About Eric Hintz

Eric is a historian with the Lemelson Center. A former Fellow himself, he runs the Center's Fellowship program.

Remembering Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl ad

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Apple’s famous “1984” television ad that aired on January 22, 1984 during the third quarter of the Super Bowl XVIII between the Los Angeles Raiders and Washington Redskins. Historian Eric Hintz describes how the “1984” ad and the introduction of the Apple Macintosh were key milestones both in the history of computing and the history of advertising.

The Super Bowl is a cultural event that attracts the attention of more than just football fans. In 2013, Super Bowl XLVII was the third most watched telecast of all time, with an average viewership of 108.7 million people. With so many eyeballs tuned in, advertisers bring out some of their best work and casual fans tune in for the groundbreaking TV commercials as much as for the game. Who could forget Steelers Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene selling Coca-Cola (1979) or the Budweiser guys coining “Wassuuuup?!?” (2000) as everyone’s new favorite catchphrase? However, Apple’s “1984” ad during Super Bowl XVIII is arguably the most famous Super Bowl commercial of all time.

In 1983, the personal computing market was up for grabs. Apple was selling its Apple II like hotcakes but was facing increasing competition from IBM’s PC and “clones” made by Compaq and Commodore. Meanwhile, Apple, led by Steve Jobs, was busy developing its new Macintosh computer. Remember that in 1983, most businesses and governments still employed large, expensive, and technically intimidating mainframes. And while the first personal computers of the early 1980s were smaller and less intimidating, they still featured black screens with green text-based commands like C:\> run autoexec.bat.

Drawing inspiration from the pioneering Xerox Alto and improving on the underperforming Apple Lisa, Jobs and the Apple team built the Apple Macintosh with several revolutionary new features we now take for granted. A handheld input device called a “mouse.” A graphical user interface with overlapping “windows” and menus. Clickable pictures called “icons.” Cut-copy-paste editing. In short, Jobs and his team were creating an “insanely great” personal computer that was intuitive and easy to use—one he hoped would shake-up the PC market. At the same time, Apple had recently lured marketing whiz John Sculley away from Pepsi to be the firm’s new chief executive. Sculley, who had masterminded the “Pepsi Generation” campaign, raised Apple’s ad budget from $15 million to $100 million in his first year.

Apple Macintosh (“classic” 128K version), 1984, catalog number 1985.0118.01, from the National Museum of American History.

Apple Macintosh (“classic” 128K version), 1984, catalog number 1985.0118.01, from the National Museum of American History.

Apple hired the Los Angeles advertising firm Chiat/Day to launch the Macintosh in early 1984; the account team was led by creative director Lee Clow, copywriter Steve Hayden, and art director Brent Thomas. The trio developed a concept inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, in which The Party, run by the all-seeing Big Brother, kept the proletariat in check with constant surveillance by the Thought Police. In the ad, IBM’s “Big Blue” would be cast as Big Brother, dominating the computer industry with its dull conformity, while Apple would re-write the book’s ending so that the Macintosh metaphorically defeats the regime. To direct the commercial, Chiat/Day hired British movie director Ridley Scott who’d perfected the cinematic look and feel of dystopian futures in Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). The 60-second mini-film was shot in one week at a production cost of about $500,000. Two hundred extras were paid $125 a day to shave their heads, march in lock-step, and listen to Big Brother’s Stalinist gibberish. Shot in dark, blue-gray hues to evoke IBM’s Big Blue, the only splashes of color were the bright red running shorts of the protagonist, an athletic young woman who sprints through the commercial carrying a sledgehammer, and Apple’s rainbow logo. The commercial never showed the actual computer, but ended with a tease: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”

Scenes from Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl advertisement.  From Folklore.org.

Scenes from Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl advertisement. From Folklore.org.


When shown the finished ad in late 1983, Apple’s board members hated it. Sculley, the Apple CEO, instructed Chiat/Day to sell back both the 30 and 60-second time slots they’d purchased from CBS for $1 million, but they were only able to unload the 30 second slot.  Apple was faced with the prospect of eating the $500,000 production costs of an ad that could really only air during calendar year 1984, so it swallowed hard and let the ad run once during the third quarter of the Super Bowl. Some 43 million Americans saw the ad, and when the football game returned, CBS announcers Pat Summerall and John Madden asked one another, “Wow, what was that?”

The ad, of course, was a sensation. The commercial’s social and political overtones held particular resonance in the mid-1980s, as the United States and Soviet Union were still engaged in an ideological Cold War. And, like Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad from the 1964 presidential campaign, the ad aired only once in primetime, but was replayed again and again on the network news that evening as the ad itself became a buzz-worthy source of free publicity. But even the mystique of the single airing wasn’t entirely true. Chiat/Day had quietly run the ad one other time, at 1 a.m. on December 15, 1983 on KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho, so that the advertisement qualified for the 1983 advertising awards.  As expected, the ad won several prestigious awards, including the Grand Prize at the Cannes International Advertising Festival (1984) and Advertising Age’s 1980s “Commercial of the Decade.” But the ad’s most enduring legacy is that it cemented the Super Bowl as each year’s blockbuster moment for advertisers and their clients.

While the ad aired during the Super Bowl on January 22, it merely pointed to Macintosh’s official debut two days later. On January 24, 1984, Apple held its annual shareholders meeting at the Flint Center auditorium on the campus of De Anza College, just a block from Apple’s offices in Cupertino, California. After dispensing with the formalities of board votes and quarterly earnings statements, the real show began. Steve Jobs walked on stage in a double-breasted suit and bow tie and rallied the troops by tweaking his chief rival: “IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control, Apple.  Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry, the entire information age?  Was George Orwell right?”

Jobs then presented perhaps the greatest new product demonstration in history. Jobs walked over to a black bag, unzipped it, and set up the Macintosh to wild applause.  Then Jobs inserted a floppy disk and started the demonstration of the Mac’s windows, menus, fonts, and drawing tools, all set to the stirring theme from Chariots of Fire. Then, the Mac spoke for itself: “Hello, I am Macintosh…”

So when you watch the Super Bowl on February 2 this year, it’s possible that the ads will overshadow the game. And for that you can thank Apple’s Macintosh, Chiat/Day and “1984.”

A Day at the Armory: Part II

One of the most exciting aspects of historical research is the thrill of finding a truly great primary source. Recently, while researching Hartford’s industrial history for our Places of Invention exhibition, I uncovered a remarkable first person account of the inner working of Samuel Colt’s Hartford Armory from 1857. Fortunately, copyright protection has expired on such an old piece, so I thought it would be fun to reprint it here. The original article is quite long so I have cut and provided a digest of certain sections, while retaining the descriptions of the factory and grounds. Enjoy Part II…and go back to read Part I.

Part II: “Repeating Fire-Arms:  A Day at the Armory of Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company,” United States Magazine, vol. 4, no. 3 (March 1857): 221-249.

