About Laurel Fritzsch

Laurel is a Project Curator for the "Places of Invention" exhibition project at the Lemelson Center.

Disputed Culinary Invention Locations

The invention of Poutine is claimed by Warwick, Quebec. The ice cream sundae was created in Ithaca, NY. Frog Legs are a uniquely French delicacy. These are universal truths, right? Actually, the origins of these dishes are all in hot dispute. At least four Quebec communities say they invented poutine and several U.S. locations claim they invented the ice cream sundae. Finally, evidence of the first cooked frog legs was found in England. Mon Dieu!

There is intense community pride in inventing a culinary dish, especially if it becomes iconic for a country. After all, food is as representative of a culture and its people as music, architecture, and historical objects. UNESCO, which is a branch of the United Nations is primarily known for designating World Heritage sites, also compiles a list of intangible heritage, which they define as “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.” Culinary traditions are considered a type of intangible heritage, and listed foods range Northern Croatian gingerbread to broader categories such as the Mediterranean diet and Mexican cuisine.

Poutine—French fries and cheese curds topped with a light brown gravy-like sauce—has become an iconic Canadian dish. In a 2007 CBC/Radio-Canada viewer survey of the greatest Canadian inventions of all time, poutine was ranked number ten, beating the electron microscope, the BlackBerry, and the paint roller, among other items. The province of Quebec gained prestige as the birthplace of one of their nation’s iconic dishes. Obviously there is a lot at stake for the place that invented it, not only in terms of local pride but also marketing power and potential big business. Unfortunately the restaurateur who invented poutine is in dispute.

Some dish disputes are intense, albeit good natured. The ice cream sundae has several claimants for its birthplace; the top two contenders are Two Rivers, Wisconsin and Ithaca, New York. These cities are fighting a “Sundae War.” In 2006, the Ithaca Visitors Bureau offered free sundaes on Sundays for the month of July. The Two Rivers City Council responded with a “resolution formally challenging the city of Ithaca, New York’s claim to be birthplace of the ice cream sundae.”  They also encouraged Two Rivers residents to send postcards to Ithaca’s mayor—postcards with a photo of the Two Rivers historical marker that relates the history of the birth of the sundae in a rhyme:

“Ice cream sundaes are sweet …and they give you the shivers.
Just remember they started right here in Two Rivers!”

Ithaca responded with its own historical plaque and declared victory by providing the oldest written advertisement for an ice cream sundae.

Note that being the birthplace of a culinary dish is not always desirable. The English have mocked the French for hundreds of years for eating frog legs, derisively calling them “Frogs” and “frog eaters.”

So there was shock and disbelief across England when archeologists found the burnt leg of a toad at a site in Amesbury dating from 6250BC to 7600BC. This is the earliest evidence of a cooked toad or frog leg, predating evidence in France by a full eight millennia.

As long as people invent new culinary dishes that may become icons of their cities, states, and countries, the importance of their birthplaces cannot be underestimated. And for those places of invention already in dispute, they can take comfort in diners enjoying their iconic dishes and debating which place prepares it best (another debate entirely). Bon appetite!

Sources:

http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?lg=en&pg=00002

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/23/dining/23pout.html?_r=2&

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/06/nyregion/06sundae.html

http://www.historyextra.com/news/britons-were-eating-frogs-legs-8000-years-french

The History of the Nineteenth Century in Caricature by Arthur Bartlett Maurice and Frederic Taber Cooper, pg 91

Hip-Hop, the Collaborations Don’t Stop

What happens when you put museum experts and hip-hop community members in the same room? The Lemelson Center found out when we hosted a hip-hop discussion day in July.

