Building Bridges, Building Collections

Last fall my family trekked across two historic bridges—the Poughkeepsie Highland Railroad Bridge and the Mid Hudson Bridge. The Poughkeepsie Highland Railroad Bridge spans the Hudson River connecting Poughkeepsie and Highland, New York. Designed by John F. O’Rourke, it was built as a double track railroad bridge by the Union Bridge Company of Pennsylvania. Construction began in 1886 and the bridge operated from 1889, when it was completed, until 1974. At the time it was the only fixed railroad crossing of the Hudson River between New York City and Albany, providing freight a more direct route between New England and the Midwest. Today, the bridge is operated by the New York State Historic Park System and is open to pedestrian and bicycle traffic only. The Mid Hudson Bridge, also known as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge, opened in 1930. It is still fully operational and is open to foot, bicycle, and vehicular traffic.

Hudson River Bridge illustration

Illustration of Hudson River Bridge at Poughkeepsie, New York, “Keystone Bridge Album,” undated. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001444.

Bridges span all sorts of spaces and allow us to cross those spaces, by foot, bicycle, car, train, or bus. Made of a variety of materials—steel, wood, rope, cement, brick, and iron—bridges can also be fixed, moveable, or covered. Some of the most common types of bridges are beam, arch, suspension, and cable. Bridges are engineering marvels which require substantial planning from the very foundations to the spanning arches and connecting cables. Each bridge tells a story—its successes and failures. In all honesty I hadn’t thought much about bridges—they just were there to help me get from one place to another—until the day I walked those two bridges. As it turns out, I am surrounded by a wealth of information about the history of bridge design, building, and construction right here at the Archives Center. Our civil engineering collections tell some of the stories of design, construction, use, damage, reconstruction, rebirth, and celebration.

Specs for iron truss bridge.

Specification for iron truss bridge of the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio, undated. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001446.

The Archives Center’s vast civil engineering collections are expansive and rich in content. From 1958 to 1988, the Division of Mechanical and Civil Engineering (now the Division of Work and Industry) amassed a critical body of archival material documenting bridges, most of which is available for research through the Archives Center. Consisting of a total of approximately 313 cubic feet (more than fifty collections), the materials document bridge design, construction, and the civil engineers who made it happen in the United States and Canada from the 1860s to the 1950s. The collections contain a wide range of documentation from engineering company records to the personal papers of civil engineers to bridge ephemera such as postcards, trade cards, advertisements, business cards, and placemats acquired by hobbyist collectors.

Ad for Berlin Construction Company.

Berlin Construction Company advertising card, undated. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001442.

Photographs, specifications, ephemera, advertisements, blueprints, reports, maps, invoices, stock certificates, diaries, sketches, patents, correspondence, and artifacts help tell the story of bridge building. The numerous collections intersect and complement each other. For example, the Quebec Bridge Photograph Collection, 1905-1986 (bulk 1905-1916), is an example of a collection that “bridges” other archival collections. Photographic documentation chronicling the bridges construction in 1907, along with artifacts—a sheared-off rivet head and half of a nut—from the first Quebec Bridge (1907) and subsequent enquiry drawings (1908) to the bridges collapse form part of the Division of Work & Industry’s holdings. The Records of Modjeski and Masters Company document engineer Ralph Modjeski who worked on the Quebec Bridge. Modjeski later worked with George S. Morison (1842-1903) in a variety of capacities. The George S. Morison Collection, 1861-1903, John A. Roebling’s Sons, well known builders of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission Records, 1848-1946 (bulk 1890-1929)Berlin Construction Company Records, circa 1904-1957, and the Bollman Truss Bridge Collection, 1852-1986 are just some of the collection highlights. Other collections with strong ties to bridge building and civil engineering are the Foundation Company Records, circa 1887-1962, documenting a New York subaqueous concrete construction firm and the Cummings Structural Concrete Company Records 1884-1952, documenting Robert Cummings, an early advocate of reinforced concrete construction.

Quebec Bridge Board of Engineers, circa 1910s.

