Inventing for Man’s Best Friend

My dog Crazy Legs with an assortment of his (destructible) toys

My dog Crazy Legs with an assortment of his (destructible) toys

As anyone with a dog knows, finding an indestructible toy for your pooch can be nearly impossible. After coming home from work last week to find that my dog, Crazy Legs, had destroyed three of his toys in one day, however, I decided it was time to renew my quest for the perfect toy. An online search for “indestructible dog toys” yielded more than 150,000 results. I found toys of every material, shape, size, and flavor (yes, flavor) imaginable. But none of them really looked indestructible, and reviews of many of the products confirmed my suspicions. After a little more digging, however, I came across inventor Amy Rockwood who has created a toy she describes as “nearly indestructible” with the patent-pending “Chew Toy Safety Indicator.” Rockwood’s line of toys is made of rubber: green (for “go”) on the outside and red (“stop”) on the inside. As the patent application describes, “If the green layer is compromised to where the red can be seen from the outside of the chew toy…the toy design is no longer safe for the pet to use.” Once the dog chews through to the red, the toy becomes vulnerable and can be chewed into smaller pieces, which a dog can easily swallow. While Rockwood intends for the toys to be indestructible, she has designed them with a safety net of sorts that alerts the dog owner that the toy is no longer safe, thus reducing the risk of choking or digestive complications.

Patent drawing for the “Chew Toy Safety Indicator”

Patent drawing for the “Chew Toy Safety Indicator”

According to the American Pet Products Association, Rockwood’s invention is just one of a growing market of pet products. The APPA estimates that Americans will spend more than $55 billion on their pets this year alone. Pet owners are spending more on everything from toys, beds, and specialty foods, to clothing, seat belts, and designer accessories (think collars and pet carriers from Barney’s and Burberry). Increasingly, Americans view their pets as family members and are willing to purchase supplies and accessories for their pets like those they would buy for themselves.

One inventor trying to capture a piece of this growing—and ever-more-sophisticated market—is 15-year-old Brooke Martin of Spokane, WA. Brooke has invented a contraption that uses an Internet-enabled device, such as a smart phone or tablet, to allow dog owners to talk to their pets via video, and even remotely deliver dog treats!

A dog videochatting with its owner.

You can video chat with your dog using Brooke Martin’s invention (image courtesy of GeekWire)

So-called “smart collars” are also taking the pet market by storm. Dog owners can outfit their canine friends with collars that track location and activity level. (Cat owners, don’t despair; feline models are said to be coming soon!) Data from the collars are then synced to the owner’s smart phone, allowing them to assess the health and fitness of their dog and even share the information with their veterinarians. By tracking the exercise and rest patterns of our pets, we can learn more about how they spend their days (particularly when we’re not around), and ideally, spot behavioral changes quickly. Developers of these new collars believe that with the help of technology, we can help our pets can live longer, healthier lives.

A smart phone app showing data collected by smart collars.

Smart collars allow pet owners to track their dogs’ activity levels (image courtesy of gizmag.com)

Roy Eng, Michael McGuire, and Mark Robinson are another team of inventors working to extend the length and quality of our pets’ lives. Their “Adjustable Wheelchair for Pets” helps animals who have lost use of their rear legs as a result of injury or paralysis. While wheelchairs for pets are not new, they have traditionally been custom-built for each pet, which has meant long wait times and expensive price tags. The adjustable model, however, allows pet owners to purchase the assistive devices off-the-shelf and easily adjust them for their own pets. Once equipped with the chair, pets can resume their regular activities and lead relatively normal lives.

Patent drawing for the “Adjustable Wheelchair for Pets”

Patent drawing for the “Adjustable Wheelchair for Pets”

A 2013 report on pet health in the United States shows that cats are living 10% and dogs 4% longer than they did just a little over a decade ago. The study cites a variety of reasons, including better preventive care and higher spay and neuter rates. While it does not examine the influence that new technologies and tools are having on the life expectancy rates of our pets, I like to think that inventors—and their inventions—are contributing to the extended health and well-being of our animal companions.

(Though it’s true that Americans spend more on their pets now than ever before, creating specialty pet products is not a new idea:  In the 1980s, Ruth Foster invented the Gentle Leader® dog collar, and in the 1950s, Charlotte Cramer Sachs developed her own line of dog accessories including the Watch Dog, a dog collar with a built-in watch. Now those are some smart collars!)