The day was organized as a culmination to Goldman Sacs fellow Martha Diaz’s summer at the Lemelson Center. Martha is the founder of the Hip-Hop Education Center at New York University. The Center cultivates hip-hop scholars, teaching artists, hip-hop advocates, and social entrepreneurs to encourage the incorporation of hip-hop into the way teachers educate students. She is also a scholar-in-residence working on an upcoming hip-hop exhibit at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Martha came to the Lemelson Center to learn more about museum practices and to share her knowledge of hip-hop with us as we continue research for our upcoming exhibit Places of Invention. When the exhibition opens in 2015, it will include the invention of hip-hop in the Bronx during the 1970′s as one of five case studies that represent various characteristics  of a place of invention.

Conceptual design drawing of what the Bronx section of the exhibition may look like.

Conceptual design drawing of what the Bronx section of the exhibition may look like.

We had intended the meeting as a wrap-up event for Martha’s fellowship. Little did we know that instead it would be the start of some great collaborations. Participants from the hip-hop and cultural/performing arts communities in D.C. and New York  contributed to a robust conversation that covered a variety of topics.

One issue that surfaced is that many pioneering hip-hop artists feel that current histories of hip-hop do not present a full picture—they discussed how important it is to emphasize that hip-hop was created in spite of the environment in the Bronx. Our participants also felt that it will be important to capture hip-hop’s conflicting history while the most prominent figures are still living. This is an issue that the National Museum of American History’s Jazz Oral History Program has struggled with and can serve as a good case study for the hip-hop community.

Grandmixer DXT, Grammy award winning turntabalist and hip-hop historian, address the conference.

Grandmixer DXT, Grammy award winning turntabalist and hip-hop historian, address the conference.

The hip-hop community voiced the desire for institutions to be more inclusive. They observed that institutions tend to cater toward other institutions, but reminded us that it’s important to reach out to community members, even thought this often the more difficult path. This is something that the Lemelson Center is familiar with. In partnering successfully with the skateboarding community on a recent event about inventions and innovations in skateboarding, we learned that while there are often vocabulary barriers and differing working methods that make collaborating more challenging, ultimately if both collaborators are committed to the end product, then success is achievable and inevitably more meaningful.

Perhaps the most surprising comment to come out of the meeting that this was the first time the hip-hop artists participating had been asked to participate in a meeting like this—of D.C.-based groups working on hip-hop projects. The energy and enthusiasm from people was apparent and has translated more quickly than I anticipated into the creation of collaborative projects. We are currently awaiting the results of an application co-written by Martha Diaz and Deborra Richardson, the chair of the Archives Center at the National Museum of American, to fund the creation of a Smithsonian hip-hop group that would coordinate hip-hop related projects at the Institution. It is hoped that part of this may be the founding of a hip-hop oral history program and a book about documenting hip-hop’s history.

Conference attendees included representatives from the Smithsonian, D.C. performing arts groups, and the State Department.

Conference attendees included representatives from the Smithsonian, D.C. performing arts groups, and the State Department.

Another direct outcome of the meeting is the negotiation of long-term collaborations between the Lemelson Center and two pioneering hip-hop artists. These artists would help us tell the story of hip-hop through our exhibition, website, book, and programming.  The artists will be featured at the Smithsonian, and gain exposure to a different type of audience, and inspire new generations. There have also been discussions with all of the people in the D.C. hip-hop community who participated in the meeting about future programming collaborations, allowing the Lemelson Center to tell a fuller story of inventions in hip-hop beyond the walls of the exhibit, and for other organizations to find new inspiration in the museum’s exhibits and collections. These collaboration will give us all the opportunity to interest people who may have had no previous interest in hip-hop.

Without knowing it the meeting was a kick off to fruitful collaborations with other people, organizations, and communities they represent. I can’t wait to see what we come up with next!

Keep It Secret. Keep US Safe.

During our Inventing the Surveillance Society symposium on Oct. 25, we will be featuring World War II posters from the Archives Center in an “objects out of storage” program in the Museum’s 1East corridor.

Posters were one of the largest mediums for advertising during World War II.  Advertisers invented new art styles, designs, and propaganda campaigns. One campaign related to promoting privacy.

