About Joyce Bedi

Joyce Bedi is the Senior Historian at the Lemelson Center.

Seeing in the Dark: Aerial Recon in WWII

The Lemelson Center’s annual symposium took place on Oct. 25 and this year we explored the role technology and invention plays in our surveillance society. You can watch the archived video on UStream. In this post, we look at one invention that allowed for wartime surveillance from the sky.

Many of us who work at the National Museum of American History have a favorite object or two. Mine is part of the photographic history collections. It’s a General Electric Mazda FT-17 flash lamp, whose prototype was invented by Harold “Doc” Edgerton at MIT to take aerial reconnaissance photographs at night. Why do I like it? Well, OK, I’m a photography geek. But the tube is elegant yet cool, and it has a great story.

Edgerton had originally invented an electronic stroboscope to study high-speed machinery in motion. But he soon turned his light (and camera) on a vast range of subjects. Applying his solid engineering training, vivid imagination, and good business sense, Edgerton continually adapted and commercialized the technology he had created. In the 1940s, this work took Doc into the sky.

Major George Goddard of the army’s photographic laboratory at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) visited Edgerton at MIT in 1939. Goddard had joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1917 and was appointed instructor of aerial photographic interpretation at the School of Military Aeronautics the following year. He knew firsthand both the value and limitations of aerial photography using existing technology. So he asked if Edgerton and his colleagues could build a strobe that would be powerful enough to take photographs from a plane, at night, from a height of a mile. “We can do that,” Doc said. “We haven’t got it in the house, but we can do that.” (1) That confidence produced an electronic flash system for night aerial photography that delivered information impossible to obtain in any other way.

Edgerton’s night aerial photography system.

Edgerton’s night aerial photography system. The flash tube (lower center) fits into the reflector at the left. The camera (center), which looks a lot like an oversized 35-mm single-lens reflex camera, is sitting on top of one of the capacitor banks. The serviceman is holding the control box. Courtesy of the MIT Museum.

The strobe that Doc originally designed to photograph events from the bleachers of Boston Garden provided a technical foundation for his electronic flash for military night aerial photography. But the components of this new flash system were bigger and more powerful than anything Doc had yet built. The flash tube is a tough monster; its 30 inches of strong, quartz glass, coiled into a xenon-filled spiral, withstood the 4,000 volts discharged through it. The tube fit into a reflector mounted in the plane’s belly or tail. Banks of capacitors, weighing up to 500 pounds each, were slung on the plane’s bomb racks and supplied power to the flash tube. A direct contact synchronized the flash to the equally oversized aerial camera.

Setting up the strobe (left) and camera (center) at Boston Garden, 1946. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

Setting up the strobe (left) and camera (center) at Boston Garden, 1946. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

In April 1941, the first experimental unit–camera, capacitors, flash tube, and reflector–was mounted in a B-18 and tested over Boston. But the system’s most famous test began on June 5, 1944, when an A-20 equipped with the flash took off for France, ahead of the D-day invasion forces. Doc recorded the results in his laboratory notebook on June 7, 1944: “The A-20 (No 449) went on its first mission on Monday night June 5 arriving at the target on June 6 around 130 am. The target was two road intersections south of Caen. Due to clouds the pictures were taken at 800 ft – 2000 ft. The photos were very good but there was no overlap. Some flack [sic] from ground machine guns was encountered at a town named Coustances. Villedieu-les-Poêles was photographed. I stayed up until 5 am to see the negatives out of the dryer.” (2)

Doc continued to tweak the giant flash system even as it saw use in many more missions during the war. One of my favorite runs, though, took place in August 1944, when Edgerton was testing the flash in England. Stonehenge, standing alone on the Salisbury Plain, proved a perfect subject for his experiments.

