About Monica Smith

Monica is the Exhibition Program Manager at the Lemelson Center and the Project Director for "Places of Invention."

Faster, higher, stronger: Science and engineering behind the Olympic Winter Games

“Citius, Altius, Fortius”—translated as “faster, higher, stronger”—is the motto of the modern Olympic Games. This phrase could also sum up the goals of scientists, engineers, and other inventors working with athletes to develop new and improved sports equipment, clothing, and even technical skills. In the Olympic games, viewers around the world see the latest science and technology in action as skiers, skaters, and sledders take to the slopes, rinks, and tracks in Sochi, Russia, to compete for quadrennial Olympics glory. This post first appeared on O Say Can You See.

Citius, Altius, Fortius; Faster, Higher, Stronger

Citius, Altius, Fortius; Faster, Higher, Stronger

To enhance your TV watching from the couch, check out this great series of free short videos about Science and Engineering of the Olympic Winter Games 2014 produced by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in partnership with NBC Learn.

As summarized in the introduction, “this enlightening 10-part video collection, narrated by NBC Sports’ Liam McHugh, delves into the physics, engineering, chemistry, design and mathematics behind the ‘world’s foremost sporting event.’” The videos feature U.S. Olympians and Paralympians whose names you may know, alongside scientists and engineers whose important research has been funded by NSF. Complementary educational materials are provided for the budding scientists and engineers in our lives.

A poster from the first Winter Olympic Games which were held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A poster from the first Winter Olympic Games which were held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Personally, I am fascinated by the Winter Olympics, the first of which was held in Chamonix, France, in 1924. Generally I favor the figure skating and alpine skiing part because I’ve experienced the pain and pleasure of trying them myself—so I played those videos first.

Skating is all about physics, which Olympic hopefuls like Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner make look easy as they gracefully jump and spin on the ice. The skiing video features Julia Mancuso, who has won multiple Olympic medals including a bronze in Sochi, and Heath Calhoun, an Iraq veteran and 2010 and 2014 Paralympics contender. Also stars are the scientists and engineers behind them, like Dr. Kam Leang of the University of Nevada, Reno, who uses nano-scale carbon tubes to help reduce vibration in skis.

A commemorative stamp for the 1932 Winter Olympic Games held in Lake Placid, New York. It is in the collection of the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum.

A commemorative stamp for the 1932 Winter Olympic Games held in Lake Placid, New York. It is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

Of course, during the Olympics TV marathon, I often end up watching less popular sports, too, that are sometimes ignored in the U.S. during intervening years. The video about the engineering behind bobsledding, featuring U.S. team members Steve Holcomb and Steve Langton, raised my interest in watching that more carefully. I didn’t realize that bobsledding is one of the most dangerous sports, and the video illustrates numerous issues about weight, stability, speed, and drag that engineers must address to meet the sport’s official requirements.

Bonnie Blair's speed skin from the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France

Bonnie Blair’s speed skin from the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.

Check out Shani Davis’ cutting-edge speed skating suit in the video clip “Engineering Competition Suits.” Perhaps one day, he will donate his suit to the Museum to join Bonnie Blair’s speed skating suit from the 1992 Olympics, which was cutting-edge in its time. We also have a pair of Apolo Anton Ohno’s speed skates among other great Olympics-related objects in the Museum’s sports collections. Doubtless NBC Olympics coverage will mention more than once that Blair and Ohno are the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympic athletes, with six and eight medals respectively, while Davis has won two gold medals at the last two Olympics and is competing in Sochi for more.

Shaun White's outfit and snowboard.

Shaun White’s outfit and snowboard.

The short video about the physics of snowboarding featuring Shaun White reminded me a lot of skateboarding, which the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation featured during Innoskate 2013, albeit on a much smaller, temporary half pipe built simply as a demonstration stage. Interestingly, White is both a medal-winning skateboarder and snowboarder and competed in the latter sport in Sochi. I should note that the Museum’s sports collection includes a Burton snowboard donated by White as well as an accessible snowboard invented by then-students Nathan Connolly and Matt Capozzi, who were featured in the Lemelson Center’s Invention at Play exhibition.

An accessible snowboard invented by then-students Nathan Connolly and Matt Capozzi, who were featured in the Lemelson Center's Invention at Play exhibition.

An accessible snowboard invented by then-students Nathan Connolly and Matt Capozzi, who were featured in the Lemelson Center’s Invention at Play exhibition. (0174706).

If this year’s NSF-NBC video series just whets your appetite, be sure to watch their previous collaboration, the “Science of the Olympic Winter Games 2010,” with informational segments about the science behind skiing, ski jumping, ice skating, and more.

We can thank Baron Pierre de Coubertin for reinventing the Olympic Games starting in 1896. An aristocratic French educator, he was inspired by ancient Greek culture and also the opportunity to use sports as a way to encourage intercultural communication and trust. The three core values of the Olympic Movement are Excellence, Respect, and Friendship, the latter defined in part as “build[ing] a peaceful and better world thanks to sport, through solidarity, team spirit, joy, and optimism.” Hopefully this year’s games in Sochi will live up to these values that helped spawn this international sports festival 118 years ago.

U.S. stamp commemorating the centennial of the Olympic Games.

U.S. stamp commemorating the centennial of the Olympic Games.

Inventing an Exhibition, Part III

Over the past two years the Lemelson Center team has been working diligently with exhibition designers at Roto and museum evaluators at Randi Korn and Associates (RK&A) to develop and test our next exhibition, Places of Invention (POI). If you’ve read previous Bright Ideas blog posts, you may know that this exhibition is scheduled to open in the Lemelson Hall of Invention when the National Museum of American History’s West Wing reopens in mid-2015 after extensive renovations.

