About Eric Hintz

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

“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!

Political Machines

Well, it’s mid-September and we’re deep into the 2012 presidential campaign. Active campaigning for the primaries began well over a year ago in the summer of 2011, and as usual the campaign season has been nasty, brutish, and long.  Are you suffering from PCF—Presidential Campaign Fatigue? Fortunately, the Lemelson Center has an antidote.

On November 2 and 3, the Lemelson Center is marking this election year by presenting “Political Machines: Innovations in Campaigns and Elections,” a symposium that examines the role of invention and technology in electoral politics. Through this lens, we will temporarily shift the focus away from today’s candidates and issues to examine the critical role that “political machinery” such as campaign advertisements, voting machines, and automated opinion polls plays in our democracy. When these technologies work well, they often go unnoticed; when they fail (e.g., hanging chads, “Dewey Beats Truman!”), the consequences can be momentous.

The symposium will be held on November 2–3, 2012, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. All events will be free and open to the public. Our sessions will employ formats typically seen on the campaign trail, including a keynote address, stump speeches, and interactive “town hall” Q&A sessions with our speakers. Audience members will also be able to vote on questions posed during the symposium, using a handheld audience response system or “clicker” provided by our technology partners at Meridia. Watch out, Oprah!

So who’s speaking? “Political Machines” will bring together scholars, government policymakers, campaign strategists, and members of the news media to focus on the historic and contemporary role of technology in various aspects of the electoral process, including Advertising, Campaigning, Polling, and Voting. Here’s a sneak peek at our sessions and speakers:

Advertising: Friday, Nov. 2, 8:00–9:30pm

Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower was the first presidential candidate to make use of thirty-second television ads, in 1952. Courtesy of www.thelivingroomcandidate.org.

In our Advertising session, David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, will present selections from his online exhibit, The Living Room Candidate, which features over 300 television commercials from every presidential election since 1952. Schwartz will examine the persuasive techniques employed in various historical ads and explore the role of various technological platforms—from biographical films to thirty-second television ads to YouTube—in the evolution of political advertising.

Keynote Address: Saturday, Nov. 3, 10:30–11:30am

After some introductory remarks by my boss, Arthur Molella, our keynote speaker will be Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. In a wide-ranging address, West will set the table for the sessions to follow by describing the historical, contemporary, and future role of technology and innovation in the electoral process and in governance.

Campaigning: Saturday, Nov. 3, 11:30–12:30pm

How have candidates employed innovative campaign techniques and new technologies to deliver their messages, raise money, and garner grassroots support from voters? This session will examine the technology and material culture of campaigning—from buttons and hand-painted convention signs to the internet. One of our featured speakers will be Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor at Fordham Law School and, formerly, director of internet organizing with “Dean for America.” Teachout pioneered in using the internet and social media platforms during Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and coauthored a book about her experience, Mousepads, Shoe Leather, and Hope: Lessons from the Howard Dean Campaign for the Future of Internet Politics.

In 1964, GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater used this clever can in his unsuccessful campaign against Lyndon B. Johnson. Courtesy of NMAH.

Polling: Saturday, Nov. 3, 2:00–3:00pm

Pioneering pollster George Gallup.

How have candidates and journalists utilized innovations in polling and statistical analysis to discern the mood of the electorate? In turn, how have citizens come to trust polling data as a reliable source of information? In this session, Vanderbilt professor Sarah Igo, author of The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, will describe the emergence of modern public opinion research in the 1930s among door-to-door pollsters like George Gallup and Bud Roper. For a more contemporary view, Jon Cohen, director of polling at the Washington Post, will describe what it’s like to use automated phone banks and statistical software packages as a 21st-century pollster.

Voting: Saturday, Nov. 3, 3:30–4:30pm

What are the technologies that underpin the right to vote—our most cherished democratic institution? In this session, we will examine the current state of election administration and explore a multitude of web-based and mobile technologies that may someday transform how we register, receive our ballots, and cast our votes. For example, David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Center on the States, will describe efforts to improve our DMV databases and other technological processes involved in voter registration and identification. Also, University of Utah professor Thad E. Hall will describe how we may someday cast our ballots, as detailed in his book Point, Click, and Vote: The Future of Internet Voting.

The Votomatic punched-card recorder and its confusing “butterfly ballots” were at the center of the controversial 2000 Bush-Gore election. This particular voting machine was collected by curators from the Museum’s Division of Political History. Courtesy of NMAH.

Book Signings; Objects Out of Storage: Saturday, Nov. 3—times TBA

For the 1980 Reagan-Carter campaign, Herman Silvers and Cornel Tanassy wrote the single, “Hello Ronnie, Good-bye Jimmy.” Courtesy of NMAH Archives Center.