Stonehenge, 1944. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

Stonehenge, 1944. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

The nighttime aerial reconnaissance photography system developed by Edgerton and his colleagues at MIT, in industry, and in the military, was used throughout the war. The adaptation of the flash tube from peacetime photography of things like rodeos in Boston Garden to wartime reconnaissance flights over Europe is a testament to Edgerton’s creative mind. Throughout his life, Doc welcomed each new inquiry. “If you don’t wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and want to do something,” Edgerton quipped, “why, you’re wasting time.” (3)

A serviceman inserting the flash tube into the reflector. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

A serviceman inserting the flash tube into the reflector. Courtesy of the MIT Museum


(1) “History of the Strobe Light,” Edgerton Hall, MIT, Cambridge, Mass., November 27, 1984. Harold Eugene Edgerton Papers, MC 25, Box 116, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(2) Notebook 15, 30 Jan. 1944 – 16 Feb. 1945, pp. 23-24, Harold Eugene Edgerton Papers, MC 25, Box 53, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(3) WGBH Nova, “Edgerton and His Incredible Seeing Machines.” Original broadcast: January 15, 1985.

This post first appeared in Prototype, May 2010 edition.

Inventing for the Environment

The northwest coast of Iceland in January is a stunningly beautiful place. Waterfalls tumble over steep cliff edges, forming rainbows in their spray. The clear, crisp blue of the sky reaches down to the even deeper blues of the fjords. Volcanoes dot the landscape, boiling pits of mud and minerals the colors of agate fill the air with the smell of sulfur, and it seems that steam leaks from the smallest cracks in the earth wherever you go. And this year, the snow sat in islands surrounded by lava and moss.

Icelandic horses grazing

Icelandic horses grazing near Akureyri in January 2013. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Like most visitors, I couldn’t help but admire the beauty and bounties of Iceland—the bracing clean water, the fresh seafood, and the abundant geothermal power. As I traveled around, I heard Icelanders express their gratitude for these resources and affirm their deep connection to their natural environment. But they also talked about changes that their land is experiencing, from higher winter temperatures to the increased economic importance of mackerel to the fishing industry as warmer ocean temperatures bring these fish farther north.

Mud, minerals, and sulfur in Iceland.

Mud, minerals, and the smell of sulfur in the Icelandic landscape, January 2013. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

The perspectives of the people who live in Iceland reflect this year’s theme for Earth Day on April 22: “The Face of Climate Change.” People around the world are submitting photos and comments to the Earth Day website, offering their personal observations on climate change and their dedication to doing something about it. Looking through those images and reading the thoughts of so many people from so many places made me think not only about Iceland but also about another place closer to home.

Horsetooth Reservoir, Fort Collins, Colorado

Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins, Colorado, June 2012. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Last summer I traveled to Fort Collins, Colorado, for a week of research on developments in cleaner, more sustainable energy sources (we will be featuring Fort Collins in the Lemelson Center’s upcoming Places of Invention exhibition). The people I interviewed there shared the feelings of responsibility for the environment that I had witnessed in Iceland. I also saw firsthand their efforts to effect change through invention and innovation.

Amy Prieto, Colorado State University

Inventor Amy Prieto in her lab at Colorado State University, June 2012. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

One of the inventors I met was Amy Prieto, an associate professor of chemistry at Colorado State University and the founder of Prieto Battery. Her work centers on inventing a rechargeable battery that will last longer, charge faster, and won’t be made with toxic materials. Still in the prototype stage, the heart of the battery is a thin slice of copper “foam” that, like a sponge, is full of holes. This 3-dimensional structure increases the amount of surface area and allows electrons to move more freely and over shorter distances than in conventional batteries. This means that the Prieto battery is expected to last longer and recharge faster than traditional lithium-ion batteries.

Prieto battery components

Some components of Prieto’s prototype battery, June 2012. Rectangles of copper “foam” are top center. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Prieto’s work represents a new way of thinking about batteries. “The journey is an exciting one and one we believe in,” the team at Prieto Battery asserts. “Beyond changing how people power their lives, Prieto Battery believes strongly in retaining why we started in the first place—a diverse, highly collaborative, environmentally conscious team driven to deliver on our promise to create the world’s most advanced rechargeable battery. This is what powers us.”

Amy Prieto will soon be sharing that driving sense of commitment—to teammates, to invention, to the environment—with a group of elementary-school students in Mississippi. Last fall, the Lemelson Center’s hands-on invention center, Spark!Lab, partnered with ePals, an education media company and safe social learning network, for the second annual “Invent It! Challenge.” The contest asked students to think about real-world problems and invent something that could help solve them. The ePals Choice Award went to the “Solbrite,” a “solar-panel purse LED light,” invented by a 9-year-old girl named Marlee. Her prize is a video chat for her and her classmates with inventor Amy Prieto.

