Doctors Inventing Auto Safety

Editor’s Note: This post is by Lemelson Fellow Lee Vinsel. Lee is an Assistant Professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

This summer I am a fellow at the Lemelson Center, where I am researching the history of automotive safety, focusing on the story of safety in the early period of auto history, from 1900 to 1940, which remains underexplored by historians. My research here has brought me face-to-face with a theme that scholars at the Lemelson Center are currently exploring, namely the role that geography and local networks play in innovative thinking.

The Lemelson Center is developing an exhibition called, Places of Invention, which examines the roles that places and communities play in fostering inventive and innovative activity. Places of Invention focuses on some neat examples of hotspots of innovation: the growth of scientific communities in Washington, DC, in the late 1800s; the rise of manufacturing industries in Hartford, CT, during the mid-19th century; inventive activity around Cambridge, MA, spurred on by World War II military spending; the emergence of Silicon Valley in California and “Medical Alley” in Minnesota during the 1960s and 1970s; the birth of Hip Hop in Bronx, NY, which forever revolutionized popular music; and contemporary research in energy research in Fort Collins, CO.

With my research focus, it’s no surprise that I am particularly interested in the role locality has played in influencing automotive safety. Detroit is a famous example of the power of place in shaping technological change, as reflected in works like, Robert Szudarek’s How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital. Often historians focus on the kinds of inventors, engineers, and entrepreneurs who play a direct role in improving the technologies and companies at the center of the local economy. In Detroit, for instance, this central focus would be on the famous automotive firms and the people that worked for and with them. I argue that this focus is too narrow—people of seemingly unrelated expertise sometimes become involved in innovative hotspots. My research includes the role that medical doctors played in improving auto safety.

One example is Dr. Claire Straith. Straith was a plastic surgeon at Detroit’s Harper Hospital who played an important role in improving the practices of reconstructive surgery. According to Straith’s family, on weekends he often went from hospital to hospital, working on people who had been injured in automobile accidents. Most of the people injured were women and children who were sitting in the right-front passenger seat—what Straith called the “Death Seat.” Straith’s experiences led him to become critical of automotive design of the day and to create safety technologies.

Beginning in the early 1930s, Straith installed homemade seatbelts in his own car. He then created and installed crash pads on his car’s dashboard, especially on the passenger side. Straith patented at least two of these devices—the Smithsonian has one of his crash pads in the national collections. The pads were marketed directly to consumers, though few people bought them. However, Straith remained a vocal critic, and he fought tirelessly to get automakers to install safety technologies in their products.

The Straith padded dashboard is demonstrated in this photo by the inventor's daughter, Jean Straith Hepner, and granddaughter, Grace Quitzow. Photo courtesy of Grace Quitzow.

The Straith padded dashboard is demonstrated in this photo by the inventor’s daughter, Jean Straith Hepner, and granddaughter, Grace Quitzow. Photo courtesy of Grace Quitzow.

Some companies listened. Walter Chrysler met Straith, which led to Chrysler engineers building some of Straith’s ideas into the company’s 1937 line of cars. Straith continuously criticized the sharp metallic knobs on cars, which frequently gouged and disfigured people in crashes. The 1937 Chryslers featured recessed knobs on the dashboard. Straith also influenced Preston Tucker, who built safety features into the 1948 Tucker Sedan.

The auto industry was heavily focused on the annual model change during this period, and companies would introduce safety features as part of the publicity of one year’s models, only to backslide and remove the features the very next year. It was not until the mid-1960s—when the federal government created mandatory safety standards—that safety technologies became a permanent fixture of American automobiles.

Straith was not the only medical doctor in the Detroit-area to innovate around auto safety. Another leader in the field was neurosurgeon Elisha Gurdjian, who worked at Wayne State University’s hospital. Gurdjian was also bothered by the kinds of injuries he saw coming into hospitals. He realized that doctors knew far too little about the biological mechanisms of concussions and other trauma-induced brain injuries. He also realized that investigating concussions would involve the study of forces, which lay well outside his own expertise. For this reason, Gurdjian teamed up with a young Wayne State professor in mechanical engineering named Herbert Lissner. The two men began conducting experiments on how forces acted on bodies, using both human cadavers and living, anesthetized, non-human animals (mostly dogs).

While Gurdjian and Lissner’s fundamental contributions were to medical science—especially a field known as impact biomechanics, which they helped found—they also created some innovative experimental apparatus and technical procedures involving already existing technologies. For instance, the two researchers used strain gages, which were usually used to test industrial materials like metal and concrete, to study the strength of bone. They also removed an elevator from an elevator shaft at Wayne State and put an ejection seat in it. They then proceeded to “drop” bodies down the shaft and use pneumatic systems to shoot bodies up it to study the effect of forces on biological systems. No doubt this is innovation, even if it is innovation that we would rather not think about.

Many of Gurdian and Lissner’s experiments were quite grisly, so I will pass over the details here. (For some entertaining accounts of biomechanical studies at Wayne State, see Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; interested readers can also contact me at leevinsel (at) gmail (dot) com for a paper I wrote on the topic.) I also believe that some of their experiments on living animals were clearly unethical, but it is impossible to deny that their research played an important part in improving automobile safety. Indeed, when the U.S. government created automotive safety standards in the mid-1960s, regulators built Gurdjian and Lissner’s findings of how much force the human body could tolerate directly into the new federal rules.