Inventor Ruth Foster and a dog wearing the Gentle Leader® collar (image courtesy of Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments, University of Minnesota)

Inventor Ruth Foster and a dog wearing the Gentle Leader® collar (image courtesy of Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments, University of Minnesota)

An ad for Charlotte Cramer Sachs’ dog products, including the Watch Dog

Pet Accessories advertising sheet for “Watch-Dog,” “Lead-o-Matic,” and “Guidog,” 1953. (AC0878-0000007)

Inventing the Future: 3D Printing

It is hard not to look back to the history of printing, see how far we have come, and what the purpose of printing technology has done for society. It all started as the necessity of sharing information and passing knowledge to others. Even though the first printing process started back in the form of woodblocks used in China for printing on textiles and paper, it was a way to reproduce information for the masses and fairly fast. Not only was it a way to share information, but also to make art and design attainable by everyone.

A 3D printed cast.

A 3D printed cast. Image from http://jakevilldesign.dunked.com/cortex.

The technology of modern day printing has changed so much in the last few decades—without these advances cool things like the custom 3D cast pictured above may have never happened. A Victoria University of Wellington grad student, Jake Evill is pushing the boundaries of couture casts with his Cortex cast. Each cast can be customized and fitted for the patient—based upon the injury, X-rays taken, and a 3D scan of the surrounding limb. These casts are not only lightweight and airy, but they are designed to be able to be removable, worn with clothes, and be shower-friendly. No more gross, stinky plaster or fiberglass casts. Granted, this thing may take a while to print—24 to 72 hours to fully set—but we at least have these possibilities.

Advancements in printing have even enabled people to even get their face—and life—back. According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, restaurant manager Eric Moger had lost a third of his face to an aggressive tumor that was growing underneath the skin on his face. Now he has had an opportunity to get his face back through advancements in printing technology. By taking scans of what was left of his skull and using computers to recreate the other side of his face using nylon plastic, Moger is now able to drink water without having liquid running out of one side of his face. The social value of printing has a positive impact on people’s lives; it is amazing to think that in the near future, printing could function on a cellular level, printing real skin or even body parts.

A life-size 3D print of Thomas Jefferson.

A life-size 3D print of Thomas Jefferson on exhibit at The National Museum of African American History and Culture (temporarily located at The National Museum of American History. This exhibit is now closed). Photo via Smithsonian 3D Digitization Facebook page, photo by C. Thome.

Even the Smithsonian has jumped on the 3D printing bandwagon. Printing advancements have enabled the cloning and sharing of pieces with other museums around the world. Thanks to Redeye, a company that specializes on 3D printing and rapid reproduction, the Smithsonian was able to recreate a large 3D reproduction-quality historical replica statue of Thomas Jefferson. The team here at the Lemelson Center is even thinking about the implications 3D printing might have in our revamped Spark!Lab (opening 2015).

Three-dimensional printing has rightly been referred to as a “disruptive technology,” and I, for one, am greatly intrigued to further explore the opportunities and challenges of this new technology. These days we can get custom dental braces, custom T-shirts, custom iPhone covers, and more. What’s next?

Photography: The Invention that Keeps on Giving

Screen Shot 2013-05-01 at 5.16.39 PMPhotography is definitely the gift that just keeps on givingand in different forms! Thank you, Louis Daguerre, for inventing photography; without this gift we would not be able to document momentous events in our life (like my first time at the White House to help out at the Easter Egg Roll 2013), take #selfie duckface pics to post them on Instagram, or upload quick vids of ourselves to Vine.

If you haven’t explored the wonder of Vine, it is a product that Twitter acquired that allows for sharing quick, six second, looping videos. Brevity is key here, something that Twitter’s 140 character messages do so well. It doesn’t seem like very long, but it’s surprising what you can share in six seconds, especially when you get creative. Vine Vids are all about abbreviation—”The shortened form of something larger.”

