Remembering Ralph Baer (1922-2014)

The Lemelson Center notes, with great sadness, the passing of Ralph Baer, considered by many to be the “father of video games.”

Ralph Baer plays his Telesketch game, 1977.

Ralph Baer plays his Telesketch game, 1977.

In 1966, Baer transformed people’s relationship to home television by inventing a way for them to interact with their sets, playing games like Ping-Pong, tennis, checkers, and more. His work led directly to the game Odyssey in 1972, the first home video game for the consumer market, and launched a million-dollar industry, though no one predicted that at the time. That same year, a young Nolan Bushnell played Odyssey at a trade show. Bushnell went on to found Atari and create the arcade version of Baer’s Ping-Pong game, the now infamous Pong. Baer’s groundbreaking work shaped the leisure-time activities of a large segment of the world’s population and spawned numerous businesses, but the historical record of his achievements very nearly disappeared. In 2008, Baer told us the following story of how his original documents and apparatus were lost … and then found. They are now preserved in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where Baer’s home workshop will go on display next summer.

In the late 1990s I became aware that there is a growing community of classic video-game enthusiasts in the U.S. and elsewhere and that collecting hardware (game consoles, accessories, etc.) is an ongoing, growing hobby. So I became very concerned about the fate of all of the TV game hardware, as well as its supporting documentation, that we had built at Sanders Associates in Nashua, N.H., from 1966 through 1969. Hence, I began to inquire into the whereabouts and recoverability of the developmental games and the many supporting documents that Bill Harrison, Bill Rusch, and I generated during that period.

Photocopies of some of that documentation, used in various lawsuits against infringers of our patents, had been in my possession, but that was about all. Fortunately, people at Sanders were very cooperative and agreed that this material should be preserved. So I took charge of the collection effort and went after the hardware because I knew where it was stored and because it was most vulnerable to loss or destruction. Tracking down original documentation took place several years later.

There were a series of video-game-related patent infringement lawsuits, starting in the mid-seventies and finally ending in the mid-1990s, and I was not only deposed frequently but often appeared as an expert witness in court. Therefore I had a chance to review our game-development documents over and over again during that period of twenty years. That fact would later be of great help to me in my new task of trying to locate and preserve both hardware and documentation.

Depositions for the last of the lawsuits took place in Chicago in 1997 and I found myself once again in the offices of Leydig, Voit & Mayer, an intellectual-property law firm. During that deposition, video was shot in the Leydig, Voit & Mayer offices (these VHS tapes were recovered in 2004 by my friend and associate, David Winter) and show me handling every one of the eight different models of TV games, as well as other apparatus, that we had built at Sanders in the 1960s. In July 1997 I got the recovery effort rolling and received about half of the games from Leydig, Voit & Mayer a year later; the other games could not be located.

Because of health issues, I needed someone to help me continue the effort of data collection. I felt that that individual had to be a person of integrity who was a dedicated video-game historian and who had an existing, detailed knowledge of much of the early 1970s hardware, starting with the Magnavox Odyssey 1TL200. Preferably, he or she would also be someone who understood the technology and who was intensely interested in the details of the genesis of video games.

The only person I knew who qualified under these preconditions was David Winter in Paris, France. I began corresponding frequently by email with David starting in 1998. He was then in his mid-twenties, had a background in electrical engineering and software, and had already amassed a substantial collection of classic video-game consoles. What is more, he turned out to be that rare individual who is a true collector, intensely interested in the history of video games. He was then already exceptionally knowledgeable about the technical and marketing details of video-game hardware from the early 1970s.

And in many ways, he reminded me of myself. I came back to the U.S. from Paris as a GI in 1946, World War II being over, and brought eighteen tons of foreign small arms home with me. I had been teaching the use of some of these weapons to GIs and in the process was thoroughly drawn into understanding those weapons’ heritage and technology. I became the self-motivated collector of, and resident expert on, foreign small arms for the War Department. This intense experience made me intimately familiar with what it takes to be a collector–and I recognized those traits in David Winter.

With my health deteriorating, I decided to invite David to accompany me on a trip to Chicago in June 2002 to try and locate the missing TV game hardware items. Unfortunately, in two long, hot, and dusty days at the storage facility, we located only one hardware item, but did find hundreds of photocopies of documents that shed new light on the early history of video games. For example, we found records of the pre-Odyssey product consumer acceptance tests carried out by Magnavox, as well as many internal documents that fleshed out the details of how the home-console video-game business really got started at Magnavox. With the availability of all that data, we had moved a big step forward in our mission to create a detailed historical track of who did what, when, and where to make the home-console video-game industry a reality.

The next year, David went to Chicago again, this time on his own, to take one more crack at the storage boxes in an effort to find Harrison’s, Rusch’s, and my original documents. He was eminently successful, locating the standard-issue Sanders notebooks kept by Bill Rusch and Bill Harrison during 1967 and 1968 as well as the original loose-leaf papers containing my 1966-72 notes, including the cover sheet and four-page document that I wrote on September 1, 1966. In that document I had laid out the concept of playing games using an ordinary TV set and proposed a lot of game ideas, thus making that document the closest thing to the Magna Carta of the home video-game industry. David also found the original guest book used by Magnavox in May 1972 to sign in visitors at its San Francisco showroom. There Nolan Bushnell, later president of Atari, signed that book and played the Odyssey Ping-Pong game hands-on. That act became the genesis of the arcade game Pong.