From the shores of northern Iceland and the valleys of the Colorado Rockies to a classroom in Mississippi, invention and innovation remain important tools for conserving natural resources, reducing pollution, and confronting global climate change. Who knows, perhaps a Prieto battery will be part of the “Solbrite” one day.

Don’t make me get the flying monkeys

A souvenir "Chistery," the original flying monkey, soars on the breezes in my office, above a sign that reads, "Don't make me get the flying monkeys! — The Wicked Witch" (a gift from my sister years ago!). Photo by Joyce Bedi

OK, let’s get the confession out of the way. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Wizard of Oz. I know, I know. I should pick something more edgy, or more indie, or even something French. But I am an unabashed fan of the Emerald City gang. Even though I grew up in the era of black-and-white television, a local station showed Oz every year around Easter. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was the Easter-egg hues of the film’s sets and costumes (even though we couldn’t see them). Maybe it was to mark the beginning of tornado season in the Midwest. I honestly don’t know. But my Mom and I looked forward to that broadcast each Spring. And when I finally saw the film in color in my college years, when I opened the Kansas farmhouse door and stepped into the Technicolor world of Oz for the first time, my addiction was complete, undeniable, and irreversible.

A year ago or so, I discovered a new dimension to the Oz story. I had seen Gregory Maguire’s book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, in bookstores but never quite brought myself to buy it. I guess I could have gone to a public library, but that never happened, either. Then, I got an iPad and started delving into e-books, and one of the first I read was Wicked. What a great complement to the story I know so well. It had more in common with L. Frank Baum’s original book published in 1900 than the classic 1939 MGM film, and added new plot points from Maguire’s imagination. I really enjoyed this deeper glimpse into the history of Oz, if you can call it that.

So recently, when my husband and I saw an ad for performances of Wicked, the musical, I mentioned that I would like to see the play. Being the best husband in the world (no exaggeration), he announced a few days later that he planned to take me to a performance as part of our anniversary celebration! I wasn’t sure what to expect, and that turned out to be a good mental state to bring to the theater. The show was amazing. But my historian-of-technology’s eye couldn’t stop seeing the inventions and innovations that appeared as uncredited actors throughout the production.

Jeanna De Waal as Glinda and Christine Dwyer as Elphaba in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus

For example, in one scene, it begins to rain. It truly looked like rain, but it was all done with lighting and projections. The vaguely steampunk, clockwork design of the sets also displays innovative techniques, like the bicycle brakes and bass drum pedal used to manipulate the enormous Wizard’s-head puppet. Of course, there is the makeup that makes Elphaba (the alleged Wicked Witch of the West’s real name) her signature green. Makeup designer Joe Dulude II tweaked a commercially-available product from M.A.C. to give Elphaba a complexion that, as he put it, looks like skin, not makeup.

Mandy Gonzalez as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus

Then there are the costumes created by Tony-award-winning designer Susan Hilferty. She calls her concept for Wicked “twisted Edwardian,” taking inspiration from Baum’s book and from the characters themselves. For Elphaba, a character she sees as rooted in the earth, she created a variation on the stereotypical witch’s black dress and hat, designing an asymmetrical costume of many dark colors, reminiscent of the hues found in coal, mica, and other minerals. Glinda the Good’s costume is the opposite—light and airy and “of the sky.” Then there are the flying monkeys, whose hand-painted costumes must allow them to move like, well, monkeys, but also to “fly,” with integrated mechanical wings.

The National Museum of American History recently collected Elphaba's dress, hat, and broom, a donation from Susan Hilferty. As soon as it went on display in the American Stories exhibition, I dashed up to see it. As great as it looked on stage, it was even more impressive up close. Smithsonian photo.