With the exception of the steam engine and boilers, a majority of the machinery was not only invented, but constructed on the premises. When this department was commenced, it was the intention of the Company to manufacture solely for their own use. Some months since, applications were made by several foreign Governments to be supplied with machines and the right to operate them. After mature deliberation, it was concluded to supply orders, and on the day of our visit we saw a complete set of machinery for manufacturing fire-arms, that will shortly be shipped to a distant land. The Company have now determined to incorporate this manufacture as a branch of their regular business. The machine shop is the lower floor of the front parallel; its dimensions are 60 by 500 feet; it is supplied with power and hand tools of every desired kind, all of the most approved construction.

Drawing of A Colt workman at a jigging machine, 1857.

Figure 4: A Colt workman at a jigging machine. The machine featured a revolving wheel with various metal cutting tools attached so the machinist could perform several operations on a single work piece. From United States Magazine, 1857.

Another of the numerous inventions of Colonel Colt is the Metallic Foil Cartridge, a contrivance that always insures “dry powder’ to the possessor. Tin foil, cut in the required shape, is formed in an inverted cone, which is charged with gunpowder; the ball is oval, with a flat end; a circle is pierced near the edge, on this flat end, to receive the edge of the foil; on the cone and ball being brought together, the joint is closed by pressure; they are then inclosed in paper wrappers, so arranged that this covering can be instantly removed when the cartridge is about to be used. The whole operation is completed so perfectly that the cartridge is entirely impervious to water, as by experiment they have repeatedly been fired after having been immersed for hours. Owing to the peculiar shape of the bore of the nipple in Colt’s firearms, the fire from the percussion caps readily penetrated the foil, without pricking.

They are manufactured in a building erected expressly for the purpose, situated about half a mile south of the armory. No fire is allowed in any part of the works, heat being furnished by steam generated in an out-building. Nearly the whole labor here is performed by females, about thirty of whom were at work during our visit – the foreman, engineer and charger making the complement of employees.

Drawing of women assembling Colt's patented gunpowder cartridges, 1857.

Figure 5: Women doing the dangerous work of assembling Colt’s patented gunpowder cartridges at the Cartridge Works. From United States Magazine, 1857.

The principal officers of the company consist of Colonel Colt as President; E. K. Root, Esq., Superintendent, and Luther P. Sargeant, Esq., Treasurer and Secretary; besides these, there is a chief to each department – Mr. Horace Lord being master workman in the armory. Colonel Colt has been particularly fortunate in the selection of his immediate associates; they are all men of mark. Mr. Root, to whom we are indebted for a few hours of valuable instruction, is one of the most accomplished, practical and scientific mechanics of the day; although only in the prime of life, he has established a most enviable position, and his opinions on mooted questions of mechanism are eagerly sought after, even by the principals of some of our most extensive city establishments. Colonel Colt informed us that since their first connection all his views had been most ably seconded and put in practical operation by Mr. Root. In fact, the whole manufacture of every description is under his immediate direction.

Although so much care and attention have been exercised in perfecting the armory, its accessories and products, yet the general welfare of the employees has not been neglected; most extensive arrangements for their comfort and convenience are in the course of rapid completion. And we may here remark that they are deserving of such especial favor; as a body they are mostly young men, many of them having commenced their business life in the establishment. It was, in a measure, necessary to educate men expressly for the purpose, as the manipulation required is not exclusively that of the gunsmith, or of the machinist, but a combination of both of these callings. Taken as a whole, we found them decidedly a reading and thinking community, and we venture the assertion, that it would be difficult to produce a counterpart of mental capacity in the same number of mechanics employed in a manufactory. That they are well compensated for their services is evinced from the fact of the pay-roll amounting to from $1,000 to $1,200 per day.

The grounds around the armory have been laid out in squares of 500 feet each by streets 60 feet wide; upon these squares are being erected commodious three-story dwellings. Sufficient for about eighty families have already been finished, and are occupied by the employees; the operations will be continued until all who desire are accommodated. These houses have all the conveniences of city life. Gas works, of sufficient capacity to supply as large a population as can occupy the area, have already been erected and put in operation. Attached to the engine in the main building is a “cam pump,” which raises the water from the Connecticut to a reservoir on the hill beyond, from which it is distributed, by pipes, to the armory, dwellings, etc….One of the buildings is a beautiful structure known as Charter Oak Hall – so named from its being located on the same avenue as the venerable and time-honored tree, which for centuries braved the storm, and from a singular incident became celebrated in our colonial history. This hall is employed by the operatives for lectures, debates, concerts, balls, etc. The festive occasions are enlivened with music from a band organized from their midst – the instruments, which are most excellent, having been furnished though the liberality of Colonel Colt. A public park, fountains, etc., are in the plans, all of which are being successfully executed.

On the hill overlooking the whole is the palatial residence of the proprietor. It is really a superb edifice, the main building being fifty by one hundred feet; it is in the Italian villa style – the ground and out buildings being on the scale which would naturally be expected of a man of his extended views and liberal taste.

The marvelous extension of use of Colonel Colt’s revolver within a few years, in Europe, and over parts of Asia – the establishment by the British Government of an armory of its own at Enfield, for its manufacture – the establishment of another by the Russian Government at Tula for the same manufacture – the call upon Colonel Colt, aided in part by some other American establishments, to provide all the important machinery for these new armories – these facts and hosts of testimonials from all parts of the world, and from the highest sources, attest the unrivaled excellence of the repeating arms of Colonel Colt, and rank him among the most remarkable inventors of the world.

A Day at the Armory: Part I

One of the most exciting aspects of historical research is the thrill of finding a truly great primary source. As you probably recall from History 101, a primary source is a document, report or set of observations written contemporaneous with the period you’re studying.  The best primary sources are first-person accounts—these reports from the past give historians our best evidence of what things were really like in a given place and time.

Recently, while researching Hartford’s industrial history for our Places of Invention exhibition, I uncovered a remarkable first person account of the inner working of Samuel Colt’s Hartford Armory from 1857. The observations of the unnamed reporter and (pre-photographic!) renderings by artist Nathaniel Orr provide a rich sense of life in Coltsville and on the factory floor.

Fortunately, copyright protection has expired on such an old piece, so I thought it would be fun to reprint it here. The original article is quite long so I have cut and provided a digest of certain sections, while retaining the descriptions of the factory and grounds. Enjoy!

“Repeating Fire-Arms:  A Day at the Armory of Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company,” United States Magazine, vol. 4, no. 3 (March 1857): 221-249.

Eric’s note: The first part of the article describes Colt’s invention and patenting of the revolver in 1836.  It then describes Colt’s first failed efforts to build a successful business in Paterson, NJ.  In 1847, after correcting some of the defects in his original design, Colt received an order for 1000 revolvers from Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers.  Colt contracted with Eli Whitney, Jr. of Hamden, CT to manufacture the revolvers to his specifications.  The proceeds from this and subsequent orders allowed Colt to establish a temporary factory in his native Hartford, then build his permanent factory in 1855.  The observer from United States Magazine, writing in 1857, describes the two-year old armory.   