Photograph of Quebec Bridge Board of Engineers standing in bridge cantilever, left to right: Ralph Modjeski, Charles Monsarrat and C.C. Schneider, circa 1910s. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0976-0000004.

Smaller archival collections, primarily comprised of ephemera, also provide insight into civil engineering through a different lens, that of the bridge enthusiast or hobbyist. Many bridge enthusiasts traveled extensively throughout the United States, documenting their passion for bridges through photographs and postcards. An example of this is the Lucinda Rudell Covered Bridges Collection, 1942-1979, which contains ephemera, such as this placemat documenting covered bridges throughout the United States.

Placemat featuring covered bridges.

Placemat depicting views of covered bridges, circa 1960s. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC1028-0000001.

The Warshaw Collection of Business Americana contains a wealth of ephemera documenting bridges such as this novelty mechanical postcard “The Bridge Girl” (Queensboro Bridge). The moveable bridge part allows the display of the postcard to change and “The Bridge Girl” appears. A cantilevered bridge designed by Leffert L. Buck (1837-1909) and Henry Hornbostel (1867-1961), the Queensboro Bridge was finished in 1909 and today is known as the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. Caricatures of civil engineers Elmer L. Corthell and Charles Sooysmith and the Ralph Modjeski image with fellow engineers provide the human face to bridge technology—a reminder that humans designed, built, and ultimately used the bridges. The Warshaw Collection also contains business records, such as this 1896 receipt for ribbon wire from John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, and a published illustration of Colin Shakespear’s Portable Rope Bridge. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries Trade Literature Collection also contains a rich resource of trade catalogs about bridge manufacturers, with detailed information such as specifications, costs, illustrations, and photographs. Many of the catalogs contain company histories with crucial information about bridge projects.

Postcard titled "The Bridge Girl"

Postcard titled “The Bridge Girl,” Queensboro Bridge, [1909?]. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001451-01.

Postcard titled "The Bridge Girl"

“The Bridge Girl” appears. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001451-02.

Caricature of Charles Sooysmith.

Caricature of Charles Sooysmith (1855-1916), civil engineer and bridge builder. Sooysmith designed the Central Bridge over the Harlem River. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001449.

Caricature of Elmer L. Corthell.

Caricature of Elmer L. Corthell (1840-1916), civil engineer and bridge builder. Corthell designed the Cairo Bridge (1887-1889) over the Ohio River, the longest metal bridge in the world at that time. Modjeski and Masters were awarded the construction contract for the Cairo Bridge. And, Corthell was the associate chief engineer for the project under George S. Morison, a civil engineer who specialized in large bridges. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001450.

Artifacts related to bridge building—bolts, cable wires, wire samples, plates, expansion joints, beam sections, trunnels (wooden pegs used to fasten timbers) struts, patent models, gauges, surveying instruments, and drafting tools—also provide insight into the work of civil engineers. These small, but significant artifacts, along with the paper and photographic documentation allow us to document and preserve large objects.

Portable Rope Bridge.

Colin Shakespear’s Portable Rope Bridge, “Mechanics,” Vol. XLIII, circa 1823. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0060-0001448.

Whether you’re looking for technical data on how bridges were designed and constructed or for ephemera depicting idyllic scenes of covered bridges in New England, visit the National Museum of American History and explore our civil engineering collections.

Timeless and Enduring Skills

The need for a skilled and educated work force is a frequent topic in current discussions about revitalizing the economy. This is not a new concern. In fact, at the turn of the twentieth century, the United Shoe Machinery Corporation of Beverly, Massachusetts, was actively engaged in its own effort to promote skills, knowledge, and expertise for young men (ages 14-18) by teaching “skills for living in the world, problem-solving, learning, and collaborating.” In May 1909, the company initiated, with the City of Beverly Massachusetts and the State of Massachusetts Commission on Industrial Education, a chartered industrial school, where generations of future shoe workers and managers were trained. Known as the Beverly Independent Industrial School or Beverly School, it was a model in industrial education for mechanics in the United States. The school officially opened on August 2, 1909, and according to the Three Partners, 1911, “one of the most important features of the welfare work at the [United Shoe Machinery] factory is the industrial school for the boys who will one day be inventors and the trained mechanics of the Company.” The school intended to teach skills in the shoe trade under actual shop conditions.