In addition, on Saturday, November 3, we will schedule some book signings with our speakers and bring out some classic campaign materials from the Museum’s collections so visitors can get a closer look. For example, we’ve pulled some amazing presidential campaign tunes from the Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music.

Here at the Lemelson Center, we believe that invention and innovation are everywhere … even in campaigns and elections. So if you’re tired of the standard campaign coverage and want to look at this election from a different perspective, we hope you’ll join us on November 2 and 3 for an exploration of our “Political Machines.”

In Residence: The Lemelson Center 2012 Fellows

Our fabulous Lemelson Center Fellows, left to right: Matthew Hockenberry, Hallie Lieberman, Steven Wilf, and Aimi Hamraie. Photo courtesy of Eric Hintz.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is that I get to coordinate the Lemelson Center’s Fellows Program. The Fellows Program is one of the many ways that we fulfill the research component of our mission, “To foster an appreciation for the central role of invention and innovation in the history of the United States.” Essentially, the Center puts its money where its mouth is—we offer paid fellowships (read: $$$) to encourage historians, museum professionals, authors, documentary filmmakers, and all manner of researchers to come to the Museum, spend time with us, and use our world class invention collections. Our fellows in turn take their findings and pen articles, write books, build exhibits, and produce films on invention, innovation, and technology. Since 1995, the Center has hosted over 50 fellows, who are now alumni of the program.  That’s a lot of “fostering.”

In a typical year, we name anywhere from three to five fellows, and they come whenever their schedules allow; thus, their times of residence almost never overlap. Well that changed this summer when we had four (4!) Lemelson Center fellows in residence simultaneously! They are:

  • Aimi Hamraie, Ph.D. candidate, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Emory University.  Aimi is exploring issues related to universal design and disability. She will be examining several collections, including: the Accessible Snowboard collection, the Van Phillips collection, Safko International papers, and the Hernandez-Rebollar collections. She will also be working with the Smithsonian Accessibility Office to understand how universal design considerations have been built into past exhibitions and the Museum itself.
  • Matthew Hockenberry, Ph.D. candidate, Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University.  Matthew is examining the global supply chains used in the manufacturing of telegraph and telephone technologies from approximately 1876-1926 He will examine several collections, including the Western Union papers, the Anglo-American Telegraph Company collections, and the papers of Western Electric founder, Elisha Gray.
  • Hallie Lieberman, Ph.D. candidate, Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hallie is exploring the technological history of sexual aids. Lieberman will explore familiar collections in new ways—for example, she will examine the trade catalogs of the BF Goodrich rubber companies for information on condoms (vs. tires) and literature from appliance-maker Hamilton Beach for information on vibrators (vs. toasters). She will also examine the Museum’s HIV/AIDS collections and our extensive periodical collections to track the socio-cultural impact of sexual aids.
  • Steven Wilf, professor and associate dean, University of Connecticut Law School.  Steven, a legal historian, is conducting research for his forthcoming book with Cambridge University Press, tentatively titled: Intellectual Property Law in America: A Legal and Cultural History. The book traces the history of American intellectual property law from its beginnings in the 18th century through the digital age and describes how patent, copyright, and trademark laws serve to prompt, direct, or even constrain innovation. Wilf will examine runs of invention-oriented periodicals and IP documentation in several of the Museum’s collections, including the Telescoping Shopping Cart Collection; the Eisler Engineering Company Records; the Serge A. Scherbatskoy Papers; the Arthur Ehrat Papers; and the Leo H. Baekeland Papers.

The Lemelson Center fellows and staff talk shop over breakfast. Photo courtesy of Eric Hintz.

Having this many fellows in the Museum all at once is a rare event, like the Transit of Venus, or the Cubs winning the World Series. So to mark the occasion and foster a sense of intellectual community, we recently gathered the fellows and a few Museum staff with similar intellectual interests to talk shop at the Constitution Café. For example, Aimi talked universal design with Beth Ziebarth, director of the SI’s Accessibility Program, while Matthew talked supply chains with Work and Industry curator Peter Liebhold. We all sipped coffee, ate muffins, and enjoyed each other’s company.  (A big thank you to Tanya Garner for organizing the meet-up.)

Before signing off, I should tell you that my interest in the Fellows Program extends beyond a simple line item in my job description. You see, to paraphrase an old commercial by the Hair Club for Men, “I’m not only the Fellows Program coordinator, but I’m also a client!” Back in 2007, as a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, I was fortunate to receive a 10-week Lemelson Center Fellowship to conduct research for my dissertation (now book project) on American independent inventors. So I’m very proud to be counted among a distinguished group of alumni fellows and to serve now as the steward of our outstanding Fellows Program.

So congratulations to all of our past and present Lemelson Center Fellows.  And to our future fellows, I’ll teach you the secret handshake…

Re-Discovering the Lost Art of Tinkering

My wife Emma took this picture of her broken dresser with the missing middle drawer.  It’s a scornful reminder of my mechanical ineptitude.