[The orders from Colt’s improved revolver enabled him to] …transfer his enterprise to Hartford, his own native town, upon the banks of the Connecticut, where he has at last succeeded in founding an armory, the most magnificent of its kind, it may be safely alleged, in the known world – an establishment, built in the first place by damming out – in a project deemed by many, in its inception, almost superhuman – the waters of the mighty Connecticut in their maddened freshet time – which incorporates, in buildings and machinery, a full million of dollars – which give employment to from six to eight hundred men inside the main building, and to numerous hands outside, – which dispenses daily, in wages alone from one thousand to fifteen hundred dollars, and manufactures, year by year, from seventy-five to one hundred thousand arms…

…Within the corporate limits of the City of Hartford, immediately below the Little or Mill River, is a section land, containing about 250 acres, which, owing to its formerly being submerged at the periodical freshets of the Connecticut River, was available at certain seasons only, and then but for grazing. Colonel Colt selected and purchased this spot as his field of operations. His first move was to erect an embankment, or dyke, by which the waters of the Connecticut were entirely and permanently excluded; thus reclaiming the land for building purposes or tillage, as might be desired. This embankment is about two miles long, averaging over one hundred feet wide at the base, and over forty feet in width at the top, and from ten to twenty feet in height. It is built in the most substantial manner, the sides being covered with osier, both for protection and ornament, and for material for his willow works factory, for which he has brought fifty skilled craftsmen from Germany and plans to build for them Swiss-chalet style houses called the Potsdam village. From the smoothness of the road on the dyke, and the beautiful scenery in the vicinity, the dyke has become the fashionable drive of the citizens.

Drawing of Colt Armory from across the Connecticut River, 1857.

Figure 1. Armory of the Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, from across the Connecticut River. Notice the earthen work dykes secured by osier (willow) trees on the opposite river bank. From United States Magazine, 1857.

That the operations might be on the most extended scale, and also that the proprietor might have the undivided exertions of his principal assistants in the manufacture, an association was now formed under a special law from the state, styled “Colt’s Patent Fire-arms Manufacturing Company.” The stockholders in the company are few, Colonel Colt being largely the principal, and the others the heads of the various departments of the business. The capital is $1,250,000; the whole of which is invested in the buildings, tools, machinery, raw materials, etc….The new armory…was finished and operations commenced in it in the Fall of 1855.

The motive power is located about in the center of the main building. It consists of a steam engine – cylinder, 36 inches in diameter, 7 foot stroke, fly-wheel 30 feet in diameter, weighing 7 tons. This engine, which is rated at 250 horse power, is supplied with the well-known “Sickel’s Cutoff,” which the superintendent and engineer speak of as the most useful and important addition to the steam-engine since the days of Watt. The steam is furnished from two cylindrical boilers, each 22 feet long and 7 feet in diameter. The power is carried to the attic by a belt working on the fly-wheel; this belt is 118 feet long by 22 inches wide, and travels at the rate of 2,500 feet per minute.

Fully appreciating the great interest manifested by our readers in descriptions of this kind, we will now proceed to conduct them through the interior of this immense industrial pile, and on the way we will endeavor to explain, as understandingly as possible, the various processes of the manufacture, from the raw metal and wood, to the complete and effective arms familiarly known as Colt’s Revolvers.

Leaving the office we cross the bridge, pass down through the machine shop, engine room, etc., to the rear parallel, an apartment 40 by 50 feet square, the center of which is appropriated as the store-room for iron and steel. Large quantities of these materials, in bars and rods, are stored here in charge of a responsible party, whose duty it is to fill the orders from the contractors, and render an accurate statement of such deliveries to the main storekeeper’s department. This latter system is universal throughout the establishment – thus the materials of all kinds can be readily accounted for, no matter what their state of transposition.

Drawing of the furnaces and anvils of Colt Armory's forging shop, 1857.

Figure 2: The furnaces and anvils of Colt’s forging shop. From United States Magazine, 1857.

We now follow them to the armory proper, which, in the first place, is the second story of the front parallel. This is probably not only the most spacious, but the best arranged and fitted workshop extant. We fully understand this to be a broad and sweeping assertion, yet we have an abundance of competent authority to back the opinion. On first entering this immense room, from the office, the tout ensemble is really grand and imposing, and the beholder is readily impressed with an exalted opinion of the vast mechanical resources of the corporation. The room is 500 feet long by 60 feet wide, and 16 feet high. It is lighted, on all sides, by 110 windows that reach nearly from floor to ceiling; it is warmed by steam from the boilers – the pipers being under the benches, running completely around the sides and ends; there are the perfect arrangements for ventilation, and sufficient gas burners to illuminate the whole for night-work. Running along through the center is a row of cast-iron columns, sixty in number, to which is attached the shafting – which here is arranged as a continuous pulley – for driving the machines, as close together as possible, only allowing sufficient space to get around and work them. The whole of this immense floor space is covered with machine tools. Each portion of the fire-arm has its particular section. As we enter the door the first group of machines appears to be exclusively employed in chambering cylinders; the next turning and shaping them; here another is boring barrels; another group is milling the lockframes; still another is drilling them; beyond are a score of machines boring and screw-cutting the nipples, and next to them a number of others are making screws; here are the rifling machines, and there the machines for boring rifle-barrels; now we come to the jigging machines that mortice out the lock-frames; and thus it goes on all over this great hive of physical and mental exertion.

Drawing of the second floor of Colt’s East Armory, showing dozens of machine tools and operators, powered by overhead pulley, belts, and shafting, 1857.

Figure 3: The second floor of Colt’s East Armory, showing dozens of machine tools and operators, powered by overhead pulley, belts, and shafting. From United States Magazine, 1857.

As soon as completed the different parts are carried to the story above, which, with the exception of the machinery and the columns through the center, is an exact counterpart of the room below. It is designated the Inspecting and Assembling Department. Here the different parts are most minutely inspected; this embraces a series of operations which in the aggregate amount to considerable; the tools to inspect a cylinder, for example, are fifteen in number, each of which must gauge to a hair; the greatest nicety is observed, and it is absolutely impossible to get a slighted piece of work beyond this point.

The finished arm is laid on a rack, ready for the prover; of course many others accompany it to the department of this official, which is located in the third story of the rear building. Here each chamber is loaded with the largest charge possible, and practically tested by firing; after which, they are wiped out by the prover and returned to the inspection department. The inspectors again take them apart, thoroughly clean and oil them, when they are for the last time put together and placed in a rack for the final inspection. This is done by Mr. William Tuller, a gentleman who has been in the constant employment of Colonel Colt since the manufacture commenced in Hartford. The parts having been so thoroughly examined and tested, it would seem that this last inspection was scarcely necessary; but, after a short observation, we saw several laid aside. Taking up one with a small mark on the barrel, “Why do you reject this?” we inquired. “Pass that to-day, and probably much larger blemishes would appear to-morrow,” replied Mr. T. The order from the Principal is perfection; and a small scratch in the bluing or varnish is sufficient to prevent the arm passing. The finished arm is now returned to the store room; from whence, after being papered, they are sent to the wareroom – situated in the basement of the office building; from this they are sent to nearly every portion of the habitable globe.