Postcard of the United Shoe Machinery new plant, Beverly, Massachusetts, 1907. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000010.

Secondary industrial education began in the United States at the Manual Training School of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Established in 1879 and opened in 1880, the school provided instruction in math, drawing, science, language, and shop work (use of tools). Tool instruction included carpentry, wood turning, patternmaking, iron chipping and filing, forge work, brazing and soldering, and the use of machine shop tools. Students divided their time between classroom instruction and manual labor on the shop floor. Other schools would open too, modeling their curriculum and daily program upon the Manual Training School of Washington University. While there were variations in curriculum based on local conditions, finances, and ideals, the schools all adhered to a formula of classroom instruction and manual labor. The growth of manual training schools grew rapidly. The idea ultimately took hold in general high schools where specific “shop” courses were offered and evening schools for industrial workers also became more widely available. Some included the Chicago Manual Training School (1884); Manual Training School for the City of Baltimore (1884); Philadelphia Training School (1885); Toledo Manual Training School (1885); the Technical School of Cincinnati (1886); the Manual Training School at St. Paul (1886); and the Hackley Manual Training School at Muskegon (1896).

In 1905, Governor William L. Douglass of Massachusetts appointed a commission to “investigate the needs for education in the different grades of skill and responsibility in the various industries of the Commonwealth.” The commission learned that though there was wide-spread interest in special training there was a lack of skilled workman in the industries, and public schools were not meeting the needs of industry. The commission recommended that local high schools in Massachusetts modify their instruction to align with the needs of  local industries. Towns throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts were urged to provide industrial courses in high schools and evening schools. In 1906, an act by the State of Massachusetts authorized the establishment of independent industrial schools, providing partial state funding and which were administered through a commission independent of the State Board of Education.

Around 1907, the three great shoe centers of Massachusetts—Beverly, Brockton, and Lynn—began discussing the feasibility of establishing a shoe trade school to teach the development of shoe making and shoe machinery. In order to explore this question of training, the Beverly Commission on Industrial Education was formed.

On May 18, 1909, Alderman James A. Torrey of Beverly introduced the following order to the Board of Aldermen which passed and was signed on June 26, 1909.

“Ordered, That an Independent Industrial School be and is hereby established in Beverly in accordance with Chapter 505 of the Acts of 1906, as supplemented by Chapter 572 of the Acts of 1908, for the purpose of instructing youths between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one years in day or evening classes in the machinist’s trade or in such other industrial trades or occupations as shall be deemed expedient by the Board of Trustees of said Industrial School, and also for the purpose of instructing any persons already employed in the industries in evening classes in such industrial trades or occupations as shall be deemed expedient by the Board of Trustees of said Industrial School.”

Two groups, A and B, each consisting of thirty-five young men, alternated between the United Shoe Machinery factory and Beverly Industrial School, spending one week at the factory and then one week at the high school. Instruction included mathematics, chemistry, electricity, mechanics, mechanical drawings, blueprint reading, English civics, and industrial economics. The machinist-instructors taught both in the factory and the classroom, while subject specialists taught the other subjects. Beverly Superintendent Adelbert L. Safford said, “Today we need men who can do things, men who can create not only with the brain—and it takes brains to be a good mechanic or a good farmer in this age—but with skilled hands as well.”

"The Three Partners," Industrial School, Section I, page 20, 1911. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000008.

"The Three Partners," Industrial School, Section II, page 22, 1911. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000009.

Fourteen young men graduated from the Beverly Industrial School on December 18, 1912. The school would undergo several name changes—Beverly Independent Industrial School; Beverly Industrial Training School; the Beverly Cooperative Trade School (1925-circa 1980); Claude H. Patten Trade School (1968) opened at the new Beverly High School;  and the Claude H. Patten Trade School Vocational High School (1970-1995). The Vocational High School eventually ceased operation in 1995.