During the U.S.’s involvement in WWII (1941-1945) posters were a medium produced largely for people on the home front. They provided guidance on ways that people could feel that they were helping the war effort—one of which was maintaining secrecy.

Espionage and sabotage were serious concerns for U.S. citizens during the war. The American film industry contributed to the paranoia by producing numerous films about spies. Also, government censorship meant that credible information was hard to find, and therefore people relied more heavily on rumors as information regardless of their truth.

WWII poster advocating for secrecy

From the Princeton University Poster Collection, NMAH Archives Center, AC0433-0000037.

These factors encouraged the production of government posters stressing the importance of national security and deterring information leaks and sabotage. They made people feel that secrecy and protecting their privacy was a patriotic duty. One series of posters was the “careless talk” campaign. “The beauty of the ‘careless talk’ campaign was that people could feel involved in the war, playing a part and combating the enemy, merely by doing nothing and keeping their mouths shut,” historian O.W. Riegel concluded.

Caricatures and stereotypes were typically used in posters at this time. Often the leader of the country symbolized the country itself—i.e. Hitler came to symbolize Nazi Germany. These caricatures sometimes took a monstrous form.

An unforeseen consequence of these types of posters was that they increased paranoia about spies by making it seem like there was a spy around every corner. It also made people wary of being suspected of espionage.

WWII Poster advocating for secrecy

From the Princeton University Poster Collection, NMAH Archives Center, AC0433-0000046.

In thinking about how this advertising might relate to our contemporary society I have observed that current advertising and propaganda about U.S. citizens being spied on comes from the private sector, rather than the government. But I think that you can ask the same question of WWII posters that you can of contemporary advertising: Is encouraging people’s fear of spying in order to convince them to increase their privacy a good strategy? Do the ends justify the means? Join us for our symposium, Inventing the Suveillance Society, to explore these kinds of questions.

Twin Towers of Living Light

Tonight, at sundown, two square shafts of blue light will ascend into the heavens from the ground of New York City, symbolizing the former towers of the World Trade Center.  These shafts of light shine in tribute to the men, women, and children killed during the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.

Tribute in Light.

Tribute in Light. Photo by Flickr user beanhead4529.

“Tribute in Lights” is the product of artists Julian La Verdiere and Paul Myoda. It consists of 88 7,000-watt xenon spotlights in the shape of two squares that shine four miles into the sky—the strongest shaft of light ever projected vertically into the sky. Xenon lights are the same type used in such common devices as strobe lights, camera flash bulbs, and IMAX and digital film projectors. The lights can be seen from over 60 miles away.

It takes a lot of energy to power the generators used for the lights. In an effort to be more environmentally conscious, the generators are fueled with biodiesel fuel made from cooking oil that is collected from local restaurants. Contrary to what you may think, the ideal atmospheric conditions for the lights are a misty fog—the light needs to reflect off of particles and moisture in the air. They are truly an achievement of contemporary lighting techniques.

The technology behind this tribute is a feat, but the artists behind them originally had an even more cutting-edge project planned for the World Trade Center. La Verdiere and Myoda were exploring the possibilities of using bioluminescence to create beams of light. Their studio was located within World Trade Center 1 (the north tower), on the 91st floor. In 1999 they began to explore the possibility of creating a bioluminescent beacon of light that would be emitted from the radio tower of the north tower.

The light they planned to use is based on innovative research into bioluminescence—the natural light emitted by some living organisms (“living light”). The artists’ goal was to develop a way to amplify and control the bioluminescence of some of these organisms in order to use them to beam light. One organism in particular—sea plankton (dinoflegellates), which emits a blue light when it is agitated in the water—seemed promising.

An example of bioluminescence.

Bioluminescing Dinoflagellate. A biological clock triggers bioluminescence in the dinoflagellate Pyrocystis fusiformis. At dusk, cells produce the chemicals responsible for its light. Photo by E. Widder, ORCA, www.teamorca.org, via the National Museum of Natural History.