An un-repaired dresser with missing drawer. It mocks me. (Photo courtesy of Emma Hintz)

One day last year, the middle drawer started sticking.  I attempted to fix it, but it was a bad scene – mangled metal tracking and ball bearings rolling all over the floor.  Emma quickly sized up my limited abilities and put the broken drawer out on the curb on garbage day – it would end up in a landfill.  Eventually, Emma will lose patience with this two-drawer dresser and it will get discarded too.

Maybe it’s a cliché that a bookish historian like me is not so mechanically inclined.  But this episode got me thinking about the lost art of tinkering, sustainability, and what it might mean for future generations of inventors.

The history of invention is filled with stories of young inventors honing their mechanical abilities by fixing broken stuff.  For example, as a young girl, toy inventor and GirlTech CEO Janese Swanson learned to repair her family’s broken appliances because they lived on a tight budget.  She discovered that tinkering was fun – she later took apart an old mechanical typewriter and re-arranged the keys so she could type in her own secret code!  This kind of tinkering is basic training for inventors.  Through tinkering, budding inventors come to understand the properties of motors, gears, and electrical circuits.  They sharpen their manual dexterity and what Eugene Ferguson has called the “mind’s eye” – the ability to envision various technical configurations in the inventor’s imagination prior to actually building them.

We used to be a nation of tinkerers – just ask two of our former Lemelson Center Fellows.  As Kathy Franz has observed, tinkerers reinvented the early automobile, developing new accessories to customize their famously standardized and mass-produced Ford Model T’s.  Similarly, Kristen Haring, has described the fraternal technical community that coalesced around tinkering HAM radio operators between the 1930s and 1970s.  In both of these examples, tinkering was more than just a technical matter.  It was a hobby, a means of self-expression, and the genesis of new social communities.  Tinkering was not just practical – it was pleasurable.

Since then, it has become more difficult for the average person to be a successful tinkerer.  This isn’t entirely our fault.  In the 1920s, Ford’s competitor, General Motors, famously adopted a strategy of planned obsolescence, in which the firm introduced the now familiar “annual model change.”  Thus, instead of tinkering and fixing up your old car, consumers were enticed to trade up and buy a new car.  This strategy now permeates the world of personal computers, software, and consumer electronics.  If a laptop computer or cell phone lasts more than 5 or 6 years, it’s a dinosaur.  And good luck trying to get Microsoft to support Windows XP or any operating system more than one or two generations old.  As our technologies have become more complex while changing more rapidly, they have also become more disposable.  As a consequence, many of us never learned the importance of tinkering (see Hintz, chest of drawers).

This does not bode well for our economy or the sustainability of our planet.  If changes in our patterns of consumption have discouraged tinkering, then we are denying future inventors both the opportunity and the raw materials for their hands-on training.  Plus, when people like me do not repair their broken things, they end up in landfills while straining our supply of natural resources to produce their replacements.  It’s something of a Catch-22.  Our policymakers encourage investments in research and innovation to help us dig out of a looming environmental crisis.  And yet, that quest for relentless innovation, the drive for more and more new things, discourages the very culture of tinkering that would train the next generation of inventors who will be expected to invent us out of trouble.

Fortunately, our society is rediscovering the lost art of tinkering.  In our current era of fiscal austerity and environmental awareness, consumers are now more inclined to fix their broken things, rather than buying replacements.  A series of grassroots “fixer collectives” have sprung up all over the world; for example, in Amsterdam, the Dutch government has underwritten bi-monthly “Repair Cafés” where the mechanically challenged can have their appliances repaired free-of-charge by volunteer tinkerers who just like to fix things.  Web-based businesses like RepairClinic.com now stockpile and sell discontinued appliance parts and provide troubleshooting guides to help DIYers fix their household items.  And a half dozen Tech Shop franchises have sprung up in major cities, in which aspiring inventors can pay a monthly membership fee to tinker with the shop’s tools and equipment.  Meanwhile, in the realm of sustainability, the ethos of tinkering is gaining wider cultural traction, as the traditional three Rs have been supplemented by a fourth (Reduce-Reuse-Recycle-REPAIR).  There’s even a children’s song about it.

Kids and families are encouraged to tinker in Spark!Lab. (Photo by Kate Wiley)

Here at the Lemelson Center, we try to foster this attitude among our visitors, especially in Spark!Lab.  We want our visitors to get their hands dirty, to try things, to break something and re-build it, to experience the pleasures of tinkering.  In our own way, by providing an environment where tinkering can flourish, we are helping build a nation of future inventors.


But these lessons are obviously lost on me.  Just ask my wife, whose clothes are in a pile on the floor.