As I did a little research into these behind-the-scenes features of the show, I found that, not surprisingly, the creative process of the designers isn’t all that different from the inventive process that we document and teach at the Lemelson Center. In our Spark!Lab, we break down the invention process into a number of nonlinear steps:

  • Identify a problem or need (Think it)
  • Conduct research (Explore it)
  • Make sketches  (Sketch it)
  • Build prototypes (Create it)
  • Test the invention (Try it)
  • Refine it (Tweak it)
  • Market the invention (Sell it)

Susan Hilferty articulated a number of these same steps in talking about her design for Elphaba’s costume. “First of all,” she said” “I do a sketch and I have a very clear idea about what I want it to look like. And there is a draper who interprets my sketch. So we first look at in a . . . cheap fabric so I can look at what the draper has put together. . . While we’re doing that step, we’re talking about how it’s going to be fabricated . . . The skirt itself, for instance, takes about 40 yards of fabric where we piece it together. We take yards of fabric, rip it up, and piece it back together again, to make it feel like an organic material, which incorporates many, many different colors. Then they are stitched together by one person and it takes her about 40-60 hours stitching all of those layers on so they’re right up next to and around each other, almost like a topographical map.”

Susan Hilferty's sketch for the Elphaba costume was part of the donation to the Museum.

Imagining, sketching, prototyping, manufacturing, tweaking. These are activities with which inventors are intensely familiar. To modify an old chestnut (perhaps an appropriate thing to do during this holiday season), great creative minds think alike.

What do you want to make today?

I held a soldering iron for the first time in my life a few weeks ago. It was exciting and frustrating at the same time. Trying to melt a bead of solder to connect two parts proved more difficult than I expected it to be. But after several attempts, I finally managed to complete my little project (you can see it in action in the video). Those weren’t the most beautiful joins, but they worked. And the sense of accomplishment I felt as I proudly wore my little blinking robot pin the rest of the day far exceeded the actual amount of work I had done. That simple act of making something, of using a new tool, even if I weren’t particularly good at it, is something I will remember for a long time.

So why was I soldering in the first place? I was at a “Mini Maker Faire” at the conclusion of a workshop at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s Makeshop. A group of us from museums around the country were there to learn about Makeshop and the maker movement, and to think about ways to incorporate that philosophy into our own work. And why was a historian involved in this?

I had a few reasons for wanting to attend. First, I’m a historian of technology and it’s important to me to understand how the stuff I study and write about works. And I like tools, so getting to try out some new ones is just plain fun. But I’m also the historian on the planning team for the new Spark!Lab that will open after the renovation of the Museum’s West Exhibition Wing, so it’s my job to think about ways to infuse hands-on activities with history. And while I don’t yet have a lot of answers about how we will do that, I did get some ideas from the workshop and my personal experience with that soldering iron.

Throughout the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, art and technology meet in whimsical ways, as this sculpture of "King Steel and Queen Iron" by Devon Smith (2001) illustrates. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

One of the workshop participants pointed out that kids are good at making the connection between the “do” and the “happen.” She suggested that, rather than just give kids tools, we could first ask what they want the tool to do, and then ask what they might invent that would do that. It seems to me that making a connection to history as the next question—how do you think people used to do this?—might work. We have actually been trying something like this in our Spark!Lab prototyping sessions. Kids and their families can pick up and examine an ice skate from about 100 years ago, look at sketches and patents for other types of ice skates invented over time, and then use the materials we provide to either invent the ice skate of the future or create something new that could move them across the ice. Spark!Lab emphasizes that invention is a process; incorporating stories from the past reveals that it is a continuum as well.

Another Makeshop project---"squishy" circuits made of boots (feet?) of clay carry electricity from the batteries to the LED lamps. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

Perhaps the one thing that surprised me most about Makeshop, though, was how much it reinforces the research we are doing for our Places of Invention exhibition. In places as different as Hollywood in the 1930s and the Bronx in the ’70s, we have identified some common threads that tend to run through creative places. Rather than a recipe, we see these characteristics as ingredients of a strategy that helps people do their best work. Many of these elements are reflected in the 21st Century Skills framework as well.

For example, flexibility is important to fostering critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Not only do minds need to be open to new connections and opportunities, but spaces need to be adaptable to new directions in work. Makeshop is a great example of this. Although the space is divided into three distinct areas—one for electrical projects, a woodshop, and a sewing area—everything in those spaces can be reconfigured quickly and easily. Tables and cabinets are modular and on wheels. Pegboards are metal so they can be used in the standard fashion and also with magnetic items. In short, the space is designed to suit the work, whatever it may be.