This research took place in the invertebrates department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Over the next six months, the artists selectively bred different planktons in order to create the brightest and largest bioluminescent plankton possible. They also learned how to control when the plankton rested and when they emitted light. They planned to use the amplified light of a single bioluminescent celled organism as a “bioluminescent beacon” that would shine like a spotlight from the world trade tower.  The “bioluminescent beacon” was slated to be unveiled in spring 2002.

With preliminary work completed, La Verdiere and Myoda moved out of their World Trade Center 1 studio several weeks before September 11. A desire to mark the six month anniversary of the terrorist attach resulted in their work being put to a modified use. While the xenon spotlights used in “Tribute in Lights” replaced the bioluminescent concept, there are undeniably similarities in the projects.

Using bioluminescent light for human lighting solutions is something still being explored by many. A team of scientists from Syracuse University are attempting to create lighting using the bioluminescence of fireflies. The team believes that their bioluminescent lighting system could be 20 to 30 times more energy efficient than any previous systems. Also, bioluminescent bacteria are also being used by Philips Designs to produce lighting that will both consume waste and emit light. Research projects on human uses for bioluminescence are at the cutting-edge of energy efficient lighting experimentation. As research in this field advances, perhaps La Verdiere and Myoda’s work will truly come full circle and, in the future, living organisms may fuel the light emitted from the National September 11 Memorial. Intended to symbolize lost life, I can’t image a more fitting place for two towers of “living light.”

For more information on how the “Biolulminescent Beacon” please go to “The Genesis of the TRIBUTE IN LIGHT” by Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda.

Bob Casey: Beyond the Podcast

I recently interviewed inventor Bob Casey for the Lemelson Center’s podcast series. As with many people I’ve interviewed, Bob had many interesting stories to share—far more than can be contained in a 20-minute podcast. Although our podcast focused on the debut of the dual turntable system, Bob also told us how he ended up donating objects to the National Museum of American History and about his military career.

Bob shadowed his father Edward P. Casey (a pioneer in commercial sound system design and installation) on many of his sound system projects.  His father built a rectangular box with two multi-speed transcription turntables inside for a religious event. After the event his stored it away. Years later, Bob took the discarded box and used it in 1958 to present prerecorded music at teenage dances by combining his father’s dual turntable box with two special Hi Fi horn speakers. This was the first time that dual turntables were used at a dance to play prerecorded music—introducing a whole new format of entertainment nearly ten years before the technology became the standard of every DJ. The equipment gave Bob the advantage he needed to put on some of the best dances in the area and he was asked to run “Record Hops” in other venues including country clubs and parks.

casey 1

Now retired in upstate New York, Bob was cleaning out some old equipment from his shed, separating it into “throw” and “keep” piles. That first dual turntable system went into his “throw” pile. Fortunately, one of Bob’s friends told him he was crazy if he threw it out. After photos of the dual turntable box appeared in books about DJs, Bob was encouraged to contact someone about finding it a good home. Upon contacting the National Museum of American History in 2012, curator Eric Jentsch requested a few photos of the turntable. Eric assumed he would get a few photos of the device sitting on a tabletop, but Bob took this opportunity to photograph it in the environment it originally debuted. He reassembled the entire system in the same high school gym he first played it at in 1958—St. Eugene’s in Yonkers, NY. It was a wonderful way for Bob to have one last experience with the equipment before giving it to the national collections.

casey 2

While interviewing Bob, I discovered that the inventiveness and resourcefulness demonstrated by his invention also shaped his military career. While stationed in an infantry outfit in Germany in 1967, Bob’s reputation earned him an audition—though he didn’t know it at the time. One day, while visiting the flagship station (network) of the American Forces Network –Europe in Frankfurt, Germany, the Head of Network Production, who had previously met him, casually asked Bob to put together a few promos for radio. Bob furiously put some things together on reel to reel tape but the officer started to play it before Bob thought it was completed.  Bob tensely watched as the officer listened to his improvised radio intros. The officer said he loved it and offered Bob a position at the network.  After only six days on the job, another twist of fate redirected Bob. As part of the military “lottery system,” he was given orders for Vietnam. However, by taking an audition that was so bad that it was good, and with many letters of commendation from the European station, his abbreviated position in Germany allowed him to serve his time in Vietnam as Head of Radio Production for AFVN. Without his skills to invent and create on the spot there’s no telling where he might have ended up.