The POI exhibition will take visitors on a journey through time and place to discover the stories of people who lived, worked, played, collaborated, adapted, took risks, solved problems, and sometimes failed—all in the pursuit of something new. POI features six American communities—Hartford, Connecticut, late 1800s; Hollywood, California, 1930s; Medical Alley, Minnesota, 1950s; the Bronx, New York, 1970s; Silicon Valley, California, 1970s-80s; and Fort Collins, Colorado, 2010s—representing a surprising array of people, places, time periods, and technologies. The exhibition examines what can happen when the right mix of inventive people, untapped resources, and inspiring surroundings come together.

In July 2012 and then again in March 2013 I wrote blog posts reflecting on how our exhibition development process mirrors the inventive process. Continuing the series, I’d like to share more updates here about recent POI project activities, particularly about our latest round of evaluation with visitors.

By May 2013, we completed the exhibition’s conceptual design phase (known at the Smithsonian as the 35% design phase). Roto submitted renderings and design specifications for official review by various Smithsonian departments regarding accessibility, security, lighting, electrical needs, conservation issues, and more. Museum director John Gray and senior staff members reviewed and approved the exhibition content and conceptual design, giving us enthusiastic thumbs up to proceed.

Since then the design development phase (called 65% design) has been underway. During this period the Center’s exhibition team has been collaborating closely with Roto to hone the look and feel of the POI exhibition, focusing on design details, developing more interactive elements, finalizing objects and images, creating exhibit case layouts, and writing exhibition labels.

We conducted round two of formative evaluation with RK&A at the Museum on July 8-10, 2013. Evaluation is funded by the POI project’s National Science Foundation grant. Following up on similar testing done for other interactives during round one in January 2013, the objectives of this evaluation were to explore:

  • how visitors use three prototype interactives;
  • how visitors interpret these prototypes;
  • whether there are any barriers to visitors’ use of the interactives;
  • whether visitors understand the relationships among people-place-invention and 21st century skills (e.g. collaboration, creativity, communication, flexibility, and risk-taking); and
  • how visitors interpret what this POI exhibition is about.
The introductory panel at the entrance to the POI prototyping space in the Museum’s first floor east corridor.

The introductory panel at the entrance to the POI prototyping space in the Museum’s first floor east corridor.

Roto set up three stations of prototype interactives, with minimal contextual materials, in the first floor East corridor of the Museum.  Stanchions and moveable wall panels demarcated the small testing area, with an introductory panel about the exhibition displayed right outside. RK&A evaluators recruited walk-in adult visitors who were alone or in groups of adults and children to participate in the study.

Inside the prototyping area on day one of testing.

Inside the prototyping area on day one of testing.

The activities we tested were:

  • an interactive about how early pacemakers worked for the 1950s Medical Alley, MN case study about the invention of the external, wearable pacemaker;
  • an activity to try out DJ scratching as part of the 1970s Bronx, NY case study about the birth of hip-hop music;
  • an activity for the exhibition’s Hub called Build Your Own Place of Invention, where visitors were encouraged to think about the conditions needed for their hypothetical place of invention, such as what people, spaces, or resources they would need.

For three days, the RK&A team observed and interviewed 48 groups of visitors (78 adults and 55 children ages 6-17) as they tried the different components without any coaching. Roto and Lemelson Center staff members were on hand to fix any mechanical issues and generally observe visitors as unobtrusively as possible. At the end of each testing day, we met with RK&A to debrief about visitor actions and interview responses and then made tweaks to the interactives for the next day’s testing.

The DJ scratching interactive on day 3 of testing

The DJ scratching interactive on day 3 of testing.

In August, RK&A produced a final report based on the data they collected, providing information about their interviews and specific recommendations for further interactives development.  The report addressed both successes and challenges, including what visitors considered the most enjoyable, least enjoyable, confusing, and intriguing aspects of the exhibit interactives, and their understanding (or lack thereof) of the exhibition messages. Finding that “place” is still conceptually difficult for many visitors, RK&A shared recommendations about how and where to define and visually represent place in the exhibition to reinforce our interpretation of “place” and its relationship to inventors and invention.

Visitors trying out the pacemaker interactive on day three of testing.

Visitors trying out the pacemaker interactive on day three of testing.

The evaluation process has been extremely informative, productive, and—for me as the project director—essential. Although the exhibition budget is tight, the money spent now on formative evaluation means the designers and fabricators will need less time and money to tweak and revamp the exhibition components in the future. Observing and talking with visitors on the Museum floor really pushed the Lemelson Center and Roto to rethink assumptions about how they use and interpret our creations. The resulting tweaking process—incrementally during the testing days and ongoing since then as we continue to build upon the report’s recommendations—will make the final exhibition much more meaningful and engaging for our visitors.

The Build Your Own Place of Invention activity on day three of testing.

The Build Your Own Place of Invention activity on day three of testing.

Who Invented Labor Day?

1956 Labor Day Stamp

1956 U.S. Postal Service 3 cent stamp honoring Labor Day – in the National Postal Museum’s collections.

Labor Day—the American holiday on the first Monday of September—generally marks the end of summer, the beginning of the school year, and—in certain circles—an arbitrary cut-off point for wearing white. It’s frequently celebrated by taking a long-weekend trip, firing up the backyard grill at home, or going to see a Labor Day parade. Of course, this is assuming you’re lucky enough to actually get the Monday off from work.  As I contemplated my holiday weekend activities, I began to wonder: Who invented Labor Day?