Makeshop's movable, reconfigurable tables, pegboards, and cabinets create the ultimate flexible environment. Photo by Joyce Bedi.

That flexibility also makes the space conducive to collaboration, another characteristic of places of invention. Whether it’s one-on-one work with a Makeshop facilitator (like the student volunteer who, with enormous patience, helped me wield my soldering iron) or for family groups to work together on a project, the opportunity to work with someone else and learn from each other makes for a very fulfilling experience.

But don’t take my word for it. Find a buddy, some tools, and come up with a project. Create your own place of invention. As they say at Makeshop, “What do you want to make today?”

From the Collections: Technicolor Sets the Scene

Within a short time she was walking briskly toward the Emerald City, her silver shoes tinkling merrily on the hard, yellow roadbed. The sun shone bright and the birds sang sweet and Dorothy . . .

In the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, author L. Frank Baum gave the Wicked Witch of the East a pair of powerful silver shoes that became Dorothy’s when her Kansas farmhouse dropped out of the sky and landed squarely on the witch. Whether or not Baum meant those silver shoes skipping down a golden road as a commentary on the late-19th-century debate over basing American currency on a gold or silver standard, his vision of silver shoes remained intact in early versions of the screenplay for the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Yet the shoes were certainly not silver in the final film. While we may never be certain why Baum chose silver, we do know exactly why Dorothy’s shoes became a pair of sequin-covered, iridescent ruby slippers in the movie. The answer: Technicolor.

Photo: Only the Oz portion of the movie was filmed in Technicolor; the Kansas scenes were shot in black-and-white and toned sepia.

Inventors and MIT graduates Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock, and the technically adept W. Burton Wescottfounded Technicolor in 1915  (the “Tech” in Technicolor was a nod to Kalmus and Comstock’s alma mater). In 1938, Kalmus spoke about the beginnings of the company:

“The earliest Technicolor laboratory was built within a railway car. This car was completely equipped with a photochemical laboratory, darkrooms, fireproof safes, power plant, offices, and all the machinery and apparatus necessary for continuously carrying on the following processes on a small commercial scale; sensitizing, testing, perforating, developing, washing, fixing and drying positive; printing, developing, washing, and conditioning air; filtering and cooling wash water; examining and splicing film; and making control measurements and tests.”

Photo: One of Daniel Comstock’s former students at MIT, Joseph Arthur Ball, was primarily responsible for developing the three-strip motion picture camera that was used until the 1950s when color negative motion picture film was introduced. The camera was large, heavy, and loud. It was attached to a dolly to help move it around the set, and an outer box was called a “blimp” surrounded the camera mechanism to muffle the noise.

The Technicolor team continued to tweak the invention through several iterations before it reached its full glory in the 1930s. Technicolor Process Number Four, or 3-strip Technicolor, used in The Wizard of Oz, wasn’t a type of film, though. Instead, the action was filmed with a modified motion-picture camera that contained a prism and colored filters that, in turn, separated the scene onto three different strips of black-and-white negative film. Each strip correlated to the filtered colors and was used to create an intermediary strip called a matrix. In a method similar to lithography, the matrices were then used to print the final movies that were distributed to theaters. Making a Technicolor feature film was such a complex undertaking that movie studios were required to hire specially trained Technicolor staff to oversee production. These included color consultants, under the direction of Natalie Kalmus, Herbert’s ex-wife.

A former art student, Natalie became the ultimate mediator between the lab and the silver screen, unwavering in her commitment to make Technicolor shine. She made decisions about makeup, costumes, sets, and lighting, and even went behind the camera as a cinematographer a few times. She controlled (some say with an iron fist) the aura of Technicolor, describing her role as “playing ringmaster to the rainbow.”

Photo: Natalie Kalmus wrote, “We must constantly practice color restraint.” Did that philosophy influence Adrian’s choice of muted colors for the Scarecrow’s costume?

Natalie Kalmus was the Technicolor consultant on The Wizard of Oz set. We don’t know if she played a part in transforming Baum’s silver shoes into ruby slippers or if costume designer Gilbert Adrian and screenwriter Noel Langley came to the decision independent of her influence. But with one seemingly simple change, an American icon was born.