Baer demonstrating his original video game equipment in 2003.

Baer demonstrating his original video game equipment in 2003. © 2003 Smithsonian Institution; photo by Jeff Tinsley.

In October 2002 I had contacted David Allison, chair and curator of the Division of Information Technology and Communications at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and we agreed, in principle, that the Smithsonian would become the repository for the game apparatus, as well as some of the supporting photocopied documentation. Finding and donating the original documents was not even a remote possibility at the time. But in January 2006 I sent the newly located original documents to the Smithsonian. These have been digitized by the Lemelson Center and are available as part of the finding aid  to the materials that I have donated.

The search goes on for additional documents relevant to the 1966-75 period that brackets the conceptual, developmental, and early production and marketing years of the nascent console video-game industry. As they surface, I expect to add them to the material already in the custody of the Smithsonian. Through the work of the Lemelson Center’s Modern Inventors Documentation (MIND) program, the fragile historical record representing my nearly lost legacy and that of other inventors as well is preserved and accessible.

For more about Ralph Baer, watch the video of his visit to Spark!Lab in 2009 and listen to our 2007 podcast.

Be Still, My Heart: Behind the Scenes in the Cardiac Collections

We crowded together in the narrow passageway at the rear of the Medicine and Science collections storage area. Curator Judy Chelnick slowly opened a drawer in one of the gray metal cabinets and special guest Manny Villafaña’s eyes lit up. He exclaimed: “It’s like being a kid in a candy store!” Before him lay a group of small archival boxes nestled together, each holding a cardiac pacemaker or valve. Judy picked up items one by one for Manny to get a closer peek. She also showed him related objects in glass-fronted storage cabinets around the room. This was a highlight of Manny’s visit to the National Museum of American History in late March. He came to town in part to learn more about the Museum’s collections and why, how, and where we care for both three-dimensional objects and archival documents.

Inventor Manny Villafana with curator Judy Chelnick in storage looking at heart valves.

As he oohed and aahed about the array of medical collections, my colleague Chris Gauthier captured Manny’s expert commentary on video while I snapped photographs. Not only does Manny have great familiarity with these objects from his life-long career as an inventor and entrepreneur in the medical-device industry, but also he knows many of their inventors. For example, he had professional connections with the inventors behind two key artifacts for the Places of Invention exhibition’s “Medical Alley” story: a Medtronic 5800 externally wearable cardiac pacemaker and a Chardack-Greatbatch implantable pacemaker model.

Manny Villafana examines a pacemaker.

Manny talked knowingly about the 5800, which was originally invented by Medtronic, Inc. co-founder Earl Bakken in 1957 and sold commercially starting in 1958 (thus the model number). Manny worked for Earl at Medtronic as its first international sales administrator before starting his first rival company, Cardiac Pacemakers Inc. At the latter, Manny worked closely with engineer Wilson Greatbatch, the inventor of the first successful implantable cardiac pacemaker named for him and surgeon William Chardack. The Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker model dating from about 1961 has been in the Museum’s care for a long time. Medtronic recently donated the 5800 model dating from about 1972, along with two other recent cardiac pacemakers to help expand the medical sciences collections.

An early pacemaker.

A Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker.

As part of Manny’s behind-the-scenes tour, archivist Alison Oswald welcomed him to the Museum’s vault to show him a range of archival materials. She explained why we save certain items and how we care for them, from inventors’ notebooks to paper prototypes to marketing brochures. He was surprised about the Archives Center’s interest in collecting ephemera, which the Society of American Archivists defines as “Materials, usually printed documents, created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use….Examples of ephemera include advertisements, tickets, brochures, and receipts.” It got him thinking about how seemingly unimportant papers he has squirreled away might be worth saving. Alison gave him a copy of our Modern Inventors Documentation (MIND) Program brochure to take home for further consideration.

Archivist Alison Oswald shows Manny Villafana archival documents.

While he was here, we filmed Manny as he shared great stories about his personal collection of pacemakers and heart valves, including some objects he brought along in his jacket pockets. He pulled out a real gem, St. Jude Medical bileaflet mechanical heart valve serial number 1—“the industry’s gold standard”—that he co-invented. (Be sure to watch the full video to see a later set of ATS heart valves, which he co-invented, used as cuff links!) Manny founded St. Jude Medical, Inc. in the 1970s and ATS Medical in the 1980s, and is now the CEO of his seventh company, Kips Bay Medical, Inc. In addition to the video footage of him discussing the Museum’s collections with Judy and talking about his own, I conducted a short video interview with Manny in the Lemelson Center. I asked him questions about his childhood and career, the history of the medical-device industry in Minnesota, and his relationships with some of the key Medical Alley pioneers like Bakken and Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, “the father of open-heart surgery.” Manny’s visit provided a wonderful opportunity to create video documentation to complement the Museum’s medical-device object and archival collections. We also look forward to featuring clips in the Places of Invention exhibition!