Matthew Maguire and Peter J. McGuire

Matthew Maguire and Peter J. McGuire (undated) – from Department of Labor

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find several informative articles about the history of Labor Day featured on the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) website. Apparently, as so often happens with invention, there are disputes about who came up with the idea first. DOL acknowledges that two men with coincidentally similar names, Peter J. McGuire and Matthew Maguire, have received credit for suggesting a holiday to honor American workers.

Both men were well-respected union leaders working in the New York-New Jersey region during the 1880s—a very active period in the U.S. labor rights movement. Peter McGuire founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and co-founded, with Samuel Gompers, the American Federation of Labor (better known simply as the AFL). Matthew Maguire served as a secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, and also as the secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York.  Although the tide seems to be turning toward giving Maguire the primary credit, both men were clearly influential in speaking up on behalf of their fellow workers.

American Federation of Labor label

American Federation of Labor label (circa 1900) – from Wikipedia

The Central Labor Union of New York held the first Labor Day celebrations on September 5 in 1882 (see lithograph) and 1883. The following year the union shifted the holiday to the first Monday of the month. This tradition generally spread as state governments began to officially put the holiday on their calendars. Finally in 1894, the federal government made Labor Day a national holiday for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. According to the DOL, which is celebrating its centennial this year, the holiday is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

1882 New York City Labor Day Parade

Lithograph of 1882 Labor Day parade in New York City – from Wikimedia Commons

1900 Labor Day Parade in Buffalo

1900 Labor Day parade in Buffalo, New York – courtesy of the Library of Congress

For more about the holiday and related labor history, check out the American Enterprise exhibition blog post by historian Paul Buhle on the National Museum of American History’s website. You can also read a Smithsonian story about Labor Day’s secret societies connection. If you’re a social studies teacher, you might be interested also in the Library of Congress labor-themed educational resources.

Happy Labor Day!

President Woodrow Wilson (Left) with American Federation of Labor founder and long-time president, Samuel Gompers (Center), and DOL Secretary William B Wilson at an undated Labor Day Rally

President Woodrow Wilson (Left) with American Federation of Labor founder and long-time president, Samuel Gompers (Center), and DOL Secretary William B Wilson at an undated Labor Day Rally. – From the Department of Labor website

Manny’s Medical Alley

Recently I traveled to Minnesota to conduct additional research for the Places of Invention exhibition about the early days of the region’s medical-device industry now known as “Medical Alley.” This wasn’t just any research trip, though. Thanks to a personal introduction from David Rhees of the Bakken Museum, I had the special opportunity to meet one of the region’s pioneers, Manuel (“Manny”) Villafaña. You may not know his name, but you’ve probably heard of at least one of the seven medical-device companies he has founded in Minneapolis, including Cardiac Pacemakers Inc. (CPI) and St. Jude Medical.

Manny and I first chatted briefly on the phone in early June, while he was waiting for a business flight to Rome and I was in my office in D.C. I had read a number of articles and transcripts of oral history interviews with him and many of his fellow Medical Alley pioneers. Still, there is nothing like meeting with inventors and innovators in person, hearing their anecdotes and getting to know them better. I always leave these conversations feeling inspired.

On June 25, I hurried from the airport to Manny’s Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis to join him for dinner. (Yes, the restaurant is named for him!)  Manny greeted me warmly from his booth, where he was waiting for me patiently with customary glass of milk in hand. Over Caesar salads, a huge shared NY strip steak, and even bigger “Manny’s brownie” for dessert, we discussed highlights from his fascinating life and career.

Manny Villafaña at St. Jude Medical, June 27, 2013

Manny Villafaña at St. Jude Medical, June 27, 2013

Born in 1940 to Puerto Rican parents, Manny grew up in a tough South Bronx, New York, neighborhood. A high-school graduate, Manny quickly showed his skills as a salesman. By his early 20s, Manny worked for Picker International selling medical products on behalf of many companies, including Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc. In 1967 Medtronic co-founder Earl Bakken and colleague Charlie Cuddihy flew out to New York and lured him away to help expand international distribution of Medtronic implantable cardiac pacemakers. Manny told me he’ll never forget the day he and his wife arrived in Minnesota for his new job. It was March 8 and he recalls the weatherman announcing the temperature as “15 degrees below zero with a negative 43 degree wind chill.” Welcome to Minneapolis!

Manny and Elizabeth Villafaña at his childhood home (undated). Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

Manny and Elizabeth Villafaña at his childhood home (undated). Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

Two days after our delicious steakhouse dinner, details about Manny’s early career in Medical Alley emerged during a great driving tour he gave me. He wanted to chronologically illustrate his career and show both the growth and proximity of his various companies. So we started by driving to the small former Medtronic site where Manny first worked in 1967. At that point the company had moved from the original garage headquarters where it was founded by Bakken and Palmer Hermundslie in 1949 to a building that was about 7,500 square-feet.

In 1971, Manny left Medtronic and founded CPI to develop a cardiac pacemaker he co-invented using a new lithium battery developed by engineer Wilson Greatbatch. Greatbatch, who I met in 1996, is best known for inventing the first commercially successful implantable pacemaker in 1958. Named after him and collaborating surgeon William Chardack, the Chardack-Greatbatch implantable pacemaker was licensed by Medtronic in 1960 and became the driving force behind that company’s success. About a decade later, Greatbatch’s latest battery invention became the basis for the success of Manny’s rival company CPI. As we sat in the parking lot by the 5,000 square-feet building where it was originally located, Manny told me that CPI’s first lithium battery-powered pacemaker is still running today—41 years later.