Photograph of the Beverly Industrial School football team, 1913. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000011.

In addition to teaching skills in the industrial school, United Shoe also established a program to teach its immigrant workforce English. Using the English for American Citizenship Program (Industrial Series, 1919) the program not only taught the workforce to speak English, it taught life lessons in “punching the clock,” “buying clothes,” “spending money,” “asking for directions,” and “buying groceries.” Prepared by the Massachusetts Department of Education, University Extension, the Industrial Series Program was free to all residents of the State of Massachusetts. The courses were wide ranging, and included language, economics, mathematics, government, civil service, drawings, electricity, natural science, and homemaking. Courses were also taught for teachers and were held at Boston area schools such as Simmons College, Boston University, and Franklin Union.

Plant Survey for English and American Citizenship Classes, 1921. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000006.

English for American Citizenship, Industrial Series, Lesson XII, Buying Groceries, 1919. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000005.

Helping its immigrant workforce is just one example of United Shoe fostering skills for living in the world. United Shoe also sought to weave into its English lessons and hands-on training with machinery, “civic literacy” with lessons about Washington’s Birthday, the flag, and the Constitution. This page from an employee’s copybook shows a lesson an employee practiced writing titled, “The Declaration of  Independence.”  Most of the texts used by United Shoe promoted middle class values and habits along with instruction in the language.

Employee copybook page, Declaration of Independence, 1921. Source: NMAH Archives Center, AC0277-0000007.

To learn more about the United Shoe Machinery Corporation and its rich history of shoe making and educating its workforce, visit the Archives Center.


  • American Machinist, March 17, 1920.
  • Bennett, Charles Alphheus. History of Manual and Industrial Education, 1870 to 1917. Peoria: The Manual Arts Press, 1937.
  • Boston Daily Globe, August 1, 1909.
  • First Annual Report of the Trustees of Beverly Independent Industrial School, 1909, at (last accessed December 11, 2012)
  • The Three Partners, 1911.
  • Morse, Charles Henry. Some representative American industrial and manual training school. Massachusetts. Commission on Industrial Education. Boston, Wright & Potter Print. Co., State Printers, 1908.

A Concrete Example

Concrete is everywhere. Foundations, buildings, bridges, sidewalks, roads, sculptures, tunnels, retaining walls, and even skateboard parks are made with concrete. We are surrounded by this gray, cold, often impersonal, and ubiquitous material. Yet, I know very little about concrete, except that it is a construction material composed primarily of aggregate (sand and crushed rock), cement, and water, and that it is often reinforced with steel. On the rare occasions when I think about concrete, I immediately picture the Hoover Dam, a construction and engineering marvel built with more concrete than I can fathom.  According to the Bureau of Land Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region, the Hoover Dam “contains enough concrete to pave a strip 16 feet wide and 8 inches thick from San Francisco to New York.”  However, prior to the Hoover Dam’s construction in 1931, others were mixing it up with concrete.

In the early-twentieth century, for example, Robert Augustus Cummings (1866-1962), a civil engineer who worked primarily in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, made significant contributions to the field of reinforced-concrete construction and foundation work. Cummings clearly stated his confidence in his material of choice in a 1904 presentation to the Member Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania (and “member” refers to construction components, not engineers with a secret handshake):

Reinforced concrete makes an excellent paint for preserving iron or steel, adhering to the metal very firmly and protecting it thoroughly against corrosion. It can easily be made water tight, and its durability is beyond question. . . . Correctly designed re-enforced concrete structures are not liable to sudden failures, as is the case with ordinary concrete, but gives warning by the falling off of the surface concrete long before the point of failure is reached.

Pamphlet, Reinforced Concrete The Cummings System, circa 1907.

Cummings knew his concrete and built his reputation and livelihood around it. Founded in 1900 and incorporated in 1911, Cummings Structural Concrete Company specialized in reinforced concrete for the construction of all types of structures, from bridges, barges, warehouses, filtration systems, private residences, machine shops, dry docks, and piers, to retaining walls, abutments, factories, dams, and locks. If it involved concrete, Cummings was doing it.