Conserving the Patent Model Collection

This is a guest post by Joan Boudreau, Curator, Graphic Arts Collection, National Museum of American History.

2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the granting of U.S. patent number 43649, to John Joseph Charles Smith for a “machine for cutting printers type.” Smith’s patent drawing and model offer a view of the invention for his type-cutting machine. The machine sawed individual letters from cast-metal strips. The strips could be made by Smith’s companion invention of the same date, U.S. patent number 43648.

jjcsmith patent drawing

The three-dimensional patent model (measuring approximately 4″x10″x13″) resides in the Graphic Arts Collection at the National Museum of American History alongside some 400 other patent models relating to the printing trade. These patent models have been a part of the national collections since the early 20th century.

jjcsmith patent model

Smith’s model is one of 31 patent models recently surveyed for their conservation and preservation treatment needs, thanks to a small “Staff Projects” funding grant from the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. These small internal grants fund museum work related to invention and innovation at the National Museum of American History and around the Smithsonian.

During the last several years, staff at the Museum have been preparing to load information and photographs of the hundreds of graphic arts-related patent models to the web. (View our work here.) It became clear during this process that a small number of models, which had not seen much use (i.e. for research or display) in the last few decades, were in need of conservation treatment, mostly because of ferrous metal corrosion (or rust, in non-technical terms).

The Staff Projects grant from the Lemelson Center, as well as assistance from the Museum’s Preservation Services team, allowed for the hiring of a conservation specialist who inspected the models needing attention and prepared an in-depth report. The report included treatment needs and a conservator’s time requirements for each model. Now, armed with this important information, we are able to better understand the funds required to actually treat the models, preserving them to a stable condition. We will soon be out applying for grants and seeking other types of funding.

The conservation of objects relating to our American national heritage, including the history of American technology, is good museum practice, and, in fact, one of the missions of the Smithsonian—preserving our nation’s heritage for future generations. The patent models in the Graphic Arts Collection are unique, three-dimensional representations of inventions that factored into the United States’ place of dominance during the Industrial Revolution, which emphasizes the importance of their preservation.

Over 200,000 inventions were patented between the years 1790 and 1880, the period when parent models were a requirement of the patent application process. Some of the inventions and inventors of the first half of the 19th century are represented  in a painting commissioned in 1857 entitled “Men of Progress” by Christian Schussele. The painting, a Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery holding, depicts an imaginary gathering of successful inventors—Cyrus McCormick, Charles Goodyear, Samuel Colt, Samuel Morse, Elias Howe, Richard M. Hoe (representing the printing trade), and thirteen others—thought to have “altered the course of contemporary civilization.” The painting, also depicting representative patent models, applauds these men and their contributions to the fields of agriculture, armaments, communications, energy, engineering, medicine, textiles, and transportation.

men of progress

“Men of Progress” speaks to the depth and breadth of American inventiveness, and to the central role invention and innovation play in the history of the United States. The existence of our patent system is representative of the intellectual property protections offered by the U.S. government, a response to the concept of equal freedoms for all.

Very few patented inventions ever become successful in the marketplace, for a variety of reasons. It is not immediately clear whether John Joseph Charles Smith’s type-cutting invention was ever even manufactured. But we can say that the patent model represents just one of Smith’s many patented inventions (overall, according to Smith’s 1914 obituary in The New York Times, he had been granted 60 U.S. and foreign patents), and more broadly the thousands of inventions patented between 1790 and 1880.

The patent models in the Graphic Arts Collection represent only four percent of the some 10,000 models in the Museum’s collections transferred to the Smithsonian from the U.S. Patent Office in 1908 and 1926. The models reside in various collections at the Museum, in accordance with the subject interests of our different curatorial units. Today you can view about ten percent of the patent model collections online, and patent models dating from 1836 to 1880 are listed in a two volume publication prepared by Barbara Janssen. (Volume 1, Volume 2.)

Richard M. Hoe is depicted in the painting "Men of Progress." This is a patent model of his flatbed cylinder press dated 1844.

Richard M. Hoe is depicted in the painting “Men of Progress.” This is a patent model of his flatbed cylinder press dated 1844.

Each of these patent models has a story to tell. Some, like those representing the works of John Joseph Charles Smith, can be told in connection with each other; many more represent the only patented invention of an individual. The Museum’s collection of patent models offers an endless repository of yet-untold stories of American technological history.

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.

Remembering Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl ad

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Apple’s famous “1984” television ad that aired on January 22, 1984 during the third quarter of the Super Bowl XVIII between the Los Angeles Raiders and Washington Redskins. Historian Eric Hintz describes how the “1984” ad and the introduction of the Apple Macintosh were key milestones both in the history of computing and the history of advertising.

The Super Bowl is a cultural event that attracts the attention of more than just football fans. In 2013, Super Bowl XLVII was the third most watched telecast of all time, with an average viewership of 108.7 million people. With so many eyeballs tuned in, advertisers bring out some of their best work and casual fans tune in for the groundbreaking TV commercials as much as for the game. Who could forget Steelers Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene selling Coca-Cola (1979) or the Budweiser guys coining “Wassuuuup?!?” (2000) as everyone’s new favorite catchphrase? However, Apple’s “1984” ad during Super Bowl XVIII is arguably the most famous Super Bowl commercial of all time.