Our Meta-Meme-Modern age of documenting and categorizing every moment of our lives, and then sharing it with the masses in small digestible chunks, is done with such urgency, yet some do not think about the technology behind it. It’s fun to see these various digital methods reference the past. All of those wonderful filters that various apps use reference the analogue processes—Van Dyke Brown, Cyanotype, Cross-Processed, Black and White filters—that have been done in darkrooms with hazardous chemicals for decades. I have quite a bit of experience producing images the old-school way and love it! However, I also love that I don’t have to risk my life anymore using potassium cyanide or silver nitrate. Working in the darkroom was never a quick process, but more of a zen experience—something that could never be rushed. Current digital technology is often almost instantaneous.

I find it quite interesting these days that videos/gifs appear to be the next best thing to push content out into the aether. These small, bite-sized videos serve as an appetizer to an idea, concept, or expression, allowing the user to carefully create a potent and concentrated snippet of their world. The small size of the files not only makes them faster to upload, but also easier for the viewer to digest. Do small files equal short attention spans? Has the advancement in technology in photography spoiled us to seek a quick turn around for visual pay off?

Recently, I picked up a book in the library, Photography Changes Everything, a collaboration between Aperture and the Smithsonian, which is a fascinating collection of images and responses to how the image changes and shapes everything in our lives. Many experts, writers, inventors, and public figures from different professional backgrounds have contributed to this book, telling the stories of how their lives have been shaped or changed by photography. Contributors include the Smithsonian’s Curator of Photographic History Shannon Thomas Perich as well as John Baldessari, John Waters,  Hugh Hefner, and others. Check out the book or visit the Photography Changes Everything website and see how the photographic image does indeed change everything around us. Photography has certainly changed my life and made me into the New Media Specialist that I am today here at the Lemelson Center.

Just like Mom’s: Will an Invention Finally Reveal Her Secret Ingredient?

My mom makes the best mashed potatoes. The best. I’m sure your mom’s are good, but not this good. (Ok, I guess I can admit that I’m probably a little biased here.)  And I love mashed potatoes. So I find it incredibly frustrating that I have thus far been unable to recreate my mother’s mashed potatoes.

Mashed potatoes.

These are not my mom’s mashed potatoes. By Renee Comet (photographer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This conversation has been had more times than I can count ever since I moved 350 miles south:

“Mom, seriously, how do you make them so good?”
“Well, I use whatever I have. If you have some sour cream you can add that.”
“Ok, well how much sour cream?”
“I don’t know, Kaitlin, whatever seems like the right amount.”

So with that not-exactly-precise recipe, I attempt, over and over, to make my mom’s glorious mashed potatoes. And every time, despite claims from my boyfriend that they taste just fine or even really good, they always fall flat to me.

The Motherspoon.

The Motherspoon. Will this gadget finally explain my mom’s recipe-less cooking to me?

But maybe technology is going to finally allow me to faithfully recreate Mom’s mashed potatoes. Cruising Pinterest the other night, I stumbled across a kitchen gadget by Electrolux called The Motherspoon. The gadget is explained as such:

“Basically what happens is that you and your mom buy your own pair of Motherspoon and register onto a dedicated platform for file sharing. So when your mom cooks her recipe and uses the spoon to taste her food, the sensor laden spoon picks up the ingredients and deciphers the recipe. When you put it on its cradle, the spoon loads the recipe to the sharing platform so that you can access it, even if you live miles apart.”

Is this the answer to my mashed potatoes angst? I don’t know that I’m going to rush out to get this gadget, but I will admit that I’m completely intrigued at the idea of technology showing precisely how my mom makes hers so delicious. But in the end, Mom’s mashed potatoes are as good of an excuse as any to make the trip home, and I think I’ll be ok never really knowing if her secret ingredient is a few teaspoons of onion powder or—as she claims—love.

At the London Eye.

Me and my mom in London, when my family visited me there for Christmas in 2008. And yes, I made her make me mashed potatoes.

Starting the Day Right: Coffee Innovations

While I can’t remember the first great cup of coffee that I ever had, I can certainly remember the last.  It was brewed here in our offices earlier this week with freshly ground coffee beans, the perfect amount of cream & sugar, and a strong caffeine kick that cleared my early morning brain fog.

Latte.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

After reading an article recently about the history of coffee making, I realize that I owe the pleasure of that enjoyable cup of coffee to a series of coffee related innovations, some that date back to the 15th century.  There’s the first coffee shop, which opened in 1475 in modern day Turkey; the percolator which was invented in 1818 by a metal craftsman; and the first paper coffee filter, invented by Melitta Benz around 1908.

