Sorting It Out

NMAH, Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection #: 1123 Box 1 Folder 11

Elmer Gates's Chevy Chase, Maryland Laboratory, undated. NMAH, Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection

Tucked away in the quiet residential neighborhood of Chevy Chase, Maryland, psychologist and inventor Elmer Gates worked in his personal laboratory at the turn of the 20th century. Though he is an obscure figure in the history of science today, Gates (1859-1923) was known in his lifetime for his original ideas about experimental psychology, his many eclectic inventions, and his strong interest in educating children. He was particularly influenced by the beliefs of Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (1792-1852), the creator of kindergarten. Froebel’s educational toys, known as the Froebel Gifts, were designed to give children the opportunity for self-directed exploration and learning through play.

Patent drawing (US patent 741,903), educational toy or game apparatus, October 20, 1903. NMAH Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection

In 1903, Gates patented an educational toy (U.S. Patent 741,903) that was very much in the Froebel mold. Still in widespread use today, it was a wooden box with openings for sorting different geometrical shapes (e.g., square, circular, triangular). Gates expected children to “discriminate” between different geometric shapes, so each piece fit into only one matching hole. “This mind-training toy,” he wrote in his patent application, “can be advantageously used to amuse and instruct children even before they can speak a word or at least after they have commenced to learn to talk.”

The wooden sorting box was part of Gates’s plan for his children’s education. This included five training stages—image stage, idea stage, concept stage, reason stage, and thought stage (the box was used in the image stage). Elmer Jr., Roger, Donald, and Phebe tested Gates’s prototypes in the Chevy Chase lab, and Gates, in turn, tested the children. In a November 16, 1902, Chicago Tribune article, John Watkins, Jr., wrote of visiting Gates’s Chevy Chase laboratory where “in a well lighted room, several little ones were at work amid growing plants, and in the brightness of a benevolent smile from a bust of Froebel.” In the same article, Gates said that he “wanted his children nourished by science, trained by science, developed by science, taught by science, and schooled by science.”

Gates theorized that repeated psychological tests would increase mental skill, so he created other (unpatented) apparatus to test his children. These included a ring-toss game; a color wheel to teach young eyes to discriminate between various shades and tints; an electric sonometer (an instrument that measured the sensitivity of hearing) to train their ears; an aesthesiometer (a device for measuring tactile sensitivity) to train their sense of touch; and a pendulum chronograph (a type of watch) to evaluate muscular movement.

Photograph, wooden sorting box, circa 1900. NMAH Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection

No doubt even Gates’s well trained and discriminate small charges managed to fit a square peg into a round hole.

These images provide a glimpse into Gates’s educational training regime, including a photo of his daughter Phebe demonstrating the wooden sorting box. Read more about Gates in the Archives Center’s finding aid.

I’ll Take That Drink To Go!

Inventors draw and sketch as part of their process of working out an idea. Drawing moves the idea from the inventor’s mind to the paper, making it seem more possible. Sketches and drawings can also convince others that something will work—before it is actually built or manufactured. This makes them a particularly important part of the patent application package.

A great example of this critical supporting material is found in the A. Bernie Wood Papers in the Museum’s Archives Center. Arthur Bernie Wood (1921-1986) was an advertising designer, consultant, and inventor actively involved in the development of the restaurant franchise industry in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Particularly notable is his work in creating, promoting, and merchandising the new fast-food corporate image of McDonald’s (read more about Wood in the finding aid to his papers).

In addition to his work for restaurant chains, Wood also held a number of patents, including one for a “Beverage Cup-Holder for Motor-Vehicle Doors” (U.S. Patent 3,128,983). Today we take cup holders in vehicles for granted—I think my minivan has ten cup holders, perhaps more. But this indispensable feature wasn’t common in the early 1960s. Involved as he was in the growing fast-food industry, it might seem obvious that Wood would wonder where drive-thru patrons might put their drinks as they drove off with a sack of burgers and fries. Wood stated in his patent, “Apart from the floor of the vehicle there hardly is a level place where on to set a cup without fear of it being upset.” While other solutions to this problem were already available, Wood believed he could do better.

