About Michelle DelCarlo

Michelle is a recent graduate of the University of Washington, with a Master of Arts degree from the Museology Graduate Program and a Nonprofit Management Certificate from the Evans School of Public Affairs. She is the new Spark!Lab National Network Coordinator.

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.





Inventing a Knitting Pattern

With a plethora of knitting patterns already on the market, you’d think there’s no room for anything new. However, it is entirely possible to invent your own knitting pattern—and it’s easier than you think. The following steps, similar to the process of invention used in Spark!Lab, can jumpstart your journey to create a piece of fiber art that you’ll be proud to make and wear.

1) Find Your Inspiration

Look at your inspiration; what will translate well into a piece of fiber art? Perhaps the building you work in has interesting architectural detail—you could pick some lines from this detail to base your pattern on. Or perhaps you found a beautiful red leaf in Autumn—the color can be the jumping off point. Maybe you love zombies? What about them could inspire a piece of knitting? The world is full of interesting possibilities; all you have to do is observe. I keep a little notebook with me at all times so I can jot down inspiration when I come upon it.

A zombie dishcloth from digknittydesigns.blogspot.com.

A zombie dishcloth from digknittydesigns.blogspot.com.

2) Determine Your Skill Level

Do you know how to construct sweaters, or are you just learning to knit and purl? Figure out what your skill level is, and attempt to create a pattern that aligns with the level of knowledge and expertise you already have. If you’re just starting out, a simple scarf or washcloth could be great, while an intricate pullover, maybe with colorwork, would be fun for those more advanced.

Cary Grant trying to knit in the movie Mr. Lucky. From the Lion Brand Yarns blog.

Cary Grant trying to knit in the movie Mr. Lucky. From the Lion Brand Yarns blog.

3) Draw It Out

Going from inspiration to finished product doesn’t happen directly. Drawing your pattern idea, based on your inspiration, is a crucial step in writing a pattern. Sometimes when we envision a finished product, it doesn’t turn out exactly how we thought. Sketching out a picture of what you want to create will help you make early decisions about the final product.

4) Write It Down

If you have a pattern with more intricate designs, you might want to use a chart, especially when working with lace. If it’s something easier, you can simply write out the directions. Always start out by writing what kind of fiber you chose (the kind of yarn and the brand), the size of the needles, the gauge, and how many yards you used.

An American flag knitting chart from VickiDesigns.homestead.com

An American flag knitting chart from VickiDesigns.homestead.com

5) Test and Tweak

It’s not uncommon for a pattern to have errors in it. Don’t be too proud to admit a mistake—even professional pattern inventors with many years of experience have patterns with errors in them! Give your pattern to friends or fellow knitters on Ravelry.com to test. Use feedback to correct any problems, and update the written pattern.

6) Decide What To Do With Your Pattern

Many people invent patterns to be given away for free and the enjoyment of all. You can do this, or keep it to enjoy yourself. You can also choose to sell your pattern on many different websites, including Ravelry, Etsy, at farmer’s markets, or through a personal blog.

Happy knitting!

An International Spark!Lab Workshop

We recently hosted colleagues for a two-week workshop on the process of developing and prototyping Spark!Lab activities. We also arranged trips to visit several other hands-on spaces at the Smithsonian, to show the breadth of ways to approach this sort of programming.

Our Ukrainian colleagues Nina and Zhenya.

Our Ukrainian colleagues Nina and Zhenya.

This was a really wonderful opportunity for the folks in the workshop, as it was a diverse crowd: staff from both Art Arsenal in Kyiv, Ukraine, and the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum in Winchester, Virginia, joined us. This may seem like an odd pairing, geographically, but both museums are in a crucial part of their strategic development, and so came to us at a good time for inspiration and learning.

Prototyping a music activity with visitors.

Prototyping a music activity with visitors.

I had two favorite moments over the course of our time together. The first was developing and prototyping an activity on the topic of contemporary art; this was an area of particular interest for our Ukrainian colleagues. Through brainstorming, we determined that contemporary art is based on emotion and beauty. We agreed on a handful of emotions, went shopping for random materials and gathered recyclables from our office, and put the activity together. It was quite a success with visitors!

