximity to the mountains also brought innovative adventurers to Golden. In 1981, Patrick Smith survived an avalanche in nearby Berthoud Pass, even though he left his specialized shovel (invented by fellow Golden resident Paul Ramer) in his car because it wouldn’t fit in his backpack. In response, he designed a new kind of pack around the dimensions of a Ramer shovel, and the firm Mountainsmith was born. Mountainsmith used a patented delta suspension system, and produced the best selling lumbar pack for close to ten years. In related gear innovation, climbers and mountaineers alike also flock to the Spyderco knives developed and still produced in Golden, with their trademark holes and pocket clips that make these necessary survival tools easy to carry.

Mountainsmith packs on view in Made in Golden.

Mountainsmith packs on view in Made in Golden.

Jolly Ranchers were developed in Golden, as a way for ice cream vendors Bill and Dorothy Harmsen to extend their season into the Colorado winter by making candy with best-selling names like Fire Stix. And with only four companies in the world producing low wattage lasers for commercial use, Golden boasts one of them, Epilog, who turned the industry on its head when it invented the first low-cost, small-format laser engraver. It’s like a printer, except instead of paper, one can print on glass, wood, metal, fabric… even eggs!

An Epilog laser-produced metal disk, each visitor’s souvenir from this innovation exhibition.

An Epilog laser-produced metal disk, each visitor’s souvenir from this innovation exhibition.

Golden is not the only place to uncover the state’s history of invention. The History Colorado Center (a Smithsonian Affiliate) chronicles innovations in mining, snow sports and more at its location in downtown Denver. (For example, did you know that the cheeseburger was invented in Denver?) The Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention exhibition already plans to highlight two Colorado stories when it opens in 2015. The Telluride Historical Museum (a Smithsonian Affiliate) will share how the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant built in 1891 was the world’s first commercial long distance transmission and use of AC generated power. This breakthrough was critical to operating the silver mines in the often inaccessible terrain of the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado, but also, transformed the industrial capacity of the nation. Fort Collins’ revolutionary inventions in clean energy and socially responsible innovation will be featured as well, showing that Colorado State University, the city, and community businesses actively pursue collaborations that result in local innovations with a global impact.

Another view of the Made in Golden exhibition, showing a lab for visitors to devise their own innovative solutions to city problems.

Another view of the Made in Golden exhibition, showing a lab for visitors to devise their own innovative solutions to city problems.

Colorado is a gold mine of invention, both historically and into the present day. I’m confident future prospecting trips will uncover even deeper veins of innovation. Any ideas on where else to look?!