What makes Wood’s patent interesting to me is not the idea of a cup holder itself, but the amount of archival documentation supporting it. Patent “jackets” are specialized folders that contain standard information such as patent number, actions, references, assignment, application serial number, and fees paid. The jacket also typically contains correspondence with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, foreign patent and trademark offices, the inventor/designer, company attorneys, and other company officials; as well as drawings and photographs. In Wood’s case, the patent jacket contains substantial sketches and prototypes that trace the evolution of his idea for a practical cup holder.

Wood’s sketches and paper prototypes provide insight into his inventive process and help us understand how he worked out his idea. He created numerous paper templates and annotated those with measurements and directions on how to fold and assemble the cup holder. The images seen here include pencil sketches, which were first transformed into paper templates, and then into finished patent drawings. The black-and-white image shows the beverage cup holder in Wood’s car.


We don’t know if Wood’s cup holder was ever manufactured or if the patent was licensed. But I feel certain that Wood would have loved my ten cup holder minivan.

Follow A. Bernie Wood’s invention process–from sketch to patent to beverage on the go–below:

From the Archives: Daytime Talk and Invention

Jacob Rabinow (1910-1999) and Marion O’Brien Donovan (1917-1998) have three things in common: both were inventors, both have collections in the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center, and both appeared on the talk show, “Not For Women Only.”  “Not for Women Only” started in 1968 in New York City and was syndicated in 1972. The series examined social issues with experts and was one of the first talk-shows to involve the audience. Highly rated and syndicated in markets around the country, “Not for Women Only” was cited by the New York Times as one of the most “provocative shows in the entire early morning schedule.”  Over 1,000 episodes aired and Barbara Walters hosted the show from 1971-1976.

Rabinow and Donovan’s inventive lives intersected in 1975, when they both appeared in two episodes titled “Inventors and Inventions.” Taped over two days, the “Inventors and Inventions” episodes featured inventors Rabinow, Donovan, and Henry Klepp. Each inventor discusses and demonstrates his/her inventions and they have a broader discussion about the United States patenting system, which Rabinow excels at explaining.  In fact, he oozes invention “cool” and tells Barbara Walters that his work is fun. Not surprisingly, Rabinow would later write a book titled Inventing for Fun and Profit, in 1989. Donovan discusses some of her inventions—the Boater, a failed cigarette package, and a dispensing container. The latter, a box of laundry detergent with a dispensing mechanism (US Patent 2,811,281) demonstrates Donovan’s ability to create clever solutions for household needs. With ease, Donovan dispenses laundry detergent from a heavy box, accurately measuring the amount needed.  Today, some laundry detergent is available with a tap dispenser or precision dosing pumps.

Donovan’s inventive career is framed by her invention in 1949 of the “Boater,” a diaper cover (US Patent 2,556,800) made of surplus parachute nylon, and her invention in 1993 of DentaLoop (US Patent 4,523,600), individual precut circles of two-ply dental floss. As an inventor and entrepreneur, Donovan created products that addressed problems in personal health, beauty, and household needs.

Rabinow’s inventive career includes a variety of mechanical, optical, and electrical devices such as mechanisms for the automatic regulation of clocks and watches, an automatic letter-sorting machine, a magnetic particle clutch, magnetic disc memory, and the straight-line phonograph. Rabinow’s work with Optical Character Recognition, or OCR (US Patent 2,933,246), was ground breaking. It allowed machines to examine all kinds of text, regardless of font, and make a series of judgments that determined best matches with standard characters. Rabinow worked at the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) and later founded his own company, RABCO. In 1998, Rabinow received the Lemelson-MIT Life Time Achievement Award for his numerous contributions.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rabinow in 1998. At 88 years old he still oozed invention “cool,” sharing his knowledge and letting me know that his inventive life had been a lot of fun. The “Not for Women Only” episodes form part of the Marion O’Brien Donovan Papers. To learn more about Marion O’Brien Donovan or Jacob Rabinow, visit the Archives Center.