But what I find even more fascinating are the very eccentric and somewhat quirky coffee related inventions that are popping up all over the world.  These include the coffee condiment stick, which contains pre-measured cream and sugar; the ‘Coffee Car’, a British vehicle that runs on discarded coffee grounds; and my personal favorite, the Handpresso, a portable espresso machine.

Coffee beans.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

I’m sure that I also speak for my fellow coffee addicts when I say that I look forward to innovation that continues to improve both the delivery and quality of our beloved ‘liquid gold’.

Knitting Inventions

Call me a hipster – I love microbrews, locally roasted coffee, and knitting. While I discovered the first two of these while living in Portland, Oregon, the last I’ve started only since moving to DC. While I would say that I’ve mastered the basics of knitting, I have a very long way to go until I can create a garment or knit 200+ stitches in the round. And, it’s amazed me that beautiful and intricate textiles can be created using some very basic inventions and a combination of just two stitches (the knit and purl). Here are some of the inventions that I use to knit.

Knitting Gauge

In order to make sure that all knitted pieces are accurate in terms of length and width, I use a gauge to check the number of stitches per inch the piece has. Otherwise, I might end up making a very tiny scarf on accident!

Row Counter

This is by far the knitting invention that is most valuable to me. Every time I finish a row, I use this tool to keep count. Especially with lace knitting, this helps me keep track of where I am in a pattern. Otherwise, a beautiful pattern can come out looking like a garbled mess.

Place Markers

When I first started knitting, I never used place markers. I stubbornly (and wrongly) believed that I would be able to remember where certain pattern segments were. As I graduated to harder patterns that incorporated more intricate designs, I started finding them more and more of a necessity. They’re so simple—really just glorified safety pins—but I can’t knit in the round without them.

So if you’re a knitter, next time you pick up your needles, take a moment to appreciate the inventions that exist in this craft. I know I’ll be raising a tasty microbrew in toast to all the inventors that have made my knitting easier, better, and more pleasing to the eye.

My most recent project: a multi-colored cowl.

 

 

 

 

Running: A High Tech Sport

I’m a runner. I started running in late 2000, and in June the next year I ran the Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska—my very first race ever. Since then, I’ve run seven other marathons, a dozen or more half marathons, countless 10 milers, 10Ks, and 5Ks, and even a couple triathlons. In the last 10+ years, I‘ve logged thousands on miles on the road and running has become a big part of my life.

The other night I was suiting up for a run and realized that it was 12 years ago to the day that I had started training for my first race. (I have a weird thing for dates and seem to remember a whole host of odd-yet-significant occasions like this one.) I was new to running then, of course, and didn’t know the first thing about what to wear (other than running shoes and even those turned out not to be the right ones for my pronating feet). I can remember wearing cotton sweat pants, long sleeve cotton t-shirts, and fleece jackets to train that winter. When spring came, it was gym shorts, cotton socks, and more cotton t-shirts. I thought back on that—as I pulled on my compression tights and layers of Under Armour—and wondered how in the world I ran mile after mile in cotton. It sticks, it gets heavy, it chafes, and it surely doesn’t breathe when you sweat or, worse, get caught in the rain. Thank goodness I eventually discovered technical clothing that can wick, warm, cool, breathe, or do pretty much anything else the weather and my workout demand!

Since I’m not only a runner but also someone who’s interested in innovation, I started thinking more about the gear I wear and use now, and how invention and innovation have impacted the sport of running. There are innovations in shoes, clothing, technology (think GPSs and apps that help us map and track runs), even the food and drink we consume before, during, and after a run.  Races themselves have become hot spots of innovation, with new timing systems that are built right into the bibs (race numbers), solar powered generators that are used to provide electricity at start and finish lines, and race premiums (like t-shirts) made from recycled and/or sustainable materials.

Race number with built-in timing chip. Photo courtesy of MI Sport Online.

I polled some friends and members of my local running group to find out what others thought about innovation in running gear and, specifically, what their favorite innovations are (or have been). I received a wide range of responses: tech fabrics like Dri-Fit and Mizuno Breath Thermo, GPS devices, tracking apps, heart rate monitors, shoes (including running sandals and “barefoot” models), special lights for running in the dark, and foods like gels and gummies formulated especially for endurance athletes.