Listen to our podcast with Bob Casey.

Inspiring Bicycle Innovation

One of the best things about meeting inventors where they work is getting to see their spaces of inventions. How do companies design their buildings to encourage employees to be creative and inventive? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was designed with an “Infinite Corridor”—a hallway that runs through the main buildings of MIT—whose design encourages workers to bump into each other on their way from one place to another and share ideas. Keeping this in mind, I took special note of building design on a recent visit to Trek Bicycle’s headquarters in Waterloo, WI.

ExteriorTrek has created a bicycle-filled environment where employees always have bicycles on their minds and within sight. It begins even before arriving at work. Trek highly encourages its employees to commute by bicycle—a definite motivational challenge once the snow begins to fly. They also have an exercise room on site so that employees can continue to bike even when it does snow.

Trek emphasizes green energy, so it seems natural that the building uses on natural materials such as wood, natural lighting, and earth tone colors to create a comforting space and to help their workers think along ecological lines.

A cubical-style layout facilitates conversation among employees. If you think that this type of layout would have no room for bikes, think again. Almost every cubicle has its occupant’s bike parked outside of it. Not only are bikes typically parked outside them, but the work spaces also have bike components hanging above them. The building also offers many cork and white boards in public spaces for employees to quickly share their thoughts and ideas—and for others to read and be inspired by them.

APicture 001

APicture 002Trek’s headquarters contains a manufacturing section that allows designers to rapidly prototype ideas and concepts. Manufacturing on-site also allows them to wheel newly completed models next door to their photography studio. Housing their marketing and PR team alongside everyone else allows for and in-depth understanding of the products they market. Also, being located on the limits of a small town gives Trek employees the advantage of easily wheeling out new bikes for a test ride.

Trek has created a space to inspire bicycle innovation—literally surrounding employees with bicycles, from the individual components to the final, complete form.

Trek was the first company to incorporate carbon fiber into their bike frames and is also the first bicycle company to explore recycling carbon fiber bike frames. In our latest podcast, Jim Colegrove, senior composites manufacturing engineer at Trek, describes the evolution of carbon fiber frames at Trek and discusses how Trek inventors work together to create a better ride.

Inventing on Wisconsin’s Waterways

I grew up in Wisconsin, a place well known for its waters and woods. It seems like you can’t go more than a few miles before running into a stream, pond, or lake. But little did I know that the waterways I grew up on were the same as those of an inventor and were the inspiration for his invention.

Ole Evinrude emigrated to Wisconsin in 1882 when he was five, growing up in Cambridge, WI, on the shores of Lake Ripley. Like Ole, I also grew up in Cambridge, went swimming and fishing in the lake, and enjoyed meals along its shore.

Sunset over a Wisconsin lake.

Sunset over a Wisconsin lake. By peterrieke (Balsam Lake Sunset) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cambridge is about thirty minutes from Madison, so I spent plenty of time not just at Lake Ripley but also on the four lakes the capital is built around. Ole spent plenty of time in Madison too, gaining experience with machinery from various positions in machine shops. In addition to his hands-on experience, he used the university’s library to teach himself advanced mathematics, mechanics, and engineering. After briefly working in Pittsburgh—where he had first hand experience working with steel—he returned to Wisconsin for positions building engines.