In round numbers it might be stated that supposing the cost of an arm to be 100; of this the wages of those who attended to and passed pieces through the machines was 10 per cent, and those of the best class workmen engaged in assembling the weapons was also 10 per cent, thus leaving 80 per cent for the duty done by the machinery.

Stay tuned for Part II of the article…

Inventing the Surveillance Society

We are being watched. Anytime we enter a building, place a phone call, swipe a credit card, or visit a website, our actions are observed, recorded, and analyzed by commercial and government entities. Surveillance technologies are omnipresent—a fact underscored by the Boston Marathon bombing dragnet and Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency earlier this year. It’s clear that we live in a “surveillance society” driven by a range of innovations, from closed-circuit TV cameras to sophisticated data mining algorithms. But how did our surveillance society emerge, and what is the effect of ubiquitous surveillance on our everyday lives?


To tackle these questions, the Lemelson Center is presenting Inventing the Surveillance Society, a symposium that explores the role of invention and technology in a modern world where our actions (and transactions) are constantly being monitored. The symposium will bring together scholars, inventors, policymakers, members of the media, and the public to discuss the historical evolution of surveillance technologies, and their contemporary societal implications. The symposium will be held on Friday, October 25 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.  All events are free and open to the public and will be available via live webcast.

As I’ve told friends and colleagues about our upcoming symposium, I’ve encountered some mild surprise that a history museum would be convening this kind of conversation. Let me provide a few reasons why the Lemelson Center and the National Museum of American History are the right place for this discussion and describe how our approach will be different than what you typically see on the 24-hour news cycle.

The President said we should do it. As a Smithsonian (i.e. federal) employee, I listened closely when my boss, President Obama, made remarks on the heels of Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs. In his June 7 news conference, the President suggested that the American public will need to “discuss and debate” the “balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy.” With our symposium, we are providing a free, public forum for exactly this kind of discussion here at the Smithsonian.

Widespread public access. Think tanks and university department host these kinds of programs all the time, but they tend to operate at a somewhat rarified level; unless you’re a scholar or policymaker, it can be tough to get on the invitation list. Here at the museum, admission is free and we welcome all comers. And if you’re not in D.C., then you can tune in via a live webcast. By hosting a very public event, we believe we’re fulfilling our Smithsonian mission—“the increase and diffusion of knowledge”—in a way that will be accessible to the broadest number of people. We hope you’ll participate in the discussion.

Current events in historical perspective. Over the last several months, questions about surveillance have been debated daily in newspapers and on current affairs news programs. They rightly focus on breaking news—that’s their job. However, the emergence of the surveillance society did not occur overnight. As a museum, we can present the long view on surveillance and hopefully uncover some insights that will illuminate our current era.

Trade catalog for "The Detectifone", 1917

As demonstrated by our museum collections, surveillance technology has a long history. Trade catalog, Carl Anderson Electric Corporation, 1917, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Surveillance is not new. Since ancient times, kings and pharaohs have dispatched spies to gather intelligence on things happening both inside and outside the kingdom. And over the last 150 years or so, those direct, human observations have been augmented by a range of new inventions that have improved the watchers’ ability to capture, store, and analyze their observations. Yet, a symposium dedicated only to the history of surveillance wouldn’t be very relevant, so we plan to explore both the historical emergence of the surveillance society and its contemporary implications. Today’s news is tomorrow’s history, so it’s crucial that the museum convene conversations like this to explore and document current topics like surveillance that will be historically significant in 50, 100, or even 200 years.

Focus on invention and technology.  In the news, the conversation about surveillance tends to be framed in terms of legal and ethical issues: how do we balance national security and personal liberty?  However, few pundits stop to consider the technological basis of the surveillance society. As with past symposia that have explored topics likes spaceflight, food, and sustainable architecture, the Lemelson Center’s 2013 program will specifically examine the surveillance society through the lens of invention and technology.

CCTV Trade Catalog, 1989,

Trade catalog, Crest Electronics, Inc., 1989, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

At its heart, modern surveillance is fundamentally driven by technology. For example, the invention of the daguerreotype and the phonograph in the 19th century created new kinds of recorded evidence that were more trustworthy than faulty memories or hearsay.  Similarly, 20th century office technologies like the dossier, the carbon form in triplicate, and the filing cabinet were mundane (but crucial) innovations that enabled government and commercial bureaucracies to gather, store, and retrieve information about us. Today, autonomous cameras record your entrance into a building—or through a red-light intersection. Massive data warehouses store terabytes of information about our credit card transactions and website clickstreams, so that sophisticated data mining algorithms at Amazon and Netflix can suggest the kinds of books and movies it believes we would enjoy. Clearly, the advance of technology has expanded the scope and strategic value of surveillance. Accordingly, the symposium’s emphasis on invention should provide new insights that go beyond the familiar privacy-security debate.

So that’s the advance scoop on Inventing the Surveillance Society, our annual Lemelson Center symposium, coming to the National Museum of American History on Friday, October 25. Check out the program here—we hope you’ll attend or check out the live webcast! In the coming weeks, I’ll say more about our featured speakers and what they’ll be discussing—stay tuned!

Historic Silicon Valley Bar and Restaurant Review

The Power Lunch. The billion dollar invention scribbled on the back of a napkin. “Accidentally” (on purpose…) running into a potential angel investor at his or her favorite watering hole. These are all familiar aspects of the high-tech business culture in Silicon Valley, where some of the most important conversations occur outside the office.

The “official” Silicon Valley Napkin.

The “official” Silicon Valley Napkin. Courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

But this phenomenon is not confined to trendy eateries in downtown Palo Alto. In fact, the use of pubs, restaurants, and social gathering spaces for business purposes is a distinctive marker of innovative hot spots—in different regions, for all kinds of technologies, and at many different times in our history. For example, Dr. Walter Lillihei, Earl Bakken, and the founders of Medtronic talked shop at the local Lutheran church and the University of Minnesota Campus Club, transforming the Twin Cities into “Medical Alley.” And in 1930s Hollywood, producers, directors, and technicians discussed the artistic merits of new innovations like Technicolor at studio commissaries and the legendary Brown Derby restaurant.

In short, social gathering places—and the exchange of ideas they facilitate—are a key ingredient in fostering a culture of innovation. This is a key finding of Places of invention, an exhibition scheduled to open in 2015 at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. The Lemelson Center’s historical research draws on the theories of sociologist Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place. In that book, Oldenburg describes the societal importance of what he calls the “Third Place”—a community gathering place that’s not home and not the workplace. These Third Places—like barber shops, diners, bookstores, and coffee shops—are welcoming places where regulars gather to engage in conversation and trade ideas.  And this easy exchange of ideas, in turn, is a big part of what drives innovation.

