They like knowing how things work, what makes it tick, and how it could be made better. There are even those brave souls among us who really enjoy the challenge of a taking on a “do-it-yourself” project, or taking things apart. To them I say, “bless you, for you are truly gifted!” And, apparently, in good company…
In the early ’90s the Smithsonian partnered with PBS’ Discovery Channel to bring a weekly series on INVENTION into our homes. The series featured then National Museum of American History director Roger Kennedy, who at the beginning of each segment presented viewers with a historical perspective on American invention and innovation through the lens of art, music, aeronautics, physics, politics, and pop culture, to name a few.
In preparing for the shows, Kennedy often worked with a team of curators to review script content for historical accuracy and identify artifacts from the collections to showcase during his monologue segment. He liked the idea of sharing the familiar (pacemaker, light bulb, sewing machine) and not-so familiar (velocipede, toothkey, backscratcher) objects from the collections with the public and believed it was important for viewers to know that inventions of the current day derived from what came before. As one Baltimore Sun reporter wrote at the debut airing of INVENTION, “The series both celebrates and kids us about our almost-religious belief in ‘American know-how.’ ‘Invention’ is one of those smart shows that can make us smarter about ourselves and our history.”
The Smithsonian hosted the INVENTION series for about five consecutive seasons; I believe at the time it was the only show of its kind. Coincidentally, right around the time the show was ending, the creation of a new Smithsonian endeavor was on the horizon—in 1994, the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation was established at the National Museum of American History.
Fast forward some twenty years later and once again we see American ingenuity and that “can-do” attitude brought to us front and center in a host of reality TV shows, on not one, but several cable and public television networks. I think the line-up has been pretty impressive—shows like American Inventor, a reality television series based on a competition to be named America’s best inventor; Everyday Edisons, ordinary people with simple solutions for everyday problems; Invention Hunters, two “invention seekers,” hunting high and low across America in search of the next great food invention, and Invention USA, in search of the next breakthrough invention. Every idea has the potential to change someone’s life… or even the world.
I think when you can capture the attention of a 12, 14 and 16 year-old (as is the case in my household), who seem to pay attention to nothing more than sports and social networking, but will make a point of dedicating at least ten minutes of their busy schedules to catching an episode or two of any one of these invention reality shows, then I believe you’ve clearly got something good going here.
What’s the appeal I ask? The draw for the young people in my life seems to be the shows’ common purpose—connecting inventors with investors. In the words of my niece, “I like it when their inventions get selected, because it means someone else believes in their dream too.” They also seem to like the product testing, in particularly my nephews, who are often the ones talking at the TV saying, “why did you build it that way” and “they should of used duct tape”. (Future inventors, hmmm?)
So I ask you, do you believe American ingenuity still exists?
Well, if the host of invention-themed shows on cable and public television networks over the past five years are any indication, then I think by all accounts the inventive spirit truly is alive and well.