Both of my parents grew up in Milwaukee and most of my family lives still lives there. Ole moved to that city to work and began building his own engines during his spare time in the basement of his boarding house. All the times that I drove to and from Milwaukee (about an hour past lakes and woods) I never guessed that the blue waters of Lake Okauchee that I saw from the road was the site of an event that got Ole thinking about using his homemade engines to power boats in a new way. On an outing on Lake Okauchee, Ole, his future wife Bess, and some friends rowed their boat across the lake. They bought some ice cream that they intended to take back across the lake with them but it melted by the time they reached the other side of lake, two miles away). This inspired Evinrude’s idea to clamp a motor to the stern of a boat.

Although forms of outboard motors for boats had existed since 1896, and had even been patented in 1905, in 1907 Evinrude designed the first commercially and mechanically successful outboard motor. His outboard motor had a mechanical arrangement that became the standard for all outboard motors.

Outboard motor patent drawing.

Patent drawing for “Marine Propulsion Mechanism” by Ole Evinrude.

Evinrude tested his invention on the nearby Kinnikinnic River. Having myself canoed on the Kinniknnic on many occasions, with its mix of forested, beach, rock, and house lined shores, I can easily picture Ole’s first trial. Without a muffler, when the motor started it was so noisy that it brought dozens of people to the river bank. It obviously needed a little tweaking before being sold, but Ole was able to go about five miles per hour. Ole’s first motors (built in 1909) were all hand-built, weighed 62 pounds, and had two horsepower. They sold quickly and in 1910 Ole had nearly 1,000 orders. By inventing the first commercially and mechanically successful outboard motor Ole forever altered the boating world. Outboard motors can be easily removed for repairs, storage, or use on other boats. Can you imagine a world without water skiing or motor boat racing?

After World War I, Ole utilized new techniques and processes of using aluminum to develop a lighter (48 pounds), two-cylinder, three horsepower outboard motor. He also invented a quieter underwater exhaust system. This new motor was on the market in 1920. Over the years Ole continued to develop lighter motors with greater horsepower.

1910 and 1924 outboard motors.

Evinrude’s 1910 and 1924 motors. Courtesy NMAH Archives Center.

Wisconsin is known for its waters and woods. Growing up in a place where a body of water nearly is never far away is not only beautiful and enjoyable but inspiring. Ole Evinrude designed the outboard motor we use today, but perhaps Ole would have invented a motor for an entirely different purpose if hadn’t been surrounded by the waterways that we both grew up on.

Cool Inventions from Different Invention Cultures

Cultures of invention are as diverse as places of invention. One community of inventors’ attitudes toward failure, success, competition, and collaboration during the invention process may differ widely from other inventor communities. An interesting example of this contrast is the pioneering counterculture communities of hip-hop and skateboarding.

Skateboards were invented in California during the 1940s and 1950s by laid-back surfers interested in finding a way to do on land what they did for fun in the ocean. Skateboarding gained wider recognition and popularity in the 1970s and 1980s with the construction of skate parks, improvement in skateboard materials and designs, and an explosion in the invention of tricks.

Hip-hop music was invented in the 1970s and 1980s by a disadvantaged community of African American and Caribbean (Jamaican, Puerto Rican, etc…) American urbanites in the Bronx. When the elements of hip-hop coalesced, gang territories became DJ territories and physical fights became break dancing fights, rapping contests, or DJ battles. The community reinvented the turntable as a musical instrument through physical alternations and new techniques of use. In the mid to late 1980s hip-hop expanded both artistically and geographically and around the 1990s became a part of mainstream America.

In both communities, then and today, individual inventors tend to work first in isolation; when they meet with others, the two communities, generally speaking, have different attitudes toward collaboration. Skate culture values humility. Egos are disliked. Many skaters resist skateboarding being labeled as a sport and don’t want skateboarding to be included in the Olympics for fear that skateboarding could become “jockified.” Experimentation in front of peers is encouraged and failure is accepted as an important part of the process. It typically takes a skater many days of attempting the same trick to succeed once. If a guy fails for two hours then does an amazing trick, the community embraces him. It is an open-source community where skaters enjoy sharing their tricks with others. Skateboarders create an environment supportive of failure, and the quantity of failure enforces skaters’ humility.