But how exactly does this work? Let’s return to the Silicon Valley of the 1960s and ‘70s, when pioneering microelectronics firms like Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel began transforming the region into a high-tech hot spot. In a 1983 Esquire article on Intel founder Robert Noyce, Tom Wolfe wrote that “every year there was some place, the Wagon Wheel, Chez Yvonne, Rickey’s, the Roundhouse, where members of this esoteric fraternity, the young men and women of the semiconductor industry, would head after work to have a drink and gossip and brag and trade war stories about phase jitters, phantom circuits, bubble memories” and other mysteries of the trade. The same concept held true for the sales and marketing guys, who had their own hangouts.

But weren’t they afraid of sharing proprietary information with a competitor? Yes and no. Then and now, Silicon Valley had notoriously high job mobility, so it was common to run into a colleague from a prior job and talk shop at a local tavern. Since techies changed jobs all the time, they were often more loyal to friends and former colleagues than whichever firm they happened to be working for at the moment. Thus, useful information flowed back and forth liberally, even among competitors. Plus, in order to GET good information, you had to GIVE good information, so a certain amount of divulging was necessary. Naturally, alcohol tended to lubricate this process. Moore’s Law suggested that processor power doubled every 18 months, so there was no sense in keeping a secret for too long anyway, given Silicon Valley’s short product cycles. So even though local firms competed intensely, the region’s high-tech workers easily traded information over beers to make deals and keep up with the rapid pace of technological change.

With these ideas in mind, here are a few Silicon Valley restaurants and watering holes—past and present—that have served as high-tech hubs:

Walker’s Wagon Wheel (Mountain View)

Walker’s Wagon Wheel tavern.

Walker’s Wagon Wheel tavern. Courtesy of Carolyn Caddes and Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

This western-themed bar at the corner of Whisman Avenue and Middlefield Road in Mountain View was a stone’s throw from the Fairchild campus and the place to go in the 1960s. In her book Regional Advantage, UC Berkley geographer AnnaLee Saxenian quoted Jeffery Kalb, a veteran of National Semiconductor, DEC, MasPar, and other high-tech firms:  “In the early days of the semiconductor industry there were certain places that everybody frequented and the standing joke was that if you couldn’t figure out your process problems, go down to the Wagon Wheel and ask somebody.” When the tavern was demolished in 2003, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View picked up one of the tavern’s trademark Conestoga wagon wheels and a section of the bar for its permanent collections.

The Peppermill Restaurant and Lounge (Santa Clara)

nterior picture of the vacant Peppermill in Santa Clara, now the Axis Nightclub.

Interior picture of the vacant Peppermill in Santa Clara, now the Axis Nightclub. Courtesy of Flickr member JAB88.

The Peppermill, located just off US 101 at Bowers Drive, was one of a chain restaurants and lounges owned by a Nevada-based casino. Naturally, it was a little flashy, with velvet and faux-leather booths, lots of mirrors, and a small waterfall in the lobby. In their book Silicon Valley Fever, Everett Rogers and Judith Larsen quoted an anonymous Intel informant: “I can go to the Peppermill at eight in the morning and always meet somebody I know. All of my customers and all of my competitors—and that’s about five hundred people—eat breakfast there regularly…The Peppermill is just a giant meeting place.” A few years ago, the Peppermill was converted to the Axis Nightclub.

The Oasis Beer Garden (Menlo Park)

The Oasis Beer Garden

The Oasis Beer Garden. Courtesy of Flickr member, Xavier de Jauréguiberry.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, hackers from the Homebrew Computer Club would adjourn their meetings in the auditorium at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator and head over to this beer and burgers joint. It was established in 1958, and still sits just north of the Stanford campus at 241 El Camino Real in Menlo Park; according to its website, it serves “families, teams, professors, business tycoons, and students” alike. The Oasis features wooden tables and booths carved by decades of undergrads and techies alike, as well as signs instructing patrons to throw their peanut shells on the floor.

Lion and Compass (Sunnyvale)

The Lion and Compass.

The Lion & Compass. Photo via the San Francisco Chronicle.

After selling Atari for $28 million, company founder Nolan Bushnell opened this upscale bar-restaurant in 1982 at 1023 Fair Oaks Avenue in Sunnyvale. It combines an oak-paneled English-style pub (adorned by a NYSE stock ticker) with a chic sky-lit Terrace Room serving eclectic California cuisine. According to Robert Reinhold’s 1984 write-up in the New York Times, the “Lion and Compass has become the premier deal-making center and gathering spot for the barons of computer technology who lord over the tiny patch of California dubbed Silicon Valley…[Y]oung engineers with bright ideas dine with venture capitalists with money and leave smiling; loans and sales worth millions of dollars are transacted over Saumon Blanc en Croute.” Reinhold concluded that “the Lion and Compass is to the computer world what Sardi’s is to New York’s theater district.”

Buck’s Restaurant (Woodside)

Owner Jamis MacNiven, outside Buck’s Restaurant.

Owner Jamis MacNiven, outside Buck’s Restaurant. Courtesy of John McChesney/NPR.

Buck’s opened in 1991 and is located at 3062 Woodside Rd just west of Interstate 280. The quirky diner is popular with venture capitalists, as it sits halfway between their hillside mansions and offices on Sand Hill Road. Speaking to NPR in 2010, owner Jamis MacNiven recalled a litany of deals made under his roof: “Hotmail was founded here…Netscape had their early meetings in the back room; Tesla was founded here; PayPal got funded here.” Buck’s casual atmosphere would seem to make it an unlikely place to do business. MacNiven himself eschews a suit and tie in favor of loud printed shirts, and the walls and ceiling are adorned with kitschy “flair” that includes a Soviet space suit, several stuffed fish, and a Statue of Liberty with an ice cream sundae for a torch. However, Buck’s has become something of a bellwether for the high-tech economy—a full parking lot is a sign of good times.

Obviously, these are just a handful of the places where Silicon Valley’s tech gurus get things done.  Share your own story—where are your favorite pubs, restaurants, and high-tech hangouts?


Gulker, Linda Hubbard.  “A long time Oasis on game day.”  In Menlo blog post, October 3, 2009, accessed June 18, 2013, http://inmenlo.com/2009/10/03/a-long-time-oasis-on-game-day/.

Lion and Compass Restaurant.  “About Lion and Compass.”  Accessed June 18, 2013.  http://www.lionandcompass.com/about.htm.

Markoff, John.  “A Burger with a Side of YouTube Please.” New York Times, October 15, 2006, p. H2.

McChesney, John.  “Checking a tech bellwether: Buck’s restaurant.”  WBUR/NPR blog post, August 2, 2010, accessed June 18, 2013, http://www.wbur.org/npr/128874569/checking-a-tech-bellwether-bucks-restaurant.

The Oasis Beer Garden.  “About Us.”  Accessed June 18, 2013.  http://theoasisbeergarden.com/about.php.

Oldenburg, Ray.  The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, 3rd ed.  New York: Marlowe & Company, 1999.

Reinhold, Robert.  “Restaurant has Recipe for Multimillion Dollar Computer Deals.” New York Times, January 7, 1984, p. 7.