Two pieces of contemporary art made by visitors  - ‘hunger’ and ‘sadness’, left to right.

Two pieces of contemporary art made by visitors – ‘hunger’ and ‘sadness’, left to right.

My second favorite part was our trip to ArtLab+ at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. ArtLab+ is a drop-in art space for teens, with opportunities for them to gain expertise in computer programs, technical equipment, and much more. It’s an inspiring space that really resonated with our colleagues.


I’m so glad we had the chance to share our expertise in developing Spark!Lab activities, prototyping, and much more. I know we also learned a great deal from our colleagues! We’re looking forward to seeing how they implement what they learned, and eager to see how it benefits their work.

Who Invented the Super Bowl Trophy?

After working at The Lemelson Center for a while, it’s not hard to see that invention is all around us. In the news, in our interests, and in our daily life, it’s easy to find the invention story behind the objects and people who we encounter.

For example, I’ve been watching quite a bit of football since the start of the season. I love keeping up with my team, the Seahawks, and following along with the local team here in Washington, D.C. Last year my colleague wrote about innovation in football helmet technology designed to keep more players safe from head injuries, which is still a relevant conversation. Looking to the future, lots of fans are anticipating the 2014 Super Bowl, myself included. Which got me wondering: who invented the Super Bowl trophy?

According to Westchester Magazine, a publication from Westchester, New York, the idea of having a trophy came in 1966 from then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. He contacted Tiffany & Co., where he began collaborating with the head of design, Oscar Reidner.

The Super Bowl Trophy

Screenshot from Tiffany.com

Apparently Reidner had never watched a football game or held a football, so he immediately bought one at a toy store. He then cut up a cereal box for a prototype and met for lunch with Rozelle, where he sketched his idea on a cocktail napkin. Et voila, a major American icon was invented. Tiffany & Co. continues to handcraft a new trophy every year, which is incredible!

A silversmith at Tiffany & Co. works on the trophy.

A silversmith at Tiffany & Co. works on the trophy. Screenshot from NJ.com

Next time I covet that pair of diamond earrings from Tiffany’s, I’m sure I’ll remember that they also produce a football-related invention. It’s fascinating to continue finding invention stories wherever I look.

Tailgating: Grilling, Drinking, and Inventing

With summer winding down, most people are looking forward to cooler fall temperatures. However, a new season of football is just heating up and you know what that brings: tailgating.


Photo via bishs.com.

Tailgating is a time-honored tradition of gathering together and celebrating one’s team before, during, and—if everyone’s still standing—after a football game. Literally, the term “tailgate” refers to the back part of a truck or heavy duty vehicle. Tailgating, or a tailgate party, is therefore what happens when people socialize around the open tailgate.

Now, as anyone who has been to a sporting event knows, tailgating is where it’s at. Meeting up with friends to reminisce over last year’s wins (or losses), trash talking the other team, and imbibing a few tasty beverages are all part of the festivities.

So what tailgating inventions are out there?

Let’s start with the main event of tailgating—eating and drinking. The Tailgate PartyMate was invented by a fan who was tired of having to haul tables to prepare food, in addition to being frustrated that he never had enough room for everything. So, he invented a table system that hooks onto the trailer hitch of a truck. No more having to haul cumbersome tables or deal with too little space!

a table system hooked onto the trailer hitch of a truck

Photo via tailgatepartymate.com.

Now, the second most fun thing about a tailgate party is all the great games to play—washertoss, horseshoes, wiffle ball, and more. But what happens if you want to enjoy the refreshments and play a game at the same time? That’s where the Scorzie comes in. This handy invention keeps your drink cool and keeps your game score tallied, all in one convenient place.

A drink koozie that keeps score for you.