At the Lemelson Center, we’re always interested in the people and process behind invention, so I decided to take a closer look at some of these innovations to learn more about who created them, why, and how. I uncovered a lot of great stories. Some, like the invention of the first Nike shoe by college track coach Bill Bowerman, were familiar. But I found some new stories, too, including two female entrepreneurs who have designed a GPS specifically for women athletes, a runner in Oregon who developed a hand-held lighting system for running in the dark, and a former chef who created a plant-based energy bar made of whole, raw ingredients.

Nike running shoes with patented waffle sole, about 1979. Smithsonian photo.

What I love about all of these stories, both old and new, is that they are wonderful examples of the independent American inventor. These are inventors who began working not in a research lab or a corporation with a big R&D budget (although lots of great innovation takes place there, too), but in their garages, basements, kitchens, and workshops. They were fueled by their own interests, needs, and motivations, and at least initially, all set out simply to solve a problem and to make running easier, more efficient, better. The United States has a rich history of independent invention, and it is great to see this spirit reflected in the running community.

Old (left) and new (right) running shoes.

As part of my New Year’s resolution to get more organized at home, I was cleaning out my closet the other day and came across the shoes I wore in that first race in Alaska. They’re beaten up and not suitable for running (or really anything) anymore, but I’ve kept them all these years for sentimental reasons. Just pulling them out of the box brought back memories of the training I endured, the anxiety in the days leading up to the race, and most vividly, the elation I felt at crossing the finish line after 26.2 hard miles. They also reminded how far running gear has come: They are so heavy and clunky compared to the shoes I wear now, which—thanks to all the inventors and innovators out there—will probably feel bulky and out-of-date, too, in another 10 years!

Stanley Moves In

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the National Air and Space Museum’s blog. The author is National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens. 

On October 24, Stanley, winner of a historic robot race, left its home at the National Museum of American History aboard a flatbed truck and arrived safely at its destination, just seven blocks away. For the foreseeable future, Stanley will be here at the National Air and Space Museum, a centerpiece in the exhibition “Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting From Here to There.”

Stanley, an autonomous vehicle that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, hitches a ride from NMAH to NASM

Stanley hitches a ride to the National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Richard Strauss. 

The irony of the situation escaped no one. Stanley, a driver-less vehicle that had navigated 132 miles on its own to win the 2005 Defense Advanced Research Projects Grand Challenge, needed the help of scores of people AND a truck ride to get from there to here.

Frankly, moving Stanley is nerve-racking for me. I collected Stanley for the National Museum of American History’s robot collection. I feel responsible for Stanley’s safety and the safety of everyone involved with wrangling such a big, heavy car. On moving day, it turned out, there really was no cause for worry. Everybody—the National Museum of American History’s experienced vehicle mover Shari Stout, the skilled riggers from the artifact handling company, and the welcoming National Air and Space Museum staffers—knew exactly what to do to put Stanley in just the right spot for long-term display.

Now that Stanley is securely in place, though, there’s a moment to reflect. It’s worth thinking more deeply about the car’s place in “Time and Navigation” and the reasons for collecting contemporary objects for the Smithsonian in the first place.

Stanley moves into the National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Mark Avino.

Stanley moves into the National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Mark Avino. 

Some have already wondered: what’s a car doing in the National Air and Space Museum? In “Time and Navigation,” we link Stanley directly to satellite navigation, a subject clearly within the museum’s scope. The car’s ability to drive itself is a new application for satellite navigation, made possible when computers combine GPS coordinates with other kinds of data to construct an image of the road ahead, complete with obstacles. And there’s another connection: Stanley operates on the ground in much the same way that UAVs, that’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, operate in the air. Stanley moved into the museum right under the UAV exhibition on the west end.

When Stanley won the off-road DARPA race in 2005, the achievement was a giant technical step forward for autonomous vehicles, the vehicles like Stanley that drive themselves. Now, seven short years later, numerous car makers and Google are testing self-driving cars. Three states—Nevada, Florida, and California—have passed legislation permitting them on state roads. Advocates foresee a future where such cars will relieve congestion on highways, reduce traffic accidents, and provide transportation for those who otherwise cannot or do not want to drive. No point going to the showroom to shop for your robot car just yet, but insiders predict the technology will be commercially available soon.

Nevada license plate issued for testing autonomous vehicles on the state’s public roads. Photo by Wayne Wakefield.