Cummings is best known for inventing the “Cummings System of Reinforced Concrete,” in which iron or steel bars are embedded within a mixture of Portland cement (a finely ground powder made of limestone mixed with clay or shale) water, sand, and gravel or broken stone. The Cummings system utilized steel rods of any size or grade that were welded together to form a variety of shapes. Cummings held over 25 patents related to reinforced concrete and metal structures (see U.S. Patent 761,288 for one example). Spaces between the metal structure were filled with concrete to form arches, walls, floors, walls, and roofs.

Types of metal bars and framework (1905) that Cummings used.

Cummings's son, Robert A. Cummings, Jr., holding metal framework, around 1905.

Some of Cummings more noteworthy projects included the Davis Island Dam on the Ohio River; a water tank for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad; the Ninth Street Bridge in Pittsburgh; the Harbison-Walker Refractories in Birmingham, Alabama; a concrete floor for the machine shop, National Tube Company in Mckeesport, Pennsylvania; a mill building and boiler house for the National Casket Company in Ashville, North Carolina; pilings, abutments, and retaining walls for the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company; and a clear water basin (a drainage area to collect runoff) for the H. J. Heinz Company in Pittsburgh.

A 1911 image of a commercial building being constructed near H.J. Heinz Company. Depicted are metal bars in wood frames awaiting concrete.

A reinforced concrete column at the National Bureau of Standards Laboratory in Pittsburgh, 1913. Robert A. Cummings is standing to the right of the column.

In 1915, the Scott Paper Company (also known as the Chester Paper Company) of Chester, Pennsylvania, manufacturers of Scott tissues, toilet paper, and paper towels, contracted with Cummings to work on their beater rooms (housing machines that beat, rolled, and processed paper fibers) and machine rooms. Cummings work at the Scott Paper Company is well documented through sketches, blueprints, design notebooks, specifications, correspondence, progress reports, payroll records, and photographs. For example, in a July 21, 1916 letter, Cummings sent a quote for the work to Mr. Leibeck at the company:

[O]ur bid, entire job, $132,250.00. Substitutes reinforced concrete for structural steel in floors. Also flat slabs for docks. Sheet piling omitted. Reinforced concrete piles $1.40 per [linear?] foot in place. Can start work immediately. Alternate bid, actual cost, labor, materials, and miscellaneous expenses, plus ten percent.

In his Manual of Uniform Field Methods, 1915, Cummings outlined how the company would conduct its work. Job sites were to be photographed on the first and sixteenth of each month to show progress and special features of the work, leaving behind a wealth of photographic documentation such as these images from a construction album for the Scott Paper Company. Meticulously documented, the album pages provide a rich visual history of concrete construction processes, equipment used, and men laboring.

The negotiations with Scott Paper Company were carefully and thoroughly recorded, primarily through correspondence. Details of the work, especially the timeframe for completing the job would become an issue for Cummings.  Among papers related to “contract planning” is a letter dated May 7, 1917, from President Edward Irvin Scott of Chester Paper Company to Cummings.

Now Mr. Cummings, we have got some plain talk to give you. We cannot stand for the delay on the buildings at Chester; our beater rooms are nowhere near completion; you only have a small amount of people, and we have absolutely got to have that work finished, and we cannot submit to further unnecessary delay.

Scrapbook of photographs, Scott Paper Company, Chester, Pennsylvania, 1916-1917.

Cummings finally finished the project a month later; clearly, Cumming wasn’t working with quick-set.

To learn more about the concrete endeavors and inventive career of civil engineer Robert A. Cummings, visit the Archives Center.



The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume 50, Ann Arbor: University Microfilm, 1971.

United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region, (last accessed October 17, 2012)

All images are from the Cummings Structural Concrete Company Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Sorting It Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll Take That Drink To Go!

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

In Residence: The Lemelson Center 2012 Fellows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Archives: Daytime Talk and Invention

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

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

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

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

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