Once again as his company expanded, Manny decided to leave and start another venture, St. Jude Medical, in 1976. This time he focused on developing a mechanical heart valve, which became the industry’s gold standard. His new company moved into the old CPI office space after it moved across the highway to a bigger building. CPI (now owned by Boston Scientific) and St. Jude Medical remain Medtronic’s biggest competitors in the medical-device industry. Manny drove me to CPI’s and then St. Jude Medical’s headquarters, which are near each other today and dwarf the 5,000 square-feet industrial park buildings where they began.

We ran out of time that afternoon to drive by the sites of his other Minneapolis companies in intervening years—GV Medical, Helix Bio-Core, ATS Medical, and CABG Medical. However, he invited me and my colleague Kari Fantasia to meet him the following day at his newest venture, Kips Bay Medical. So we duly drove to the company’s 5,000 square-feet headquarters in an office park. [Notice a trend? He thinks that size is optimal for medical-device start-ups.]

Kari Fantasia, Monica Smith, and Manny Villafaña at Kips Bay Medical, June 28, 2013

Kari Fantasia, Monica Smith, and Manny Villafaña at Kips Bay Medical, June 28, 2013

Manny gave us a brief overview of technologies he has been involved in, from the Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker he sold for Medtronic to the St. Jude Medical heart valve he co-invented to today’s Kips Bay’s eSVS® Mesh that he believes will revolutionize coronary bypass surgery. Interestingly, his current company is named for the Kips Bay Boys Club in New York where he spent a lot of time as a kid and that he credits in part for his later success.

When I asked Manny “Why Minnesota?” for all of his companies, he answered: Where else are there 10,000 engineers all in one place with such medical device expertise? It’s a highly skilled, tight-knit, hard-working community and he clearly wouldn’t consider founding his companies anywhere else. Manny is very proud of his special relationships over the decades with other key Medical Alley pioneers, including his friend and mentor Dr. C. Walton Lillehei. Medical Alley has a long history of being a collaborative, inventive community indeed.

1985 photo of four cardiac pioneers who trained or worked in Medical Alley (left to right): Dr. Nazih Zudhi, Manny Villafaña, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, and Dr. Christiaan Barnard. Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

1985 photo of four cardiac pioneers who trained or worked in Medical Alley (left to right): Dr. Nazih Zudhi, Manny Villafaña, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, and Dr. Christiaan Barnard. Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

Rocket Scientist and Inventor Yvonne Brill

Rocket Scientist and Inventor Yvonne Brill. Photo via the Winnipeg Sun.

Yvonne Brill. Photo via the Winnipeg Sun.

I venture to guess that when most people hear “rocket scientist” either they envision a man wearing a lab coat or think of the phrase “It’s not rocket science” used in reference to comparatively easy tasks. In my years at the Lemelson Center I’ve had the advantage of meeting several fascinating rocket scientists, most of whom were women. Now, naturally, if you read my March blog “Girls Get Science and Invention,” you’re already aware of my particular interest in women inventors. In that light, I noticed a New York Times obituary about pioneering rocket scientist and inventor Yvonne Claeys Brill (born December, 30 1924—died March 27, 2013) and was intrigued to learn more about this recipient of the 2010 National Medal of Technology and Innovation “for innovation in rocket propulsion systems for geosynchronous and low earth orbit communication satellites, which greatly improved the effectiveness of space propulsion systems.”

Yvonne Brill receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2010 from President Obama.

Yvonne Brill receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2010 from President Obama. Photo via USPTO.

Unfortunately, her New York Times obituary received news coverage not so much because of Mrs. Brill’s amazing career accomplishments but rather because of the way the obituary was written…and then revised…due to initial complaints about its apparent sexism. The New Yorker, Slate, and other publications analyzed the “misguided obituary” that originally began: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” Two sentences later the obituary author added that she “was also a brilliant rocket scientist.” In the revised version, that latter statement replaced the beef stroganoff reference (which disappeared). However, as The New Yorker noted, you still had to read many paragraphs before finding out that, while raising three children, she was actually working part-time in the field before returning full-time and gaining fame for her satellite-related research.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Yvonne Claeys earned her B.Sc. in Mathematics from the University of Manitoba and her M.S. in Chemistry from the University of Southern California. She got a job at Douglas Aircraft and then shifted to the new field of rockets on the Project RAND contract. According to a 2009 MIT article, “she participated in pioneer studies that defined rocket propellant performance.” At RAND she also met her husband, William Franklin Brill, who was a research chemist. After marrying, they moved to the East Coast for his job, and her career path took her to, among others, a full-time job at Wright Aeronautical and part-time work at FMC Corporation during the aforementioned child-rearing years. Then, in 1966, she took a full-time job at RCA’s rocket subsidiary Astro Electronics where she patented her propulsion system for satellites, for which she gained international acclaim. Yvonne Brill’s projects included working on the propulsion systems for Tiros, the first weather satellite, and for Nova, a series of rockets designed for U.S. missions to the moon. From 1981-1983 she worked at NASA, then returned to RCA for three years. From 1986-1991 she was the propulsion manager for the International Maritime Satellite Organization in London until her retirement.

Tiros, a satellite invented by Yvonne Brill.

Tiros satellite. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Nova Rocket invented by Yvonne Brill. Photo via NASA.

Nova Rockets. Photo via NASA.