In 1983, the personal computing market was up for grabs. Apple was selling its Apple II like hotcakes but was facing increasing competition from IBM’s PC and “clones” made by Compaq and Commodore. Meanwhile, Apple, led by Steve Jobs, was busy developing its new Macintosh computer. Remember that in 1983, most businesses and governments still employed large, expensive, and technically intimidating mainframes. And while the first personal computers of the early 1980s were smaller and less intimidating, they still featured black screens with green text-based commands like C:\> run autoexec.bat.

Drawing inspiration from the pioneering Xerox Alto and improving on the underperforming Apple Lisa, Jobs and the Apple team built the Apple Macintosh with several revolutionary new features we now take for granted. A handheld input device called a “mouse.” A graphical user interface with overlapping “windows” and menus. Clickable pictures called “icons.” Cut-copy-paste editing. In short, Jobs and his team were creating an “insanely great” personal computer that was intuitive and easy to use—one he hoped would shake-up the PC market. At the same time, Apple had recently lured marketing whiz John Sculley away from Pepsi to be the firm’s new chief executive. Sculley, who had masterminded the “Pepsi Generation” campaign, raised Apple’s ad budget from $15 million to $100 million in his first year.

Apple Macintosh (“classic” 128K version), 1984, catalog number 1985.0118.01, from the National Museum of American History.

Apple Macintosh (“classic” 128K version), 1984, catalog number 1985.0118.01, from the National Museum of American History.

Apple hired the Los Angeles advertising firm Chiat/Day to launch the Macintosh in early 1984; the account team was led by creative director Lee Clow, copywriter Steve Hayden, and art director Brent Thomas. The trio developed a concept inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, in which The Party, run by the all-seeing Big Brother, kept the proletariat in check with constant surveillance by the Thought Police. In the ad, IBM’s “Big Blue” would be cast as Big Brother, dominating the computer industry with its dull conformity, while Apple would re-write the book’s ending so that the Macintosh metaphorically defeats the regime. To direct the commercial, Chiat/Day hired British movie director Ridley Scott who’d perfected the cinematic look and feel of dystopian futures in Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). The 60-second mini-film was shot in one week at a production cost of about $500,000. Two hundred extras were paid $125 a day to shave their heads, march in lock-step, and listen to Big Brother’s Stalinist gibberish. Shot in dark, blue-gray hues to evoke IBM’s Big Blue, the only splashes of color were the bright red running shorts of the protagonist, an athletic young woman who sprints through the commercial carrying a sledgehammer, and Apple’s rainbow logo. The commercial never showed the actual computer, but ended with a tease: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”

Scenes from Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl advertisement.  From

Scenes from Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl advertisement. From


When shown the finished ad in late 1983, Apple’s board members hated it. Sculley, the Apple CEO, instructed Chiat/Day to sell back both the 30 and 60-second time slots they’d purchased from CBS for $1 million, but they were only able to unload the 30 second slot.  Apple was faced with the prospect of eating the $500,000 production costs of an ad that could really only air during calendar year 1984, so it swallowed hard and let the ad run once during the third quarter of the Super Bowl. Some 43 million Americans saw the ad, and when the football game returned, CBS announcers Pat Summerall and John Madden asked one another, “Wow, what was that?”

The ad, of course, was a sensation. The commercial’s social and political overtones held particular resonance in the mid-1980s, as the United States and Soviet Union were still engaged in an ideological Cold War. And, like Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad from the 1964 presidential campaign, the ad aired only once in primetime, but was replayed again and again on the network news that evening as the ad itself became a buzz-worthy source of free publicity. But even the mystique of the single airing wasn’t entirely true. Chiat/Day had quietly run the ad one other time, at 1 a.m. on December 15, 1983 on KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho, so that the advertisement qualified for the 1983 advertising awards.  As expected, the ad won several prestigious awards, including the Grand Prize at the Cannes International Advertising Festival (1984) and Advertising Age’s 1980s “Commercial of the Decade.” But the ad’s most enduring legacy is that it cemented the Super Bowl as each year’s blockbuster moment for advertisers and their clients.

While the ad aired during the Super Bowl on January 22, it merely pointed to Macintosh’s official debut two days later. On January 24, 1984, Apple held its annual shareholders meeting at the Flint Center auditorium on the campus of De Anza College, just a block from Apple’s offices in Cupertino, California. After dispensing with the formalities of board votes and quarterly earnings statements, the real show began. Steve Jobs walked on stage in a double-breasted suit and bow tie and rallied the troops by tweaking his chief rival: “IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control, Apple.  Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry, the entire information age?  Was George Orwell right?”

Jobs then presented perhaps the greatest new product demonstration in history. Jobs walked over to a black bag, unzipped it, and set up the Macintosh to wild applause.  Then Jobs inserted a floppy disk and started the demonstration of the Mac’s windows, menus, fonts, and drawing tools, all set to the stirring theme from Chariots of Fire. Then, the Mac spoke for itself: “Hello, I am Macintosh…”

So when you watch the Super Bowl on February 2 this year, it’s possible that the ads will overshadow the game. And for that you can thank Apple’s Macintosh, Chiat/Day and “1984.”