“Remembering Walker’s Wagon Wheel.”  SFGate blog post, May 21, 2007, accessed June 18, 2013, http://blog.sfgate.com/techchron/2007/05/21/remembering-walkers-wagon-wheel/.

Rogers, Everett M. and Judith K. Larsen.  Silicon Valley Fever: Growth of High-Technology Culture.  New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Saxenian, AnnaLee.  Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Wolfe, Tom.  “The Tinkering of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on Silicon Valley.” Esquire, December 1983, pp. 346-374.

Yi, Matthew.  “The Lion in Winter: Even after the Dot-Com Bust, Restaurant Draws Silicon Valley Powers.” SFGate blog post, January 24, 2003, accessed June 18, 2013, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/The-Lion-in-winter-Even-after-the-dot-com-bust-2639147.php.

Perks of the Job: Up Close and Personal with the Jazz Collections

Let’s start with something obvious: I have a cool job! Here at the Lemelson Center, I spend most of my time thinking about American independent inventors, or Places of Invention like Hartford and Silicon Valley. However, I recently had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Museum’s incomparable jazz collections. Let me explain…

One of my job responsibilities is to coordinate the Lemelson Center Staff Projects Initiative, an internal grant program in which the Center makes modest grants to our NMAH colleagues to stimulate new research, exhibitions, and programming on innovation. One of our grantees is the Create: Smithsonian project, directed by Susan Evans and Amy Bartow-Melia in the Museum’s Office of Education and Public Programs. With Create: Smithsonian, Susan and Amy developed a yearlong series of six workshops designed to inspire a Smithsonian organizational culture of creativity, innovation, and risk-taking, while having fun and building esprit de corps with our colleagues. The workshops draw upon literature (like Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Andrew Hargadon’s How Breakthroughs Happen) suggesting that, in order to foster innovation, organizations must create opportunities where smart people from diverse backgrounds and experience can collaborate. This mashing together of disciplines, techniques, and perspectives can spark unlikely partnerships, leading to all kinds of creative outcomes. So it’s been fun to attend the Create: Smithsonian workshops to see how the grant funds are being used and find out what happens when the Smithsonian’s zookeepers, fundraisers, housekeeping staff, vertebrate biologists, art historians, and docents all come together.

Create:Smithsonian Flyer

The Create: Smithsonian workshops are one of the Lemelson Center’s grantees. Courtesy of Susan Evans.

On January 31, I attended the latest Create: Smithsonian workshop, which focused on what we as an organization can learn from the history and artistry of jazz. We were treated to a talk by Dr. John Hasse, the NMAH’s jazz curator extraordinaire, who described the various leadership lessons we can learn from jazz masters like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. For example, it sounds basic, but in jazz (and on your work teams) you must listen closely to your band mates. Bandleaders must recruit and nurture great talent—like when Miles Davis recruited sax greats Cannonball Adderley AND John Coltrane to play on the seminal Kind of Blue. Finally, team leaders, like bandleaders must create a basic structure for the tune, but loosen the reins and let their best players improvise occasionally.

John then walked to a table where he described some of the treasures of the NMAH’s musical collections. He picked up a pair of black sunglasses and said casually “So these are Ray Charles’ Ray Bans….”—there was an audible gasp! Then he showed us Ray’s special chess set for the blind and his Braille copy of Playboy magazine—he really did read it for the articles! Then it was on to Ella Fitzgerald’s Grammy and Duke Ellington’s conducting baton—real treasures of American musical history.

Ray Bans worn by Ray Charles.

Ray Bans worn by Ray Charles. Photo by Eric Hintz.


Grammy won by Ella Fitzgerald.

Grammy Award won by Ella Fitzgerald. Photo by Eric Hintz.

Then we got a DEMONSTRATION!  A trio from the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra—Ken Kimery (drums), James King (bass), and Chuck Redd (vibraphone)—played a few selections, demonstrating how to listen, how to lead and sometimes follow, and how to improvise. But the most amazing part of the performance was Chuck’s instrument—he was playing the vibes donated to the museum in February 2001 by the late, great Lionel Hampton!

Lionel Hampton's Vibraphone.

Lionel Hampton’s vibraphone, donated to the National Museum of American History in February 2001. It still sounds awesome. Courtesy of Eric Hintz.

Chuck Redd playing Lionel Hampton's vibraphone.

Chuck Redd of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra playing the vibraphone donated by Lionel Hampton. Photo by Kate Wiley.

I play the drums and have dabbled a bit in the other members of the percussion family, so it was thrilling to think that I was so close the same set that Lionel himself had played “The Price of Jazz” and so many other classic tunes. I left the Create: Smithsonian event feeling even more energized than usual about working at the Museum—clearly the grant funds were going to good use!

2013 Jazz Appreciation Month featuring Lionel Hampton.

Legendary vibraphone virtuoso and bandleader Lionel Hampton graces the 2013 Jazz Appreciation Month poster. Courtesy of Smithsonian Jazz.

April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), and we do it in style here at the National Museum of American History, with a full schedule of donation ceremonies by jazz legends, talks on jazz history, and several live performances. Lionel Hampton is featured on the 2013 JAM poster and to kick things off on April 9, his vibes again emerged from the Museum’s vaults to be played in a tribute performance by members of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Quintet.

So, like I said at the top, I have a cool job.  For a music buff like me, working at the Smithsonian is Seriously Amazing!

Yankee Ingenuity Part II: The Inventors of Hartford

Editor’s Note: Hartford is a featured case study in our upcoming Places of Invention exhibition. For more on Hartford as an invention hot spot, read Part I of Yankee Ingenuity.

In the 1800s, New England (and Connecticut in particular) was the home to dozens of iconic inventors, including Hartford’s Samuel Colt, Hamden’s Eli Whitney and New Haven’s Charles Goodyear—not to mention hundreds of lesser-known, but highly skilled machinists and toolmakers who worked in the region’s factories and shop floors to continually improve their manufacturing processes. Hartford is a microcosm of that larger story. In just a few blocks in downtown Hartford, you can see how the methods of precision, interchangeable parts manufacturing spread from firm to firm and industry and to industry—from arms-making to sewing machines to typewriters to bicycles and automobiles, creating a real hot spot of innovation.

Some notable inventors from Hartford at this time:

Samuel Colt, 1859, courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

Samuel Colt is the reason we are still talking about Hartford today. A Hartford native, he patented his namesake revolver in 1835-1836, but his real innovation was perfecting a precision manufacturing system that allowed him to mass produce 1000 identical copies of his design with interchangeable parts. He was a brilliant inventor and a manufacturing genius, but he was an even greater promoter of his business. He would shower liquor and lavish gifts on Army generals, schmoozing them to secure arms contracts in a way that would make us blanch today. Colt was an equal opportunity salesman—in the years before the Civil War, he sold arms to both the Northern and Southern states. He traveled to Europe and sold arms to both the British and Russian governments, arming both sides of the Crimean War. He was incredibly wealthy, brash and larger than life, with expensive tastes in art—like a modern day Larry Ellison or Richard Branson.

Albert Pope, circa 1900, courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society.