In hip-hop, ego and competitiveness is valued. As DJ Cash Money says “I’m a very competitive person [and] I wanted to be known as the world’s greatest DJ.” The records from which a DJ samples music is a closely guarded secret. Some early DJs replaced record labels with others and even spied on each other while they were out buying records. Young DJs often learned techniques through observation while “paying their dues” (carting around equipment for more prestigious artists). When two DJs showed up at a venue it was often not for experimentation but competition—a DJ would throw down a challenge to another to meet at a specific time and place for a battle. Some had a crew to give them an aura of power and intimidation (and, because DJ’s had so much large and heavy equipment to transport to and from gigs, crews helped transport it and ensure that it wasn’t stolen). DJs set up their equipment on opposing sides of the venue and the one with the most cheers and dancers won. At first DJs won primarily by having the louder sound system, but later they won more through showing off better techniques. The winner continued to rock the party and the loser went home to tweak their system and techniques then fight another battle. As Cash Money put it, “If someone beats you, you just go back to the drawing board and try to do better the next time.” Ego in the form of a crew, a superhuman DJ name (like Immortal), MC boasts, clothing, and sound volume could all help win battles and respect, or street cred. DJ Immortal describes competing competition the following way: “I saw them going back and forth, fighting each other with the turntables. The crowd was totally eggin’ ‘em on. It was this awesome instrument that I was seeing, the turntable. Plus that competitive element, too, where you could just destroy someone. It was like a real sport.”

From "Yes Yes Y'all."

Competitions and contests exist within the skateboarding community as well. Skaters seek recognition by, say, being featured in magazine articles, garnering lots of positive comments on their YouTube videos, or winning skating contests. But once you have fame, it can often be prohibitive to further invention. As a skater is defending their title or reputation, they may be more likely to keep doing their signature tricks and take fewer risks on new moves, as it becomes difficult to retain an environment where they feel comfortable failing. So while competing well can be a motivating factor it is only one path to the success of receiving credit for inventing a new trick.

Similarly with hip-hop, a skate contest can provide the street cred or name recognition many seek. But hip-hop artists are typically motivated to achieve more than just name recognition, such as a recording deal, commercial endorsements, more money, wider fame, their own brand labels, etc. Cash Money’s DJ name in itself illustrates this focus. Skaters tend to invent for the purpose of inventing and impressing their own community, and many are satisfied with receiving recognition for their inventions in the form of a contest title, magazine photo, or YouTube video.

That these two inventive communities value different means for achieving success emphasizes to me that place matters. A place or environment shapes the values of the inventors that live there, and their values shape their invention process and definition of success. Any place can become a place of invention because people in any community can develop amazing inventions with a mix of creativity, collaboration and competition, risk-taking and problem-solving along the way.

Source for Cash Money and DJ Immortal quotes: Katz, M. (2012). Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

A Career in Video Games

A visitor plays Pong with inventors Bill Harrison and Ralph Baer in 2009.

Students all over the country have just headed back to school. But what to go to school for?  Video Game Design is one of the fastest growing degree fields, even though as recently as 1996 Bachelor of Arts degree programs didn’t even exist. Two year diplomas in video game programs weren’t even established until the mid-1990’s. Now, however, according to the Entertainment Software Association, “American colleges and universities will offer 343 programs in game design, development and programming, including 301 undergraduate and 42 graduate programs, during the 2011-12 academic year.” The majority of schools with degree programs are located with California, but programs can be found in 45 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia.

As the popularity of video games seemed to become permanent, the demand for qualified personnel to produce them rose. It is a familiar story to the Lemelson Center. Invention leads to an industry built around that invention, and that industry leads to the establishment of programs to train and educate people to work in that industry. Industry pioneers look for people with the certain set of skills they need to reach their goals or produce their inventions. Over time a set of “standard” skills for an industry’s workers establishes itself. Around that set of skills degree programs are built. According to Rich Taylor, senior vice president for communications and industry affairs at the ESA, “with an increasing number of schools now offering graduate programs in game design and development, students have even greater access to the training they need to meet this growing demand.”