Get that clean, baby-face look: Razors at the Smithsonian

Well, we’re just about halfway through November and the streets are filled with beards—all for a good cause. Whether participating in Movember or No Shave November or just being lazy with the razor, November is all about facial hair. The Smithsonian is participating in our own unique way and highlighting historic mustaches, beards, and sideburns. Just check out our Pinterest page, “Smithsonian Staches,” or visit the National Museum of American History’s blog, O Say Can You See, for some truly amazing mustache-related collection items—from photos of Ambrose Burnside to a bicentennial-celebrating beard.

Ambrose Burnside

Perhaps Burnside’s most lasting legacy was the genesis of the term sideburn, the fashionable facial hair style that took its title from his scrambled surname

Beard dyed red, white and blue.

Northwoods Hairstyling of Downey, California, dyed this beard for Gary Sandburg, who later sent it to the Smithsonian. The American bicentennial commemorated the 200th anniversary of the convening of the Second Congress in the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, July 4, 1776, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which called for separation from Great Britain and the creation of the United States of America.

Come December 1, the razors come out, perhaps to the delight of spouses and significant others. Coincidentally, November hosts some razor-specific invention anniversaries.

On November 15, 1904, King C. Gillette received a patent (No. 775,134) for a razor. “A main object of my invention is to provide a safety-razor in which the necessity of honor or stropping the blade is done away with, thus saving the annoyance and expense involved there in,” reads Gillette’s patent application. By making his blades out of “very thin sheet-steel,” he was able to “produce and sell [his] blades so cheaply that the user may buy them in quantities and throw them away when dull without making the expense thus incurred as great as that of keep the prior blades sharp.” Gillette’s razor was adjustable, to allow for different beard lengths, and featured a safety guard.

Patent drawing for "Razor" by Gillette, 1904.

Patent drawing for “Razor” by Gillette, 1904.

On November 6, 1928, Jacob Schick patented (No. 177,885) a “Shaving Implement.” Whereas Gillette was concerned about creating cheap and replaceable blades, Schick’s invention avoided blades altogether. “The invention is designed to provide a shaving implement that does not require the usual prior application of lather, or its equivalent to the face as the cutting of the hair can be done while the face and hairs are comparatively dry.” When using Schick’s Shaving Implement, “the hairs are snipped off and by repeating the stroke several times the face is cleanly shaven.” Schick’s invention also used air suction, both to draw the hair away from the skin and to suck the cut hairs out of the implement.

Patent drawing for "Shaving Implement" by Schick, 1928.

Patent drawing for “Shaving Implement” by Schick, 1928.

One of the more interesting places to find razors in the collections of the Smithsonian is the National Air and Space Museum. Examples from both Gillette and Schick have gone up into space—astronaut Michael Collins carried shaving equipment made by Gillette on the Apollo 11 mission. More Gillette and Schick items reside in the national collections at NASM and Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

Gillette razor and shaving cream carried aboard Apollo 11.

This shaving equipment was carried aboard the Apollo 11 mission by astronaut Michael Collins as part of his personal preference kit. Both pieces were readily available in drugstores.
The Personal Preference Kit was so named because all astronauts were permitted one small bag for personal or small items of significance they wished to carry into space.

Seeing in the Dark: Aerial Recon in WWII

The Lemelson Center’s annual symposium took place on Oct. 25 and this year we explored the role technology and invention plays in our surveillance society. You can watch the archived video on UStream. In this post, we look at one invention that allowed for wartime surveillance from the sky.

Many of us who work at the National Museum of American History have a favorite object or two. Mine is part of the photographic history collections. It’s a General Electric Mazda FT-17 flash lamp, whose prototype was invented by Harold “Doc” Edgerton at MIT to take aerial reconnaissance photographs at night. Why do I like it? Well, OK, I’m a photography geek. But the tube is elegant yet cool, and it has a great story.

Edgerton had originally invented an electronic stroboscope to study high-speed machinery in motion. But he soon turned his light (and camera) on a vast range of subjects. Applying his solid engineering training, vivid imagination, and good business sense, Edgerton continually adapted and commercialized the technology he had created. In the 1940s, this work took Doc into the sky.

Major George Goddard of the army’s photographic laboratory at Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) visited Edgerton at MIT in 1939. Goddard had joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1917 and was appointed instructor of aerial photographic interpretation at the School of Military Aeronautics the following year. He knew firsthand both the value and limitations of aerial photography using existing technology. So he asked if Edgerton and his colleagues could build a strobe that would be powerful enough to take photographs from a plane, at night, from a height of a mile. “We can do that,” Doc said. “We haven’t got it in the house, but we can do that.” (1) That confidence produced an electronic flash system for night aerial photography that delivered information impossible to obtain in any other way.

Edgerton’s night aerial photography system.

Edgerton’s night aerial photography system. The flash tube (lower center) fits into the reflector at the left. The camera (center), which looks a lot like an oversized 35-mm single-lens reflex camera, is sitting on top of one of the capacitor banks. The serviceman is holding the control box. Courtesy of the MIT Museum.