Thanks to career-focused obituaries about Yvonne Brill I found many interesting resources, including a 2005 interview conducted with her for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Mrs. Brill had received the SWE award in 1986 and was elected the next year into the National Academy of Engineering for her work advancing spacecraft propulsion technology and propellant performance. Other career accolades included: the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2001, given to non-Government employees whose contributions demonstrate ”a level of excellence that has made a profound or indelible impact to NASA mission success”; the 2002 Wylde Propulsion award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; the 2009 John Fritz Medal from the American Association of Engineering Societies; and induction in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010 for inventing the Dual Thrust Level Monopropellant Spacecraft Propulsion System (U.S. Patent #3,807,657).

Throughout her career, Brill touted the importance of encouraging girls and women to become scientists and engineers. In her 2005 SWE interview, she sort of swept aside concerns about herself dealing with a lot of resistance as a woman engineer, but she spoke of challenges facing women generally in the male-dominated field. She commented that “the number of women in the National Academy of Engineering since I was elected [in 1987] progressed from a great tenth of one percent to three percent over almost twenty years. So it’s a very inch-y slow movement.” I hope that girls will be inspired to follow in Yvonne Brill’s footsteps.

Girls Get Science (and Invention)

On Saturday, March 23, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a special evening program called “Girls Get Science,” which was sponsored by The Great Adventure Lab and took place at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland. The other panelists included my Smithsonian colleague Dr. Marguerite Toscano, a marine scientist and paleobiologist at the National Museum of Natural History, and Dr. Betsy Pugel, a physicist and electrical engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The audience consisted of about 40 parents (some of whom are also teachers) from the DC metro area with about 40 of their daughters who are in grades 2-6.

Girls participating in nanotech activities.

Participating in nanotechnology activities in Spark!Lab.

The panelists and parents participated in a lively and thought-provoking 75-minute Q&A session facilitated by Great Adventure Lab president Joan Rigdon about how to support and encourage girls’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) activities and possibly inspire them to pursue related careers. We talked a lot about the importance of having female role models (such as my fellow panelists!) from science, invention, and related fields. We also discussed ways to make STEM experiences more fun, social, interdisciplinary (including art, which makes it STEAM), and relevant to the “real world” to keep girls engaged through their teen years when typically their enthusiasm and participation wanes due to social and cultural pressures. While parents were discussing their potential futures, the daughters were in nearby classrooms totally engrossed in hands-on activities about basic robotics, video game programming, and engineering.

Girls inventing robots in Spark!Lab.

Inventing robots in Spark!Lab.

After the official Q&A, the panelists and parents joined the girls to see their inventive creations and talk more on-one for about 45 minutes. Several parents told me they had loved spending time previously with their children in the Lemelson Center’s Spark!Lab and asked eagerly when it would reopen [answer: late spring 2015 when the National Museum of American History’s west wing first floor reopens]. A girl, about 7-8 years old I’d bet (a key age for budding inventors), came up to me and quietly shared that she had been working on an invention at home but it had failed. I explained to her that failure is an important, in fact essential, part of the invention process and all inventors have to fail in order to learn. Indeed Thomas Edison is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Then I asked if she would go back to her invention and keep tinkering, and she said she would, she had a couple of ideas to try to make it work. While we were talking she was sticking a Spark!Lab pin onto her shirt very intently.

Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar, portraying in "Invention at Play."

Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar, portrayed in “Invention at Play.”

Since the Lemelson Center was founded in 1995, we’ve had the great fortune of researching, documenting, and highlighting an array of amazing historic and contemporary women inventors. One woman at the “Girls Get Science” event came up to tell me she was proud to know already about Kevlar® inventor Stephanie Kwolek, who I mentioned during the Q&A as one of my favorite women inventors I had the opportunity to meet. It turned out she learned about Kwolek while visiting the Center’s Invention at Play exhibition that I worked on as the project historian and later project director. Kwolek is one of 6 featured case studies in the exhibition, along with stories of other women inventors including Marjorie Stewart Joyner, Sally Fox, and Gertrude Elion, Patsy Sherman, Ruth Foster, Krysta Morlan, Ann Moore, and Lydia O’Leary, and Annetta Papadopoulos of the IDEO team.

Inventor Patricia Bath meets with female students.

Patricia Bath, inventor of the Laserphaco Probe, talks with female students during an Innovative Lives presentation.

Some of the women inventors above were participants in the Center’s Innovative Lives program series. You can read more about them there along with: Patricia Bath, inventor of the Laserphaco Probe for the treatment of cataracts; astronaut and electrical engineer Ellen Ochoa; and GirlTech founder Janese Swanson. For a sampling of additional stories, please read my colleagues’ thoughtful “Bright Ideas” blogs about Fresh Paper inventor Kavita Shukla and “Boater” diaper cover inventor Marion O’Brien Donovan, and referring to actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr at the end of a recent blog about Michael Jackson (yes, he was an inventor too!). Also, listen to some fascinating Inventive Voices podcasts both with women such as POPVOX.com co-founder Rachna Choudhry, NASA food scientist Vicki Kloeris, and neonatal products inventor Sharon Rogone, and about women like industrial psychologist Lillian Gilbreth, computer programmer Grace Hopper, and hair care products entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker. Finally, for more historical perspective, check out a 1999 article by Center senior historian Joyce Bedi titled “Exploring the History of Women Inventors.”

The Lemelson Center is always looking for more and different stories from and about women inventors and is interested in documenting them throughout American history. If you have stories to share, let us know. Happy women’s history month!