Nevada license plate issued for testing autonomous vehicles on the state’s public roads. Photo by Wayne Wakefield. 

Predicting the future, like moving Stanley, makes me nervous. My training and interests make me passionate about the past. I’m a historian and a curator, not a soothsayer. Making decisions about what to collect from the long-ago past, a curator stands on pretty solid ground. Often there’s a body of existing research and documentation that verifies the importance of an object from long ago. That’s collecting from inside a comfort zone.

But collecting contemporary objects like Stanley comes close to predicting the future. It’s a risky business. Curators have to make educated guesses that today’s technical innovation will be tomorrow’s historic milestone. Curators who do contemporary collecting take the risk that an object making headlines today will remain representative of some important event or illustrative of how Americans absorbs new technologies. Such an object might even carry material evidence that inspires our successors to dig deeper into research we haven’t even imagined yet. Or maybe collecting such an object won’t have any of those useful outcomes. Maybe it will simply lie fallow forever after in storage. As I say, it’s a risky business.

An important indicator of an object’s historical worth is whether it yields rich insights. So far Stanley does not disappoint. On display at the National Museum of American History, Stanley represented the latest in a long line of wheeled robots, a history that can be traced back to Renaissance automatons. At the Air and Space Museum, Stanley’s technologies let us see inside the “black box” of navigation and consider emerging technologies that are likely to change the ways we get from here to there. Whether there will be more insights down the road, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Carlene Stephens is a curator at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. She is currently working with a team of curators, designers and restoration specialists at the National Air and Space Museum to develop the “Time and Navigation” exhibition.

Football Helmet Technology

A leather helmet worn by Gerald Ford while playing football for Michigan in the 1930's. From Wikimedia Commons.

As the parent of a high school football player who suffered a minor concussion two years ago and a huge football fan, it’s both reassuring and fascinating to observe the advancements being made in helmet technology. Most of us have heard recent stories about how concussions have caused significant health problems for retired professional football players. Most recently, repetitive concussions and concussion related injuries have been blamed for the suicides of former NFL players Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, and Dave Duerson. Seau and Duerson both shot themselves in the chest, with Duerson leaving a note behind indicating that he wanted his brain donated for the study of football related brain injuries. The Seau family recently announced that they would allow researchers to examine the brain of Junior Seau for the same reason. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, the plight of two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Jim McMahon is outlined in heart wrenching detail. A 2007 brain scan revealed that McMahon was experiencing early-onset dementia as a result of at least four documented concussions throughout his career, including the head first body slam that ended his season in 1986 (the photo of this injury in the article is stomach turning). As a result, McMahon has been experiencing both short-term and long-term memory loss, and he’s now experiencing acute, intense headaches that drop him to his knees in a cold sweat.

But while it’s great to know that improvements are being made in helmet safety, can anything be done to separate the game from its gladiator mentality? Most football fans know that the greatest respect is given to players who propel themselves all over the field with reckless abandon. Any talk of changing this aspect of football culture is viewed as outright blasphemy. Many have found solace in the fact that coaches all over the country are focusing on tackling techniques that prevent helmet-to-helmet injuries.  Is technique an important part of the overall problem? According to Tim Gray, a physics professor at the University of Nebraska, an average defensive back’s speed combined with his mass can produce around 1600 pounds of force during a tackle. With that amount of force, bad technique can mean not only potential brain injuries, but possibly life-threatening overloads to the spine. The 2012 Annual Survey of Football Injury Research reports that helmet-to-helmet tackling and blocking techniques were the direct cause of 36 deaths and 30 permanent paralysis injuries in 1968. The total elimination of fatalities wasn’t reported until 1990. In response to these deaths in the 1960s, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) was founded. Clearly, there should be a continued focus on safe techniques in addition to advancements in helmet technology.

In terms of measuring helmets for their ability to reduce concussion, that task has been undertaken by Virginia Tech since 2011. Virginia Tech researchers have produced a ranking for helmets utilizing the STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) system. This ranking involves performing 120 impacts on helmets, and data collected from impacts experienced by players. Most disturbing about the 2011 ratings was that one of the lowest-rated helmets was being used by most players in the NFL. Now, the lowest three rated helmets from the 2011 rankings are off the market.