The strobe that Doc originally designed to photograph events from the bleachers of Boston Garden provided a technical foundation for his electronic flash for military night aerial photography. But the components of this new flash system were bigger and more powerful than anything Doc had yet built. The flash tube is a tough monster; its 30 inches of strong, quartz glass, coiled into a xenon-filled spiral, withstood the 4,000 volts discharged through it. The tube fit into a reflector mounted in the plane’s belly or tail. Banks of capacitors, weighing up to 500 pounds each, were slung on the plane’s bomb racks and supplied power to the flash tube. A direct contact synchronized the flash to the equally oversized aerial camera.

Setting up the strobe (left) and camera (center) at Boston Garden, 1946. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

Setting up the strobe (left) and camera (center) at Boston Garden, 1946. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

In April 1941, the first experimental unit–camera, capacitors, flash tube, and reflector–was mounted in a B-18 and tested over Boston. But the system’s most famous test began on June 5, 1944, when an A-20 equipped with the flash took off for France, ahead of the D-day invasion forces. Doc recorded the results in his laboratory notebook on June 7, 1944: “The A-20 (No 449) went on its first mission on Monday night June 5 arriving at the target on June 6 around 130 am. The target was two road intersections south of Caen. Due to clouds the pictures were taken at 800 ft – 2000 ft. The photos were very good but there was no overlap. Some flack [sic] from ground machine guns was encountered at a town named Coustances. Villedieu-les-Poêles was photographed. I stayed up until 5 am to see the negatives out of the dryer.” (2)

Doc continued to tweak the giant flash system even as it saw use in many more missions during the war. One of my favorite runs, though, took place in August 1944, when Edgerton was testing the flash in England. Stonehenge, standing alone on the Salisbury Plain, proved a perfect subject for his experiments.

Stonehenge, 1944. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

Stonehenge, 1944. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

The nighttime aerial reconnaissance photography system developed by Edgerton and his colleagues at MIT, in industry, and in the military, was used throughout the war. The adaptation of the flash tube from peacetime photography of things like rodeos in Boston Garden to wartime reconnaissance flights over Europe is a testament to Edgerton’s creative mind. Throughout his life, Doc welcomed each new inquiry. “If you don’t wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and want to do something,” Edgerton quipped, “why, you’re wasting time.” (3)

A serviceman inserting the flash tube into the reflector. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

A serviceman inserting the flash tube into the reflector. Courtesy of the MIT Museum


(1) “History of the Strobe Light,” Edgerton Hall, MIT, Cambridge, Mass., November 27, 1984. Harold Eugene Edgerton Papers, MC 25, Box 116, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(2) Notebook 15, 30 Jan. 1944 – 16 Feb. 1945, pp. 23-24, Harold Eugene Edgerton Papers, MC 25, Box 53, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(3) WGBH Nova, “Edgerton and His Incredible Seeing Machines.” Original broadcast: January 15, 1985.

This post first appeared in Prototype, May 2010 edition.

Extraordinary Attractions! Be Amazed! Must See!

Hidden Motors Give Life to Prehistoric Monsters. Robot Cow Moos and Gives Milk. Mechanical Monster Eats Girl on Movie Stage. These spectacles and more were created by Messmore & Damon, a New York firm that specialized in window displays and parade floats. Founded in 1916, the dynamic and creative duo of George H. Messmore and Joseph Damon designed and constructed parade floats, dioramas for museums, exhibits for expositions, displays for department stores, scenery, exhibits for corporate clients, and for film, theater, and television. Most of their parade and department store work featured animated mechanical devices.

1.Hidden Motors Give Life to Prehistoric Monsters, Popular Science Monthly, June 1933. (AC0846-0000002.tif)

Hidden Motors Give Life to Prehistoric Monsters, Popular Science Monthly, June 1933. (AC0846-0000002.tif)

Mechanical Monster “Eats” Girl on Movie Stage, Popular Science Monthly, October 1931.

Mechanical Monster “Eats” Girl on Movie Stage, Popular Science Monthly, October 1931. (AC0846-0000003.tif)

Messmore & Damon brought to life huge dinosaurs, tigers, mastodons, dragons, other monsters, and even cows. One of their creations was a life-sized (48 foot long, 9 foot high, 4,000 pound) mechanized reproduction of a dinosaur, Amphibious Dinosaur Brontosaurus (aka “Dolores” or “Dino”). It could laugh, breathe, roll its eyes, shake its head, and move its jaws. It was a must see. Created for the Century of Progress International Exhibition (1933-1934), “The World a Million Years Ago,” Dino was made of layers of chicken wire, canvas, rattan, papier-mâché and paint. A human ran a complicated series of motors, chains, ball bearings, gears, cranks, counterweights, and universal joints that worked in concert to create a spectacular experience. The dinosaur was capable of moving its head in all directions and it had a moveable jaw. George Messmore’s 1933 patent (US Patent 1,898,587) stated “the jaw was intended to hold a dancer so that the dancer may be lifted up by the animal for entertaining purposes.”  Dino hit the entertainment circuit after the Fair entertaining thousands at department stores and other venues. He even inspired an essay contest for youngsters who were asked, “What Would Happen if Dino Lived Today?”