Albert Pope was a Boston entrepreneur who first saw a high-wheel bicycle at the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair. These were imported from England, but Pope was determined to manufacture bicycles in the United States. After securing patent rights in the U.S., he arrived in Hartford in 1878 and contracted with the Weed Sewing Machine factory to build his bicycles. Eventually the bicycle business became so lucrative that Pope bought out Weed. Eventually in the 1890s, Pope also began making steam, gasoline, and electric cars in Hartford.

Christopher M. Spencer, circa 1863, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Christopher Spencer was a serial inventor and entrepreneur who worked across a number of industries. He invented a winding machine for silk thread, a repeating rifle that Abraham Lincoln personally tested and adopted for the Union Army during the Civil War, and an automatic screw-making machine.

Mark Twain, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Mark Twain was the quintessential American humorist and author of the 19th century—he was famous all over the world—but most people don’t know that he was also an inventor. He secured three patents: a men’s garment that worked like suspenders, a self-pasting scrapbook with pre-glued pages, and a type of historical board game, much like Trivial Pursuit. He was also a failed venture capitalist, who nearly lost everything when he unwisely invested in a failed typesetting machine that he thought would revolutionize the printing business. (When I was in Hartford, I got to visit his historic home in the Nook Farm neighborhood and see Twain’s “man cave”—he had an upstairs room where he and his friends would play billiards, smoke cigars, and drink brandy. In the corner was a little writing desk where he wrote all of those classic novels.)

Colt employees on the shop floor, circa 1900, courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

It’s easy to learn things about a famous industrialist like Samuel Colt or Albert Pope, but much harder to find information about the folks who worked for them. It’s been difficult to understand what life was like for the average machinist or engineer who worked on the shop floor in one of Hartford’s many factories. I would love to know, for example, what it was like to work at Colt’s armory. What was the experience of living in the Coltsville factory neighborhood—to play in the Colt band, to play on the Colt baseball team, or to attend dances at Charter Oak Hall? Unfortunately, there are hardly any first-person accounts of the city’s workers. This is especially true of immigrant workers; many were not literate in English and left few records.

Yankee Ingenuity: Hartford, Connecticut

Hartford, Connecticut, is a classic story in the history of American technology. If you have ever wondered why people refer to “Yankee ingenuity,” this is what they are talking about. Hartford in the mid-1800s was one of the birthplaces of American mass production, making it a perfect case study for our upcoming Places of Invention exhibition. Around 1850, Hartford native Samuel Colt perfected the precision manufacturing process that enabled the mass production of thousands of his revolvers with interchangeable parts. Over the next several decades, a variety of industries adopted and adapted these techniques and Hartford became the center of production for a wide array of products—including firearms by Colt, Richard Gatling and John Browning; Weed sewing machines; Royal and Underwood typewriters; Columbia bicycles; and even Pope automobiles. In the mid and late 1800s, the United States overtakes Great Britain as the world’s foremost economic superpower, largely on the strength of its prowess in inventing and manufacturing new technologies. Hartford is at the center of that revolution.

Coming out of Hartford at this time is a whole class of general purpose machine tools, like the turret lathes, drill presses, and milling machines. These were essentially machines that ground and shaped metal blanks into precise shapes that became the components of finished products—things like revolver barrels, sewing machines needles, and bicycle gears. These milling machines were general purpose technologies. Essentially, these were machines to make other machines. I think of it as similar to today’s microchips—a basic memory chip can go into any number of products, from laptop computers to digital cameras to the cable box. Once the basic techniques of forging and milling pieces of metal were understood, you could make just about anything, and they did in Hartford.

In addition to the manufacturing industries, there was so much more going on in Hartford at the same time. Most people, if they know much about Hartford, probably know it as “the insurance capital of the world.” So in addition to all of these manufacturing firms, at the exact same time, you have the emergence of all these major insurance firms, like Aetna, Travelers, and “The Hartford”—firms that still exist today.

Hartford also had this amazing literary scene in the mid-1800s. The city was home to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which ignited the abolitionist movement in the decade before the Civil War. Her next door neighbor was none other than Mark Twain, who wrote many of his classics in Hartford—including The Gilded Age (1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince & the Pauper (1882), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In fact, the protagonist of Connecticut Yankee is based on the superintendent of the Colt armory.

Hartford reached its peak in the decades before and after the Civil War. It begins to wane in the first decade of the 20th century, when some of the original inventors and entrepreneurs begin to retire and sell their businesses. In 1901, Colt’s widow, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, sells the firm to a conglomerate; Pratt & Whitney also sells out in that same year. Many of these parent firms are based outside of Hartford, and they begin to relocate certain operations. Meanwhile, Albert Pope’s bicycle and auto-making operations face labor unrest and a banking crisis—he gets over-extended and declares bankruptcy in 1907 and the firm gets broken up into pieces. At the same time, firms looking to expand can’t do so within the city limits of Hartford, so they start to move to the suburbs of West Hartford and Manchester, and to cheaper labor markets in the Southern states and outside the U.S. By the 1950s, Hartford—like many industrial cities—begins to lose its commercial tax base, and starts to experience white flight some urban decay. However, because Hartford is the state capital and maintained the insurance industry, it has remained an important and vibrant city. Even today, we still have Colt-brand firearms, Columbia-brand bicycles, and Pratt & Whitney’s precision gauging and measurement tools.

Read Part II to learn more about the inventors of Hartford.

Behind the Scenes at the Political Machines symposium

On Nov 2 & 3, 2012 the Lemelson Center hosted Political Machines: Innovations in Campaigns and Electionsthe latest edition of our annual symposium series, New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation. By all accounts, the weekend was a great success!  If you weren’t able to make it, here’s an inside look at some of the events and talks…

Friday Nov 2 – Final preparations and “The Political Party”

If you had been in the Lemelson Center offices on the afternoon before the symposium, you would have seen a flurry of activity as we made final preparations – setting up banners, printing name tags, confirming the food order, etc. At 3pm, the team assembled in the Warner Bros. Theater for a final tech run-through with Keith Madden, the projectionist, and Robb Rineer, our technician from Meridia, who gave us a preview of our audience response system. When we broke at about 4pm, the team sprung into action – setting up tables, placing banners around the Museum, escorting C-SPAN’s camera crew to the theater, and generally gearing up for the arrival of our guests.

The Political Party, outside "The American Presidency" and "The First Ladies" exhibitions. Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

When we welcomed our symposium speakers to “The Political Party,” a kick-off reception held, appropriately, right outside two of the Museum’s most popular exhibitions: The American Presidency and The First Ladies, they found the 3rd floor atrium transformed into an elegant reception with an election motif. One side, lit in blue, featured Chicago-style hot dogs and other treats reminiscent of Barack Obama’s “Windy City.” Across the atrium, lit in red, were shepherd’s pie, New England clam chowder, and Boston cream pie from Mitt Romney’s “Beantown.” Several of our invited speakers—trained as political historians, campaign workers, etc.—took a few moments to enjoy the collections in The American Presidency, before heading down to the theater for the symposium’s opening act.