Inventing an Exhibition, Part II

Last summer I wrote a blog post about the 10% preliminary design phase of the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention project and how exhibition development often mirrors the inventive process. In those early days of working with our exhibition design firm Roto we focused on the “Sketch It!” step, relying on their expertise to bring visual life to our highly researched, content-rich, but conceptually abstract topic.  At the end of this official 10% design phase we had an exhibition floor plan, artistic renderings, and fun art direction boards for a concrete and colorful manifestation of our exhibition that we could share with project stakeholders and potential funders.

Invention Process Infographic

The “Create It!” step of the invention process next came into play. The second official phase of Smithsonian exhibition planning is called “35% conceptual design,” and for Places of Invention this phase began in October 2012 and runs through the end of March 2013. Now the Lemelson Center/NMAH-Roto team is collaborating to hone details of the design, including detailed floor plan, object layouts, graphics, typography, colors, lighting and acoustic-abatement needs, and specifications for mechanical interactives and multimedia. This is also the time for preliminary estimates for how much all of these elements are going to cost, which is where the proverbial rubber meets the road for decision making as we move forward.

The exhibition team was thrilled to see a version of "Places of Invention" come to life.

The exhibition team was thrilled to see a version of “Places of Invention” come to life.

During the 35% design period of any exhibition’s development, I believe it is very important to conduct formative evaluation, which Randi Korn & Associates (RK&A) defines as testing “interpretive ideas and components for their functionality and ability to communicate content.” This could be termed the “Test It!” invention step. Fortunately, the National Science Foundation grant for Places of Invention supports three stages of evaluation: front-end (which RK&A conducted in summer and fall 2011); formative (two phases during 2013); and summative (at the end of the project).

The prototyping process featuring two case studies--Hartford, CT, and Hollywood. The Hollywood story looks at the development of Technicolor.

The prototyping process featuring two case studies–Hartford, CT, and Hollywood. The Hollywood story looks at the development of Technicolor.

So, we brought Roto and RK&A together and came up with a plan to do a first round of formative evaluation prototyping at NMAH during late January. Although this is generally a slower time at the Museum, with fewer tourist traveling to the nation’s capital between the winter holidays and spring breaks, we had the advantage of two major events coinciding—President Barak Obama’s second inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday—that attracted many thousands of visitors. We figured enough people would hang around afterwards to visit the famous local sites, including the Smithsonian museums on the Mall, to garner walk-in visitors willing to participate in our evaluation.

In the Hartford section, visitors were tasked with using a jig to twist wire into a business card holder--or whatever else they could invent!

In the Hartford section, visitors were tasked with using a jig to twist wire into a business card holder–or whatever else they could invent!

Over three days, January 23-25, staff from Lemelson Center, Roto, and RK&A collaborated to conduct formative testing. We mocked up two exhibition case studies—Hartford, Connecticut and Hollywood, California— and also the “Interactive Map,” a participatory exhibit that asked visitors to share stories of their places of invention by writing comments to post on a U.S. map or by taping short videos on a laptop computer. The basic evaluation objectives were to explore general usability and understanding of intended exhibition messages. RK&A recruited walk-in adult visitors who were visiting alone or with children 10 years and older. RK&A then observed these visitor groups while they used the exhibition elements, including reading labels, looking at images, trying out interactives, and watching videos inside the case study areas and at the Map. Finally, RK&A interviewed the visitors and recorded data in handwritten notes. At the end of each day of prototyping, folks from the Lemelson, Roto, and RK&A teams gathered to discuss visitor feedback and interactions in order to “Tweak It!” for the next day. It was a fun, constructive, and exhausting process.

On the interactive map, we asked visitors to leave stories about their places of invention, either through Post-Its or videos.

On the interactive map, we asked visitors to leave stories about their places of invention, either through Post-Its or videos.

We recently received the final report from RK&A, which includes careful analysis of the visitor observations and interviews and very constructive recommendations. This document has already helped us focus on key changes and improvements to the exhibition (the “Tweak It!” stage) while also provided us with enough objective information to know we are headed in the right direction. So onward we go through the final weeks of conceptual design, and then we can look forward to the “65% design development” phase through fall 2013. Keep an eye out for more reports from me along the way!

A Very Kitschy Christmas

KITSCH:

Happy holidays!

The Christmas Tree, Lithograph ca1860. Source: NMAH , neg. # 2003-24670, The Harry T. Peters Collection,

Is it just me, or do you also sometimes wonder who invents all of the kitschy stuff being marketed, purchased, and possibly displayed in your own living room this time of year? Christmas is not the only holiday in December, but surely it wins the contest for inspiring the most odd, sometimes amusing, often ridiculous assortment of commercial products in stores right now. And these items appear on shelves earlier and earlier each season. I recall taking a photo in October as I stood in a home improvement store gaping in disbelief at the array of flashing Christmas lights, fake trees, singing Santas, and other decorations already being stocked. It wasn’t even Halloween yet (which arguably wins the overall award for holiday kitsch) and suddenly I felt pressured to consider buying things made by Santa’s little elves.

Christmas aisle...at Halloween.

Now, don’t get me wrong, “kitsch” has its place in our marketplace. There is a supply and demand relationship, and besides who hasn’t bought at least a few items just because they made you laugh?! I certainly have. So I’m not intending here to disparage anyone who decides to purchase, say, a sensor-activated reindeer who sings the Rudolph song while his red nose lights up. [I haven’t actually seen such a thing. Maybe I should invent it?] However, as I was helping my friend and neighbor decorate her house last week, I was struck by the array of items emerging from her holiday storage bins. Who are the inventors behind these products?