Photo via scorzie.com

And then there’s what Popular Science Magazine calls “the sports fan’s dream”: a totally tricked-out grill. Lance Greathouse, a dental-laser repairman, invented a grill that’s a “fire-spewing, beer-chilling machine that can drive from one parking-lot party to the next.” Apparently, he had seen tailgating setups that included separate components, but never combined them all together. So, from out of his head popped his tailgating monster, which has a grill and refrigerator on opposite ends, with a satellite stereo, MP3 player, speakers, and a live TV feed of what’s cooking in between. Add on a steel cylinder that shoots fireballs into the air for fun, and I’d say you’ve got your Sunday afternoon all set.

A grill that also has a refrigerator, sound system, and fire-ball shooting abilities.

Photo via popsci.com

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for this year’s gridiron extravaganza. Bring on the grilled meat and the fireballs. Bring on the games and keeping score and keeping drinks cool. Bring on hooking stuff up to the back of the truck and making even more space for mom’s seven-layer dip. Looks like I’ve got plenty of inventions to help me enjoy my football games.

Innovation and Invention in Fiber Arts

In my explorations of knitting, I have discovered a whole world of invention in fiber arts. This is no rocking-chair field; it’s a contemporary one full of surprises, intelligence, and devoted community. Much like other thriving communities of invention, fiber arts encourages experimentation, tweaking, failure, and entrepreneurship. Here are my top five favorite discoveries:

1. Knitting—and fiber arts in general—is a collaborative field that lends itself well to the invention process

In knitting communities such as Ravelry.com, fiber artists invent new patterns and upload them for other knitters to test. These knitters then recognize mistakes—or errata—in the patterns and report them back to the knitter, who tweaks the pattern to correct it. This pattern is then uploaded for others to purchase. Additionally, many patterns encourage other knitters to adapt patterns to their personal likes or needs. Substitutions of fiber, color, and additional flourishes such as cables or ribbing actually result in new patterns, which are then tested and uploaded for purchase. It’s a cycle of innovation that results in a myriad of patterns to choose from.

Ravelry Screenshot2. Failure is an inherent part of learning in knitting and can lead to surprising results.

Failure is probably one of the best ways to learn how to move forward in knitting. Unlike sewing, where a slip of the scissors can ruin an entire garment, mistakes in knitting can often be easily fixed. This has encouraged me to try new techniques, knowing that if I drop a stitch or lose my place, there are ways to fix it.

Additionally, making mistakes in a pattern can actually create a new and interesting stitch. This stitch can then be incorporated into a new pattern, like the Purl Bee’s Easy Mistake Stitch Scarf. Et voila, a slip of the needles becomes a new invention!

3. Contemporary fiber artists are reusing materials in innovative and exciting ways.

One of my favorite contemporary artists is Nick Cave, a fiber artist who developed iconic Soundsuits. These sculpture-costumes of found objects, hair, and recycled fiber are meant to conceal the wearer’s race, gender, and identity. Cave created the Soundsuits in reaction to the Rodney King riots, which happened while he was living in Los Angeles.

A Soundsuit by fiber artist Nick Cave.

A Soundsuit by fiber artist Nick Cave. Image via laurenfenton.com

On a more mundane level, everyday knitters who are environmentally conscious have begun to unravel old sweaters and knit with the upcycled wool. I’ve started doing this as well, and have discovered that it’s incredibly satisfying to turn an ugly sweater into a something current and fresh. However, it takes a LOT of work—I have to unravel the sweater, wash the wool, hang it to dry with a weight to get the kinks out, and then twist it into a skein. I’m going to have to be pretty intentional to continue this practice.

Reclaimed wool project

One of my reclaimed wool projects.


My improvised system of getting the kinks out of upcycled yarn:  coat hanger, rubber band, and coffee mug.

My improvised system of getting the kinks out of upcycled yarn:
coat hanger, rubber band, and coffee mug.

4. There is a ton of innovation going on in knitting.

Yarn bombing, spinning plastic, contemporary basketry—the list goes on and on. In my opinion, a heightened interest in innovation in fiber arts is reflective of a cultural turn towards wanting to do something with our hands and keep a historical tradition alive. In the high-tech sector, knitting is being sourced as a way to improve performance. This can be seen in the Nike Flyknit Racer and gloves with knitted conductive material for touchscreen use.