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933.

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933. (AC0846-0000006.tif)

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933.

Drawing for US Patent 1,898,587, February 21, 1933. (AC0846-0000007.tif)

For more information about Messmore & Damon, Inc., Records, visit the Archives Center and Holidays on Display, an online exhibition featuring Messmore & Damon.

5.Postcard, Amphibious Dinosaur Brontosaurus, 1933. (AC0846-0000009.tif)

Postcard, Amphibious Dinosaur Brontosaurus, 1933. (AC0846-0000009.tif)

Innovations in “FOOD”

A few nights ago, my friend Corinne was making dinner and realized she didn’t have a steamer basket large enough to accommodate the head of cauliflower she was preparing. After a few minutes rummaging around in cabinets and drawers, she rigged up this:

corinnes invention

And it worked! Brilliantly, I’m sure she’d want me to add. “Hey, you should probably put this in the Smithsonian,” she said. (I tend to get that a lot from friends and family.)

It got me thinking. The kitchen is definitely a place of invention. We’ve discussed food-related inventions before here on Bright Ideas—innovations in coffee, the invention of cup holders, a gadget that might just let me finally recreate my mom’s famed mashed potatoes, and the stories behind three frozen treats. But what other food innovations reside in the collections at the National Museum of American History? Here are five invention stories from our food exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950 – 2000. (There are so many more!)

1.  Food Television Programming

Julia Child’s The French Chef debuted on public television in 1963. Its successful ten-year run inspired a model for a flood of new cooking shows and culinary stars throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1993, a new cable channel, Television Food Network, turned cooking and food shows into twenty-four-hour entertainment—a round-the-clock affirmation of Julia’s instinct that demonstrating omelette-making would appeal to viewers.

Martha Stewart and Mario Batali.

Martha Stewart and Mario Batali, 2007. “Martha Stewart Living” first aired in 1993.
Batali, who joined the Food Network in 1995 starred in “Molto Mario” beginning in 1997.

2. The Ring King

Krispy Kreme of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, had been making doughnuts since 1937. In the 1950s as the company expanded to a small chain of stores, it sought ways to ensure a consistent and profitable product. They created a dry doughnut mix and developed a machine that automated the doughnut-making process. The Ring King Junior formed, fried, turned, and cooled about sixty dozen doughnuts per hour, reducing labor costs.

ring king

3. Ready to Eat Carrots

Engineer and inventor, Joseph T. Listner was early to recognize the appeal and convenience of bagged, ready-to-eat vegetables. In 1959, he designed and built a one-of-a-kind machine that sliced raw carrots into sticks. The machine enabled a small-scale producer like Listner, Inc., in Wallington, New Jersey, to slice an estimated one million pounds of carrots in sixteen years of operation.  Listner sold his bagged carrot sticks and cole slaw to stores, including the Grand Union supermarket chain.

Listner made his slicer with components from other machines.  Although the carrots still had to be peeled by hand, the machine automatically trimmed them to uniform sticks.

carrot machine

4. New Materials, New Tools

Using materials developed before and during World War II, manufacturers created a variety of new equipment and appliances for postwar cooks.  New plastics, non-stick-coatings, and pyroceramic glass were among the most successful.  Tupperware, Teflon, and Corning Ware housewares took their place in many American kitchens next to old reliable glass jars, and cast iron and aluminum skillets. Brand-new electrical gadgets consumed ever greater amounts of counter space.

A Coring Ware dish, a Teflon-coated Bundt pan, a Rival Crock-Pot and a Veg-O-Matic.

1. Corning Glass Works formulated a glass ceramic material in the 1950s that withstood extreme temperatures. A single Corning Ware dish could be used for cooking, freezing, and serving food. 2. Bakeware pioneer Nordic Ware was one of the first companies to apply Teflon to its products, including its signature Bundt cake pan. 3. Patented in 1975, the slow-cooking, electric Crock-Pot with a removable insert allowed busy home cooks to start dinner before they left for work, and return home to a fully cooked meal. 4. The Veg-O-Matic food slicer, invented by Samuel J. Popeil, debuted in 1963 and was sold by his son, Ron, via late-night television. The device is best remembered for his iconic sales pitch—“It slices! It dices!”

5. White Zinfandel

Zinfandel was one of the grapes associated with cheap jug wines widely produced after the repeal of Prohibition. During the replanting of California’s vineyards in the 1960s and 1970s, acres of Zinfandel were ripped out to make way for the new darlings of the vineyards, Cabernet and Chardonnay.

One vintner who kept his Zinfandel grapes was Bob Trinchero of the Sutter Home Winery, who used them to produce a dry, rosé-style wine. In 1975, while his grapes were fermenting, the yeast died before the wine’s sugar was converted to alcohol. He decided to try selling the resulting slightly sweet pink wine. Many Americans still had a “sweet tooth” for wine, and his “blush,” called White Zinfandel, was a runaway hit.

Bottle of white zinfandel and a bumper sticker praising the wine.