Well, I certainly cannot fully answer that question in this blog. Unfortunately I do not have the time or energy to look up patent numbers on my neighbor’s holiday décor or my own, let alone search for non-patented kitsch. However, I was intrigued when a colleague of mine shared a recent blog about a 1950 patent from inventor Leo R. Smith for a vibrating Christmas tree (not the phrase he used on the patent application but I didn’t want to seem too risqué).

This led me to quickly search “Christmas” on Google’s patents website, which brought up approximately 199,000 results including in just the first few pages: a “Pop-Up Artificial Christmas Tree” (U.S. patent #6514581, inventor Cheryl A. Gregory); “Christmas Tree Shaped Pasta (design patent #D392785, inventors Ricardo Villota and Guillermo Haro); “Christmas Stocking, Puppet and Story Media Combination” (patent #5389028, inventors Catherine Cabrera, Pepper de Callier, and Priscilla de Callier); and “Christmas Deer Toy Capable of Moving Head, Neck, and Tail” (patent #6769954, inventor Lien Cheng Su).

Patent drawing for “Christmas Deer Toy Capable of Moving Head, Neck, and Tail."

Aha! The deer toy sounded a bit like my Rudolph idea.  So then I looked at the patent citations on Lien Cheng Su’s 2003 patent application. The first one on the list is for a “Voice Making Device for Moving Animal Toy and Moving Animal Toy Using the Voice Making Device” (patent #4820232) by inventors Hajime Takahasi and Elichi Maeda. Note I did not make up the patent name.

I could spend innumerable hours conducting this research. Suffice it to say here that pondering these unheralded inventors and innovators reminds me how little we know about the people who have created the material objects around us or their motivations. We will probably never learn why Mr. Smith, Ms. Gregory, and Mr. Su felt it was necessary to invent a vibrating Christmas tree, pop-up Christmas tree, or a moving Christmas deer, respectively.  However, I would like to argue that we should take a moment every now and then to appreciate that people have shared their creative energy with us through their inventions no matter how kitschy they may be.

I will end with a reference to the Library of Congress’s Everyday Mysteries article “Who invented electric Christmas lights?” Regardless of whether or not you celebrate the holiday or like to decorate for it, I think most people would agree that seeing Christmas lights on a dark winter’s night makes things feel festive. As the article says, “We can be grateful to Thomas Edison, Edward H. Johnson and Albert Sadacca for illuminating our holiday season.”

The International Symposium of Science Museums

“Mamma mia, here I go again
My my, how can I resist you
Mamma mia, does it show again
My my, just how much I’ve missed you…”

To ABBA’s surprise, I’m sure, as well as mine, their song “Mamma Mia” will always remind me of my September trip to South Korea. Yes, you read that correctly. The disco classic was sung by an all-girls pop group during a special banquet honoring the participants, organizers, and VIPs involved in the 2012 International Symposium of Science Museums in Busan. This entertainment offering was a most unexpected conference experience, especially while jet lagged.

I had arrived late the previous night after a 14+ hour flight from Washington, D.C., to Seoul, a four-hour layover, and then another flight to Busan, the country’s second largest city on the southern coast. Thanks to melatonin and a comfortable hotel bed, I managed to sleep normal hours, and awoke to the morning sunshine feeling relatively energetic. So I took a nice long stroll along neighboring Haeundae beach, a popular spot with Korean vacationers during the summer.

Courtesy of ISSM.

I felt very fortunate to be among a small group of mostly European and American museum professionals invited to speak at the symposium. At the Bexco convention center we were led through a large meeting room to our name-tagged seats at the front tables and provided with headsets for simultaneous Korean-English translations. I imagined this must be a taste of what it is like to attend United Nations meetings.

Official welcomes included remarks by Hang Sik Park, president of the National Science Museum of Korea, which was hosting the conference. Then we heard an interesting keynote address by Sarah George, the director of Utah’s Natural History Museum. After that, we beheld another surprising performance—a musical theater piece by a Korean group called Vollklang Solisten about the connections between Western classical music and Pythagorean math. I cannot begin to describe it adequately here.

Photo by Ellen Wetmore.

During the first session I was one of five panelists discussing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education at science museums and informal learning organizations. It is a strange experience to speak to about 200 people listening to translations, so they would nod, smile, or chuckle in response to things I said about a minute after I said them. I shared stories about a broad range of Lemelson Center projects supporting STEAM education and 21st Century Skills. Overall, even in my jet lagged haze, I think my presentation went well and audience members posed some thoughtful questions during the Q&A section at the end of the session.

That evening the presenters were bused to Nurimaru, a spaceship-like building in Dongbaek Park, for the aforementioned banquet hosted by the Federation of Busan Science and Technology. The event began with individual introductions of Korean VIPs who stood and bowed. Then each of the invited foreign speakers were also introduced in Korean, so we had to listen carefully for our names, then stand and bow too. After that there were several official speeches in Korean for which we received English translation handouts.

Courtesy of ISSM.

We savored a delicious, seven course, very continental-style dinner accompanied by Bordeaux wine. I was seated with, among others, YP Kim, the director of the Busan Aquarium, which we had a chance to visit the following day. Mr. Kim is from Seoul originally but has lived in both the U.S. and Canada and actually did some translation work at the Smithsonian around 1982. My tablemates were interesting to converse with despite my hitting a wall around 8:30 p.m. and barely being able to think straight.

Now back to my reference about the night’s entertainment. The pop quintet danced about the stage playing traditional Korean instruments while singing ABBA with an electronic beat pounding in the background. My Swedish colleague Ann Follin, director of the Tekniska Museet (National Museum of Science and Technology) in Stockholm, was even more surprised than I. We shared a good chuckle about the experience two days later when we traveled via train to Daejeon with a Korean colleague, Hannah Lee, of 4D Frame.