You can get touchscreen gloves with knitted conductive materials in your favorite team’s logo. Screenshot from Seahawks.com

You can get touchscreen gloves with knitted conductive materials in your favorite team’s logo. Screenshot from Seahawks.com

5. Contemporary knitters pull from a long and rich history of American fiber arts.

American fiber arts have a long and rich history in America. According to the Anne Macdonald’s No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting, knitting has been an integral part of American life since the very beginning. First Ladies such as Martha Washington and Eleanor Roosevelt were avid knitters, and urged others to take up the craft to make a political statement, and as a way to gain social and financial independence.

The fiber arts collections we have here at the National Museum of American History show the artistry, craftsmanship, and innovative spirit of fiber artists that have been in weaving, carding, and knitting for a very long time. The following image is a pair of mittens knitted by Priscilla Ostrum Wilson (1831-1906). According to the Museum’s collection information, Priscilla lived in Wellsboro, PA. At age 18, she married and went to live on a farm, where she created mittens and sold them to merchants in nearby villages.

Mittens knitted by Priscilla Ostrum Wilson.

Mittens knitted by Priscilla Ostrum Wilson. 1979.-980.01 and .02. Image Number 79-7966

It’s fascinating to see such a rich history of invention and innovation in American knitting and fiber arts. I’m excited to see what’s next for the field, and to participate in its continual evolution. For more, join us on Twitter (@SI_Invention) Monday, August 19, from 1-2PM EST at for a coffee break conversation about the future of knitting using #brightknitting.

Visiting Spark!Lab in Reno

The Spark!Lab team recently traveled to Reno to visit our National Network partners at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum. We had a great time, learned a lot, and were impressed with the exciting projects staff members are working on. Here’s a little bit more about our adventure!

Touring the workshop.

The Spark!Lab team touring the workshop at The Discovery — we’re jealous of their tools!

Conversational Learning

Part of the goal of this visit was to be able to support our partners through further training. This included modeling behavior on Spark!Lab facilitation techniques, providing tips for success and sharing our experience. But we also wanted to do a lot of listening and so had some great conversations on the challenges and successes they’ve had. We really appreciate the perspectives people brought to the table, and are excited to move forward to make our partnership stronger.

Meeting with Discovery staff

Discussing Spark!Lab with The Discovery staff

Reno is Awesome

I don’t care what anyone says—I love Reno. I’ve travelled a lot, and I always know when I’ve found a true gem. Reno is one of those places. You can walk down the street and visit a world class museum, drop into a truly strange casino, take a fresh breath of air on the river walk, or hover over a cup of killer locally-roasted coffee. I’m really excited by the future of our Spark!Lab here, because I know Reno is a place where interesting ideas flourish.

Hub Coffee Roasters coffee shop

Drinking excellent coffee at local sensation Hub Coffee Roasters.

Invention is Present in Reno

Over a conversation with one of The Discovery’s staff, we found out that copper-riveted Levi’s jeans were invented in Reno. And that Reno is a major staging point for Burning Man, the annual inventive festival that is pretty hard to describe. It’s a place where a mundane invention—the neon light—has been lifted up as an art form and is being hailed as an important piece of Reno history.

From NevadaArt.org

From NevadaArt.org

Stay tuned for more exciting updates from our partnership in Reno and beyond!

Caviar Manicures and Inventive Dreams

Inventors often combine unrelated ideas and materials to create something new. Like Anna’s recent story of cassette tape woven into wearable fiber or Steve’s car prototypes made out of pasta, invention ‘mashups’ are awesome.

Caviar manicureCase in point: the current Spring 2013 nail art phenomenon of the ‘caviar manicure’. Unlike a normal manicure, which consists of one or several colors of nail polish, a caviar manicure uses a base coat of nail polish combined with a top sprinkling of tiny pearlescent beads. The result is a 3-D effect that adds attention-grabbing, high fashion texture to everyday looks.