One example of emerging helmet technology is a helmet designed by Troy Fodemski, an entrepreneur from Colorado Springs, CO. Fodemski, an electrical engineer, has designed a response system in helmets that would release dozens of tiny airbags sequentially to cushion blows to the head. Fodemski’s start-up company, Concussion Mitigation Technologies, LLC, has patented its technology that it says will measure hits, compare data, and administer pressure to the tiny airbags in response to the movement of the brain upon impact. Then there’s a product called the Thermocrown, from a startup company called Thermopraxis and renowned helmet producer Schutt Sports. The Thermocrown is a fitted device inside the helmet that, after a hard hit, receives an injection of cooling gas to lower the head’s temperature to minimize damage. It is essentially an ice pack that can be initiated by training staff in seconds.

Obviously, there would be a number of obstacles leading to implementation and use of these products on the football field, but the concepts are rather exciting. Let’s hope that with continued analysis of helmets on the market and the advancements of new, innovative helmet technology, we can see fewer instances of permanent and lingering brain and spinal injuries.

Try It: Fresh Paper

Note: “Try It” refers to a step in the invention process – testing your product. This post is not an endorsement of any product.

A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and saw a post about a new product that promised to keep fruits and vegetables fresher longer. Since I do a good part of my food shopping in the summer at farmer’s markets or in the produce section of my local grocery store, I was intrigued.  I love all the fresh produce of summer but I get frustrated when I buy things only to have them go off a few days later. Curious (but skeptical), I clicked on the link and was introduced to Fresh Paper, marketed as “a dryer sheet for produce.” Basically, it’s a small paper towel-like square made of edible, organic, and compostable ingredients that inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi that make produce rot. According to the article I was reading, you simply place fruits and vegetables on or near the square of Fresh Paper and your produce will stay fresh 2-4 times longer.

Kavita Shukla. Image from Cartier Womens Initiative.

I loved the sound of this and decided to do a little more research, not only on the product but about who was behind it. I learned that Fresh Paper was invented by Kavita Shukla, a young woman who first had the idea for her invention when she was a middle school student. She was visiting her grandmother in India and accidentally swallowed some water while brushing her teeth. Concerned that the water would make her sick, her grandmother mixed together a tea with the Indian herb fenugreek. Shukla drank the tea and didn’t get sick, and thinking like a true inventor, began to wonder about what else this traditional spice could be used for.

Skukla in high school. Images from Lemelson-MIT.

Shukla hit upon a possible use when she was grocery shopping with her mother and noticed that nearly every package of strawberries contained a berry or two that was already rotten. Could her grandmother’s herbal mixture help solve this problem? Shukla began working on her idea and in 2002, after a summer as the Lemelson-MIT High School Invention Apprentice, was awarded patent number 6,372,220 for her “Fenugreek Impregnated Material for the Preservation of Perishable Substances.” (This was actually Shukla’s second patent. Her first, received in 2001, was for a “Smart Lid” which has a built-in device that alerts users when the container is opened or leaking.)

As I learned more about Shukla I was struck by the similarities between her story and that of other inventors the Lemelson Center has studied over the years:

  • She began inventing and exploring the world around her at a young age. She didn’t become an inventor as an adult; she has practiced inventive thinking and ‘doing’ skills throughout her life.
  • The invention wasn’t the result of a single “Eureka” moment. The incident in India inspired her, but it took years of study, experimentation, and scientific understanding to take Fresh Paper from idea to market.
  • There were setbacks along the way. Shukla first wanted to start a non-profit to distribute Fresh Paper but with few resources, it was challenging. It wasn’t until years later that the opportunity to work with a partner came along and she was able to take the idea to market.

My package of Fresh Paper.

Today, through her company Fenugreen, Shukla sells Fresh Paper to individual consumers and at grocery stores and farmer’s markets throughout the U.S. But she is also thinking about how Fresh Paper can be used to keep produce fresh in food banks and how farmers in the developing world might use the product to extend the life of their crops once picked. As much as 25% of the world’s food supply is lost to spoilage, and Shukla hopes to use Fresh Paper to address this problem.

A tomato on Fresh Paper. So far it has lasted a week!

A week ago I received my order of Fresh Paper in the mail. I have been using the sheets with my produce at home and they seem to be working. But more than being satisfied with the product, I am impressed by the young inventor who created it and her vision for using invention to impact and improve the lives of people around the world.