Photo: Several pairs of ruby slippers were made for the film. The Museum’s pair have felt soles, suggesting that they were worn by Judy Garland in dance scenes.

The Museum’s collections are rich in artifacts from The Wizard of Oz and the Technicolor era, and the ruby slippers are among our most visited treasures. The image of Dorothy clicking those sequined heels together three times, repeating “There’s no place like home,” is part of our shared memory. Would the ruby slippers have attained such star status if they had remained silver?


  1. Google Books digitized version of L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1899), p. 33, https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=qbV65PabTEYC. Accessed August 13, 2012.
  2. Richard Haines, Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1993).
  3. Herbert T. Kalmus, “Technicolor Adventures in Cinemaland,” reprinted at http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/oldcolor/kalmus.htm. Accessed August 13, 2012.
  4. Natalie M. Kalmus, “Color Consciousness,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 25, no. 2 (August 1935): 139–47.
  5. “Natalie M. Kalmus Dies at 87; A Co-Developer of Technicolor,” New York Times, November 18, 1965, p. 47.

Sivowitch Law of Firsts

Eliot Sivowitch

Elliot Sivowitch in the electricity collections, around 1970. Photo courtesy of Hal Wallace, NMAH.

The invention process is seldom straightforward. People always seem to want to know who invented something first, but we don’t often have such definitive answers. Elliot Sivowitch, one of my very favorite colleagues at the Museum, summed up the messiness of invention in his typically witty “Sivowitch Law of Firsts”:



Whenever you prove who was first, the harder you look you will find someone else who was more first. And if you persist in your efforts you find that the person whom you thought was first was third. Someone will appear on the scene who was more first than you thought was first in the first place. [1]

With great sadness, we learned today of Elliot’s passing. Hal Wallace, curator of the Museum’s electricity collections, wrote:

Elliot first came to work at the U.S. National Museum in 1959. He left to work at the Library of Congress for a year and returned to the Smithsonian in 1961, retiring in 2000. Elliot spent his career in the Electricity Collections as our expert on radio and television history. Since retirement he had continued in an emeritus capacity, working with researchers, answering public inquiries, and assisting museum staff in identifying and cataloging objects. During his long career he helped move the collections to the new National Museum of History and Technology (now NMAH) and brought in many significant additions of radio and television material. That our radio technology holdings and archives are among the finest in the world is due in no small measure to Elliot’s expertise.

Elliot earned a Master of Arts in history from Syracuse University in 1957 with his thesis, “A History of Radio Spectrum Allocation in the United States: 1912-1926.” He participated in exhibitions both large and small over the years: Information Age, Person To Person, Patent Controversies in the History of Radio, and Transistors at Fifty to name just a few. He influenced the work of a host of fellows and visiting scholars during his five decades of service to the museum. An amateur radio operator (K3RJA), he was instrumental in the establishment of the Smithsonian HAM station, NN3SI. An excellent violinist, Elliot used that talent to give demonstrations of acoustical science to visitors. He was a member of the Audio Engineering Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Elliot’s friendly nature was as welcome as his expertise was invaluable.

I first met Elliot in the 1980s, about a dozen years before I came to the Smithsonian. I was doing research on the early history of television and remember very well how generous he was with his time and knowledge. Over the years, I learned to turn to Elliot not only when I needed help with research, but also when I just needed a good laugh. Elliot had the best giggle on earth—a surprising contrast to his deep radio-announcer’s voice. I already miss that giggle, and the amazing brain and kind soul behind it.

[1] Quoted in Ira Flatow, They All Laughed: From Light Bulbs to Lasers: The Fascinating Stories Behind the Great Inventions That Have Changed Our Lives (New York: Harper, 1993), p. xv.

The Color of Invention

Mrs. Consumer contemplates a new paint job for the family car. From Motor (Aug. 1926). Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

Choosing the right color can be important (just ask Sir Gallahad in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). But just what is color?  On the surface, this seems a simple question. The answer, however, isn’t so obvious. Colors fill the world, yet they aren’t in themselves tangible things that can be held in one’s hand. Colors are imbued with meanings, though they possess no inherent significance. Color, states art historian Manlio Brusatin, is “a perception and elaboration of our brain.”[1] In both the physical and psychological sense, colors are inventions.