While the caviar manicure wasn’t invented this season, it’s become a big deal through major celebrities like Anne Hathaway and Jessica Biel. Considering that I’m not always the world’s most inspiring fashion plate, I thought I’d take a risk and try it myself. However, the brand name kit to create this nail art is pretty expensive, so I started searching for a more affordable DIY alternative.

Some of the materials I found around our office included model toy paint, aluminum foil, cake sprinkles, and clay. I also had a brand new bottle of pretty lilac nail polish I’d purchased, so I thought about what colors would look good, what combinations would be fresh and interesting, and what I could live with for a few days.

DIY manicure materials


The result: I used a base coat of Essie “lilacism” polish with a top sprinkling of clay on just one finger. To be honest, I don’t think it’ll become the next fashion trend, but I’m proud of my foray into haute nail couture. And although I think I’ll be sticking to plain polish in the future, I’m glad I invented my own unique combination.

Manicure close up.

Have you tried the caviar nail trend, or come up with your own inventive nail art? Share with us and your friends! Tweet it at @SI_Invention using #BrightNails.

Knitting Inventions

Call me a hipster – I love microbrews, locally roasted coffee, and knitting. While I discovered the first two of these while living in Portland, Oregon, the last I’ve started only since moving to DC. While I would say that I’ve mastered the basics of knitting, I have a very long way to go until I can create a garment or knit 200+ stitches in the round. And, it’s amazed me that beautiful and intricate textiles can be created using some very basic inventions and a combination of just two stitches (the knit and purl). Here are some of the inventions that I use to knit.

Knitting Gauge

In order to make sure that all knitted pieces are accurate in terms of length and width, I use a gauge to check the number of stitches per inch the piece has. Otherwise, I might end up making a very tiny scarf on accident!

Row Counter

This is by far the knitting invention that is most valuable to me. Every time I finish a row, I use this tool to keep count. Especially with lace knitting, this helps me keep track of where I am in a pattern. Otherwise, a beautiful pattern can come out looking like a garbled mess.

Place Markers

When I first started knitting, I never used place markers. I stubbornly (and wrongly) believed that I would be able to remember where certain pattern segments were. As I graduated to harder patterns that incorporated more intricate designs, I started finding them more and more of a necessity. They’re so simple—really just glorified safety pins—but I can’t knit in the round without them.

So if you’re a knitter, next time you pick up your needles, take a moment to appreciate the inventions that exist in this craft. I know I’ll be raising a tasty microbrew in toast to all the inventors that have made my knitting easier, better, and more pleasing to the eye.

My most recent project: a multi-colored cowl.





An Entrepreneurial Spirit

I grew up on a busy street in a suburb of Chicago. On hot days, you could smell the pavement melting – sulfurous, tarry, goopy. Being that power lines intersected on our corner, the hum and rattle of construction equipment was ever-present in my summers. The perfect opportunity for a child to bask in air conditioning or run through the sprinklers, right?

Not for me. When other kids were swiping Fla-Vor-Ice from the freezer and vegging out in front of cartoons, I was opening a lemonade stand with my sister. We saw a business opportunity – close to 100 degree heat + thirsty construction workers – and sold our lemonade for 25¢. We eventually made enough (I think it was about $10, a big amount for a kid) to buy a Velcro ball toss toy.

From left to right: My sister, my mom, and me. My mom made our pumpkin costumes for Halloween. Gotta love her hair.

That entrepreneurial spirit has fueled a lot of what I have done in life. The thrill I get of creating something from nothing, of doing a lot with a little: this is what makes me perfect for my work at the Lemelson Center. Most recently, I invented a pop-up museum model by thinking through what resources I had at hand and what I wanted to do: a bus pass, scratch paper, and free space at a local library + create conversation and build community. Now other museums, nationally and internationally, are picking up my technique and creating their own pop-up museums.

Here I am taking a break from facilitating my “Something or Someone You Love” pop-up at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

Personally, I aspire to make a substantial contribution to the global community through invention and innovation. As the new Spark!Lab National Network Coordinator, I am excited about having the opportunity to support young people in their own inventive exploration. Check back to see the Spark!Lab National Network grow; hopefully we’ll be coming to your neck of the woods soon.