This is one of the first bottles of White Zinfandel made by the Trincheros of Sutter Home Winery in 1975. They named it Oeil de Perdrix, or Eye of the Partridge. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms later rejected the name, so this new wine became, simply, White Zinfandel. The bottle is on load to the exhibition from Trinchero Family Estates and Sutter Home Winery. Below is a bumper sticker.

Note: Photos were taken in the exhibition and text is pulled from exhibit labels.

Reinventing Spark!Lab

Since my June 2012 blog, we have been hard at work planning for a new Spark!Lab at the National Museum of American History. I have formed a great team of colleagues from around the Museum to help develop a space that meets the needs of our (very diverse) visitors, ties Spark!Lab to the expertise and collections of the Lemelson Center and NMAH, and offers a truly innovative experience. Our planning team is made up of curators, educators, and historians; fundraising professionals; a public affairs specialist; and an accessibility expert—not to mention the all-important project manager who keeps us on schedule and within budget. It’s great to have a team with such wide-ranging knowledge and experience, as each member brings his or her own perspective to the planning process.

As we plan the space, we are using the Spark!Lab mission to provide a guiding framework:

In Spark!Lab, we help visitors connect invention to their own lives and to the American narrative, and offer opportunities for visitors to engage in the invention process and recognize their own inventive creativity.

Three core educational messages are also helping to shape the Spark!Lab 2.0 experience:

  • Invention is a process. 
  • Everyone is inventive.
  • Invention and innovation have been—and continue to be—an important part of the American Experience.

As we think about the visitor experience, we’ve been working to develop a new thematic structure for Spark!Lab so that all of the activities will tie to a common theme. Our idea is that themes will change throughout the year and will reflect the vast collections held by NMAH. To get inspiration for themes and related activities, our team has been taking “field trips” to different collections areas in the Museum. These visits are seeding great discussions among our group as we think about how to incorporate history into hands-on, invention-based activities for kids and their families. (This is also one of the great perks of working for the Smithsonian. Where else can you see such cool stuff?)

To date, the team has visited the Physical Sciences and Medical Sciences collections—or, really, parts of them. Most collections at NMAH are enormous and many are stored in multiple locations, some on- and some off-site. But we’ve been lucky to see collections items—many of which have never been or are rarely on display—that reflect various aspects of invention and innovation throughout American history.

Here are a few highlights from our visits:

Inside the Physical Sciences collections storage area

Inside the Physical Sciences collections storage area

Curator Steve Turner holds a 19th century “Tellurian.” This teaching device was used to show how the Earth’s movement on its axis and its orbit around the sun causes day, night, and the seasons.]

Curator Steve Turner holds a 19th century “Tellurian.” This teaching device was used to show how the Earth’s movement on its axis and its orbit around the sun causes day, night, and the seasons.

The National Tuning Fork Collection.

The National Tuning Fork Collection. The tuning fork, invented in the early 1700s by a British trumpeter, is an acoustic resonator. When struck, it will vibrate and resonate at a constant pitch. The specific pitch depends on the length of the two prongs or tines of the fork. Tuning forks have a wide range of scientific, medical, and technological applications.

In the Medical Sciences collections, we looked at a large collection of eyeglasses to learn about the changes in the shape, size, and materials of which glasses were made. Early glasses, like those on the right (1750-1800), were small as the capability to grind lenses was limited. The circles on the ear pieces would have fit over the user’s ears to keep them in place.

In the Medical Sciences collections, we looked at a large collection of eyeglasses to learn about the changes in the shape, size, and materials of which glasses were made. Early glasses, like those on the bottom (1750-1800), were small as the capability to grind lenses was limited. The circles on the ear pieces would have fit over the user’s ears to keep them in place.

A prototype of an early defibrillator. The device was controlled by a simple on/off switch, and had a single knob to increase or decrease power.

A prototype of an early defibrillator. The device was controlled by a simple on/off switch, and had a single knob to increase or decrease power.

We also viewed the toothbrush collection and saw a range of innovative solutions to keeping teeth clean, including a sort of “Swiss Army” toothbrush (1908) which was made of ivory and incorporated other tooth- and gum-cleaning implements, and the Spongo (1940s-1950s) featuring a “sanitary” and “replaceable” sponge head instead of bristles.

We also viewed the toothbrush collection and saw a range of innovative solutions to keeping teeth clean, including a sort of “Swiss Army” toothbrush (1908) which was made of ivory and incorporated other tooth- and gum-cleaning implements, and the Spongo (1940s-1950s) featuring a “sanitary” and “replaceable” sponge head instead of bristles.

Our team has had a great time visiting these and other treasures at NMAH and, in the coming months, looks forward to visiting more collections. Next on our list are Photographic History to see cameras, lenses, and all things photography, and Work and Industry where we’ll get a chance to see the wide range of robots in NMAH’s collection!

Just this week we also kicked off the exhibition design process for Spark!Lab, so we’re not only thinking about the activities visitors will do but what the environment will look like and how the space will really function. So expect more (and more frequent) updates as we further develop and design Spark!Lab 2.0. Though we won’t reopen our doors until 2015, we’re already excited about welcoming visitors back to Spark!Lab and seeing them create, collaborate, innovate, problem-solve, and of course, invent.