The ABBA Performance.

In Daejeon, Ann, Hannah, and I enjoyed visiting the National Science Museum where we met up with Min-Jung Kim, who I had worked with when she was a visiting professional at the Smithsonian last year. Min-Jung and her associate Suk Yeong Lee gave us a wonderful tour of the Museum’s complex of buildings with exhibits covering the history, present, and future of Korean science and technology. I took lots of photos to show my colleagues.

National Science Museum's Discovery Center.

Thanks to Ann, I was invited to join her meeting at nearby KAIST, the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology. We spoke with research assistant professor Namyoung Heo and senior researcher Young Ju Lee about KAIST’s new Center for Entrepreneurship as well as their Global Institute for Talented Education. The meeting content was right up my proverbial alley professionally, as Ann had surmised, and she and I had lots to talk about afterwards as we taxied back to the train station and then traveled on to Seoul.

Monica and Min-Jung Kim. Photo by Ann Follin.

It was a whirlwind business trip, with three days of international travel for four days in South Korea. My heartfelt thanks to the organizers of the International Symposium of Science Museums, my fellow presenters, and all of the people who hosted me in Busan and Seoul. It is an experience I will never forget.

Revolutionary Invention: Hip-Hop and the PC

What do hip-hop music and personal computers have in common? They were both children of the turbulent 1970s, born to innovative people who, building on inventive skills and technologies, nurtured them through creativity, collaboration, risk taking, problem solving, flexibility, and hard work. As with all inventions, their parents created them using some existing technologies. Hip-hop music evolved from adaptations of sound recording and playback equipment, while personal computers were built on integrated circuits, or “microchips,” co-invented in 1959 by Robert Noyce of Silicon Valley.

Imagine the social, cultural, economic, and political upheavals in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Picture the urban decay happening in inner-city areas of many major metropolises. Then picture the suburban communities that had burgeoned after World War II, representing the American Dream of where and how to live. Within these vastly different contexts, the Bronx, New York, and Silicon Valley, California, became places of invention—for hip-hop music and personal computers, respectively.

From "Yes Yes Y'all." Photo by John Fekner, copyright Charlie Ahearn

By the 1970s, the Bronx served as a national symbol of urban blight. Cut off from the rest of New York City by the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the primarily black and Puerto Rican residents were left to their own devices to deal with crime, drugs, dilapidated housing, few public services, and fewer job opportunities. Meanwhile, across the country, the relatively new, sunny suburbs between San Jose and San Francisco (which became known collectively as “Silicon Valley”) attracted primarily middle- and upper-class white, well-educated residents, many of whom were employed by the rapidly growing semiconductor industry there. Unlike the Bronx, Silicon Valley already had a reputation as a place of invention.

G Man and his crew DJ-ing at a park Bronx, New York, 1984 © Henry Chalfant

Sometimes lack of material resources encourages inventiveness. People in poor communities in America and around the world put their creativity to work on a daily basis using whatever materials are available. In the Bronx, residents searching for innovative, non-violent ways to express themselves took advantage of the limited resources around them to create the technology and artistry of a new kind of music. As Grand Wizzard Theodore (regarded as the inventor of the hip-hop scratch) said, “Hip-hop came from nothing. The people that created hip-hop had nothing.  And what they did was they created something from nothing.”[i] People like DJ Grandmaster Flash had electronics training and used those skills to adapt record players, speakers, and other stereo system elements to invent the new musical sounds, tools, and techniques that became hip-hop.

In resource-rich Silicon Valley, people like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs had computer experience, access to lots of new technologies, and networks with people in the industry. Among other activities, they were involved in the Homebrew Computer Club, which was founded by electronics hobbyists in a Menlo Park garage in 1975 and later met in a Stanford University auditorium. The two Steves lived and worked in a prime location to invent and promote their personal computer, the Apple I. Although not the first personal computer (that credit goes to John Blankenbaker’s 1971 Kenbak-1), the Apple is arguably the most famous.

What inventors and innovators in Silicon Valley shared with Bronx inventors and innovators was what might be termed “counter cultural” perspectives. Both groups were interested in democratizing their respective inventions—although hip-hop DJs and computer tinkerers probably wouldn’t have expressed it quite this way at the time! In the Bronx, the pioneers of hip-hop wanted to create their own music, uniquely representative of their community, away from the disco clubs in Manhattan and without mainstream limits.

Silicon Valley East. Flickr photo by Andrei Z.

In Silicon Valley, they wanted to break away from the corporate and government control of huge mainframe computers and create small, personal computers for themselves, their friends, and eventually the larger public. As Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak remembered in the 2006 documentary, In Search of the Valley, “There was lots of talk at Homebrew [computer club] about social revolution, we were going to have our own tools at home and own our own computers and not be slaves to what our employers wanted us to use.”

Another important element shared by inventors and innovators in the Bronx, Silicon Valley, and indeed all of the communities featured in the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention exhibition project was the support of like-minded individuals who collaborated as well as competed to further creativity. In the end, it turns out you’re not necessarily limited by limited resources. What you need is imagination, adaptability, perseverance, encouragement from your community, and eventually a wider, welcoming market. Hip-hop music and personal computers ended up revolutionizing not only American but also global society and culture.

Many thanks to Eric Hintz and Laurel Fritzsch for their expertise on these two Places of Invention!


[i] Mark Katz, Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 253.