How do we study this ethereal thing we call color? What are the major research themes, and how do we ground those in history? These were a few of the questions discussed at a fascinating conference on “Bright Modernity: Color, Commerce, and Consumption in Global Perspective,” organized by Uwe Spiekermann and Regina Lee Blaszczyk and held at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., last week. Dr. Blaszczyk is a longtime friend of the Lemelson Center—she is a former curator at the National Museum of American History, a former Lemelson Center Fellow, and the recipient of a Lemelson Center Travel to Collections Award. She is also a scholar immersed in the study of color; her upcoming book, The Color Revolution, is being published in the Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation series with MIT Press and will hit bookstores this fall.

In 1997, the Lemelson Center presented a symposium on "The Colors of Invention." Here participants get a behind-the-scenes look at items from the Museum's textile and costume collections. © 1997 Smithsonian Institution.

The scholars invited to contribute to “Bright Modernity” came from across the U.S., Europe, and the Pacific Rim. Their presentations were equally wide-ranging, spanning 16th-century Venetian textiles to the psychological implications of pink. The conference participants took on the heroic invention story of William Henry Perkin and his creation of aniline purple, popularly known as mauve, as the “first” synthetic dye (experiments with aniline dyes in France predated Perkin’s work, we learned).  They also went beyond the traditional research focus on dyes and the chemistry of color to explore its myriad applications in fashion, art, printing, lighting, architecture, and more.

The General Electric Company facilitated the color revolution with incremental improvements to Mazda-brand light bulbs. Brighter lights made consumers more aware of color in their surroundings. Ladies’ Home Journal (Nov. 1926).

For example, we heard how Michel-Eugene Chevreul , Albert Munsell, Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway, and board-game maker Milton Bradley all tried to impose order on the world of colors and instruct others in their proper uses. We contemplated the meaning of colors as a kind of shorthand for social, political, or cultural values. We discussed the important role of color mediators—the color forecasters, fashion leaders, and tastemakers who influenced the introduction of new colors into the marketplace. One of the speakers even alluded to the smell of color in a talk about the production of natural indigo in colonial India. I chaired a session that looked at architecture as art and art as mass media, with talks about the application of color to buildings in the German Democratic Republic to reflect the “joyful but disciplined” GDR citizenry, and on Life magazine’s success with issues that disseminated reproductions of famous works of art. Through all of the presentations, the speakers emphasized the importance of supporting their arguments with evidence from archives and museum collections.

“Bright Modernity” was an inspiring example of cross-disciplinary thinking and collaborative exchange. Clearly, everyone involved was intrigued by color, something that is so ubiquitous that we might ignore it, but that still has the power to signify so much, and to have so much agency. For me, though, the one actor missing from many of the discussions was technology, and more specifically, invention. We at the Lemelson Center have seen many instances of the back-and-forth between inventors and consumers, but questions surrounding how and why new colors are created were underexplored at the conference. Still, “Bright Modernity” broke new ground in highlighting the people working between the lab and the marketplace, and in looking at color through the lenses of consumption, media, and culture.

Margaret Hayden Rorke was the most influential "color forecaster" of the 1920s and '30s. She built her fashion career by bringing the feminine viewpoint to the design process. Woman’s Journal (Oct. 1929).

“Color,” wrote Faber Birren, a noted 20th-century color technologist, “is in the blood, an essential part of the psychic make-up of an individual.”[2] We have invented technologies to create, define, and reproduce colors and psychological ways to turn them into symbols. In myriad ways, colors shape our existence. They are malleable mixtures of perception, concepts, data, and creativity, where a single hue can embrace “Mood Indigo” and blue Jell-O. The talented scholars at “Bright Modernity” combined rigorous historical methodology with interdisciplinary themes to unravel some of the mystery of this intriguing concept we call “color.”





[1] Manlio Brusatin, “Colours in the Web-age,” in Patrizia Marti, Alessandro Soro, Luciano Gamberini, and Sebastiano Bagnara, eds., Proceedings of the 9th ACM SIGCHI Italian Chapter International Conference on Computer-Human Interaction: Facing Complexity (New York, ACM, 2011), p. 11.

[2] Faber Birren, Selling with Color (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1945), p. 5.