David Schwartz. Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

Friday Nov 2, 8pm – Ghosts in the Machine, but David Schwartz is a Pro

David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, opened the symposium with his talk on the history of presidential campaign ads. I began to feel slightly ill as the Museum’s Internet connection decided to bonk just as David began clicking on streaming video links from his online exhibition, The Living Room Candidate. But being a consummate pro, David stayed cool and used the temporary glitch to describe the genesis of the site in the late 1990s. In particular, he noted how innovative it was at that time to stream videos back in the days of dial-up connections before (…tongue planted firmly in cheek…) “the blazingly fast speeds of today’s Internet.” That drew lots of laughs and by then, the goblins that temporarily interrupted the Internet connection departed and left David to click freely and finish his wonderful talk. Disaster averted!

Saturday Nov 3, 10:30-5pm – Symposium Saturday

The symposium continued with a full day of panels and talks by our amazing symposium speakers. There’s no way I could capture all of their smart ideas in a short blog post.  However, our intrepid communications team—led by Erin Blasco, Kate Wiley, and Michelle DelCarlo—live-Tweeted the event so you can get a flavor of the proceedings.  Check out http://twitter.com/amhistorymuseum or http://twitter.com/SI_Invention or search for #PoliticalMachines for the full blow-by-blow.

Keynote speaker Darrell West. Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite moments from the symposium:

  • Our keynote speaker, Darrell M. West, described the trend in campaign technologies from broadcasting to “nano-casting”…
    • Broadcasting—building ads with broad appeal for the three TV networks
    • Narrow-casting—creating ads for cable TV, tailored to a particular regional service area or a particular channel’s viewership, e.g. young men watching ESPN
    • Micro-casting—using targeted emails with links to YouTube ads to reach VERY specific groups, e.g. conservative blacks in Cincinnati, Ohio, that oppose  gay marriage
    • Nano-casting—using mobile phones, geo-location services, and consumer information to send text messages or emails with precise, individually-tailored messages—e.g. “Dear Sally, please vote today, your polling place is 123 Elm Street.”
  • Jon Grinspan explained the innovative role of alcohol in elections during the mid-1800s. Westward expansion into Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio meant more access to grains like wheat and corn, which created bumper crops of hard liquors like bourbon. Saloons were among the biggest buildings in frontier towns, so they served as party headquarters and polling places. Party operatives traded booze for votes—but not too much, otherwise, passed-out voters would never make it to the polls!
  • Zephyr Teachout explained how the emergence of the Internet challenged the traditional power structure of campaigns, previously ruled by a triumvirate of political, finance, and communications directors. Eventually campaigns made room for a fourth director—the Director of Internet Organizing, a role she pioneered in Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign—and we’ve never looked back.

Vanderbilt’s Sarah Igo, who has studied the history of George Gallup and the birth of modern opinion research, chats with Gallup’s modern-day counterpart, Jon Cohen, the chief pollster at The Washington Post. Courtesy of Eric Hintz.

  • Sarah Igo explained that we used to call public opinion researchers “pollers.” However, sometime during the 1940s, a newspaper columnist, skeptical of their methodology, called them the “pollsters” because it sounded like “hucksters.” The name stuck…
  • Jon Cohen, polling director at The Washington Post, said that there is still skepticism about the methods of today’s pollsters, but that sampling—and the bias that inevitably creeps in—is unavoidable. To illustrate the point he said: “Next time you go to the doctor and they ask for a blood sample, tell them ‘No—take the whole thing!’”
  • Thad E. Hall wondered aloud why we could buy airline tickets and do our banking via the Internet, but we have yet to implement Internet voting. The key difference is that, with online purchases, the identity of the purchaser is tied to the transaction. However, with voting, the trick is to maintain security while separating the identity of the voter from his or her vote—and we are still figuring out that trick.
  • David Becker described many of the problems with our present system of election administration, but quickly brought things back to proper perspective. He doubted whether any corporation (or nation besides the United States) could get nearly 117 million people to all do the same thing (in this case, vote) on one given day, and do it in an orderly fashion absent any riots or violence. There are always a few problems, but they are minor relative to the overall achievement that is Election Day. His final charge was classic: “On Tuesday, go out and hug your local election worker!”

Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

Meanwhile, out in the Lefrak Lobby, visitors were treated to an up-close and personal view of dozens of historical campaign buttons, posters, and fliers from our museum collections dating as far back as the 1860s. It was fun to see an Abraham Lincoln-Andrew Johnson ticket from 1864 on the table next to a Spanish-language poster supporting JFK and LBJ from 1960! Plus, over the lunch break, our visitors got an up-close and personal audience with speakers Sarah Igo, Thad Hall, and Zephyr Teachout, who graciously signed copies of their books.

Photo by Jaclyn Nash.

Monday Nov 5, 9am – Reflections and Thank You Notes

After a well-earned day of rest on Sunday, everyone came back to work on Monday and chatted around the water cooler about the symposium. We all agreed that we’d had some very high-caliber speakers, all of whom were smart, funny, and engaging in describing the role of “political machinery” in the realms of Advertising, Campaigning, Polling, and Voting.  Thanks again to our tremendous speakers!

Wednesday Nov 7 – The Day After the Election

On November 7, the day after Obama’s re-election to a second term, some prognosticators had already begun speculating about who would run for President in 2016. No rest for the election-weary, I guess. Similarly, my teammate Michelle DelCarlo innocently asked me—“So what do you think will be the theme for next year’s symposium?” COME ON ALREADY!! Let’s enjoy this one for a few weeks, before we start speculating about 2013.

We’ll start brainstorming for our 2013 symposium in the New Year—maybe exploring Civil War military technologies, or sports inventions, from safer football helmets to instant replay. Then again, in the tradition of participatory democracy—what do YOU think would make a compelling theme for the 2013 symposium?

“Political Machines” Speakers in the News

We are fortunate to have many fine speakers participating in our upcoming symposium, Political Machines: Innovations in Campaigns and Elections, taking place on November 2 and 3 here at the National Museum of American History. Our speakers are recognized leaders in their fields, so as you might expect, they appear from time to time in national newspapers, on TV, etc.  Here’s a sampling of some previous media appearances by our fabulous symposium speakers:

David Schwartz
Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image


Darrell M. West
Vice President, Governance Studies and Director, Center for Technology Innovation, Brookings Institution

Jon Grinspan
Doctoral Candidate, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

Zephyr Teachout
Associate Professor, Fordham Law School

Sarah Igo
Associate Professor of History, Sociology, and Political Science, Vanderbilt University

Jon Cohen
Director of Polling, The Washington Post


David Becker
Director of Election Initiatives, Pew Center on the States

Thad E. Hall
Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Utah

You can also check out our latest podcast to get a preview of each session from our moderators—Lemelson Center Senior Historian Joyce Bedi, Lemelson Center Deputy Director Jeff Brodie, Political History Curator Larry Bird, and me. Did you enjoy learning about our speakers and their research? Come see and hear the real thing this weekend!