In 1967, Ralph Baer and his colleagues at Sanders Associates, Inc. developed a prototype for the first multiplayer, multiprogram video game system. The "Brown Box" is part of the collections at the National Museum of American History.

There are multiple historical comparisons, but the most apparent is the computer industry. The PC was invented during the 1970’s, resulting in an industry to create computers and a need for skilled workers to create them. Within a few years colleges and universities were offering degrees in computer science.  As the industry expands, so do the areas of specialization. When studying video games, people can focus on art, programming, sound and audio, production, and writing, to name a few.

The very fact that video gaming degrees are offered helps legitimizes the industry. But tension over respect still exists. Tell someone you’re getting a degree in engineering and they tend to be impressed. Tell someone you’re getting a degree in video gaming and they tend to think you’re going to be playing video games all day long.

The degree—and the people who earn them—still have a long way to go to earn the same respect that Philosophy, English, Math, and History majors enjoy.  But it wasn’t that long ago that degrees in the computer industry held a similar status. Now little thought is given to people majoring in computer technology. In fact it’s looked on as being rather lucrative. Perhaps video game degrees will find themselves on a similar trajectory to respect as more and more people continue to choose video game design as a career path and its applications expand. This process—of building a new industry around a new invention—has happened throughout history and will continue.  According to Taylor, “while computer and video games have been a source of entertainment for decades, our society is increasingly recognizing the broader uses of games and their positive impact. Whether it is in healthcare, education, business, or government, schools across the country see the value of games and are training their students to meet the demand.” So video game students headed off to school this fall are riding the wave of a cresting industry.

Academic Hip-Hop

Opening panel discussion at the Remixing the Art of Social Change: Expanding the Cipher conference on July 7, 2012.

As a Midwestern Caucasian female—whose musical tastes run more towards classic rock— tasked with researching the history of hip-hop music in the Bronx during the 1970’s and early 80’s, I cannot avoid approaching this subject from an outsider’s perspective. What authority do I have to tell this community’s story in the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention Exhibit? This same insider/outsider perspective conflict also exists within the academic community teaching courses at colleges and universities on hip-hop music.

I recently attended a panel discussion at Howard University during the “Words Beats & Life” conference about just this conflict. Panelists Popmaster Fabel and Dr. Mark Anthony Neal discussed the state of hip-hop music in the academic environment. Popmaster Fabel holds a high school diploma but is an adjunct professor teaching courses on hip-hop at New York University; Dr. Neal attended the State University of New York at Buffalo and is now a professor at Duke University and the author of several books on African American history and culture. During the panel Fabel argued that a person can’t understand hip-hop, and consequently doesn’t have the authority to teach about hip-hop, unless they’ve performed hip-hop music. He said that his “degree” comes from being a hip-hop practitioner in the Bronx during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Neal countered that although practitioners of hip-hop who are also professors provide a valuable insider perspective, professors with academic training put hip-hop into a wider social and historical context, such as how hip-hop artists relate to social constructs of masculinity or the social and cultural effects of urban planning. By the end of the panel, both speakers concluded that insider and outsider perspectives are valuable and should be included in hip-hop courses.

This made me feel much better about telling the story of hip-hop music in Places of Invention. My outsider perspective enables me to put hip-hop music into a context that people may not expect to find it in—technological invention. I am equipped to discuss how hip-hop music relates to technological invention and its impact on society and culture. The conference also served as a reminder that the voices of practitioners need to be key components within the exhibit. Popmaster Fabel and Dr. Mark Anthony Neal’s discussion has helped me appreciate that non hip-hop practitioners such as myself can bring valuable insights to the story of hip-hop music.

Mello-D and the Rados perform at the conference. Video by Laurel Fritszch.