Medical doctors in Detroit, the automotive capital, made fundamental and early contributions to auto safety. In the end, it took a whole movement, including safety advocates like Ralph Nader, to create national safety standards in the United States, but we owe the innovations of Straith, Gurdjian, and Lissner a great deal.

Bob Casey: Beyond the Podcast

I recently interviewed inventor Bob Casey for the Lemelson Center’s podcast series. As with many people I’ve interviewed, Bob had many interesting stories to share—far more than can be contained in a 20-minute podcast. Although our podcast focused on the debut of the dual turntable system, Bob also told us how he ended up donating objects to the National Museum of American History and about his military career.

Bob shadowed his father Edward P. Casey (a pioneer in commercial sound system design and installation) on many of his sound system projects.  His father built a rectangular box with two multi-speed transcription turntables inside for a religious event. After the event his stored it away. Years later, Bob took the discarded box and used it in 1958 to present prerecorded music at teenage dances by combining his father’s dual turntable box with two special Hi Fi horn speakers. This was the first time that dual turntables were used at a dance to play prerecorded music—introducing a whole new format of entertainment nearly ten years before the technology became the standard of every DJ. The equipment gave Bob the advantage he needed to put on some of the best dances in the area and he was asked to run “Record Hops” in other venues including country clubs and parks.

casey 1

Now retired in upstate New York, Bob was cleaning out some old equipment from his shed, separating it into “throw” and “keep” piles. That first dual turntable system went into his “throw” pile. Fortunately, one of Bob’s friends told him he was crazy if he threw it out. After photos of the dual turntable box appeared in books about DJs, Bob was encouraged to contact someone about finding it a good home. Upon contacting the National Museum of American History in 2012, curator Eric Jentsch requested a few photos of the turntable. Eric assumed he would get a few photos of the device sitting on a tabletop, but Bob took this opportunity to photograph it in the environment it originally debuted. He reassembled the entire system in the same high school gym he first played it at in 1958—St. Eugene’s in Yonkers, NY. It was a wonderful way for Bob to have one last experience with the equipment before giving it to the national collections.

casey 2

While interviewing Bob, I discovered that the inventiveness and resourcefulness demonstrated by his invention also shaped his military career. While stationed in an infantry outfit in Germany in 1967, Bob’s reputation earned him an audition—though he didn’t know it at the time. One day, while visiting the flagship station (network) of the American Forces Network –Europe in Frankfurt, Germany, the Head of Network Production, who had previously met him, casually asked Bob to put together a few promos for radio. Bob furiously put some things together on reel to reel tape but the officer started to play it before Bob thought it was completed.  Bob tensely watched as the officer listened to his improvised radio intros. The officer said he loved it and offered Bob a position at the network.  After only six days on the job, another twist of fate redirected Bob. As part of the military “lottery system,” he was given orders for Vietnam. However, by taking an audition that was so bad that it was good, and with many letters of commendation from the European station, his abbreviated position in Germany allowed him to serve his time in Vietnam as Head of Radio Production for AFVN. Without his skills to invent and create on the spot there’s no telling where he might have ended up.

Listen to our podcast with Bob Casey.

Perks of the Job: Up Close and Personal with the Jazz Collections

Let’s start with something obvious: I have a cool job! Here at the Lemelson Center, I spend most of my time thinking about American independent inventors, or Places of Invention like Hartford and Silicon Valley. However, I recently had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Museum’s incomparable jazz collections. Let me explain…

One of my job responsibilities is to coordinate the Lemelson Center Staff Projects Initiative, an internal grant program in which the Center makes modest grants to our NMAH colleagues to stimulate new research, exhibitions, and programming on innovation. One of our grantees is the Create: Smithsonian project, directed by Susan Evans and Amy Bartow-Melia in the Museum’s Office of Education and Public Programs. With Create: Smithsonian, Susan and Amy developed a yearlong series of six workshops designed to inspire a Smithsonian organizational culture of creativity, innovation, and risk-taking, while having fun and building esprit de corps with our colleagues. The workshops draw upon literature (like Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Andrew Hargadon’s How Breakthroughs Happen) suggesting that, in order to foster innovation, organizations must create opportunities where smart people from diverse backgrounds and experience can collaborate. This mashing together of disciplines, techniques, and perspectives can spark unlikely partnerships, leading to all kinds of creative outcomes. So it’s been fun to attend the Create: Smithsonian workshops to see how the grant funds are being used and find out what happens when the Smithsonian’s zookeepers, fundraisers, housekeeping staff, vertebrate biologists, art historians, and docents all come together.

Create:Smithsonian Flyer

The Create: Smithsonian workshops are one of the Lemelson Center’s grantees. Courtesy of Susan Evans.

On January 31, I attended the latest Create: Smithsonian workshop, which focused on what we as an organization can learn from the history and artistry of jazz. We were treated to a talk by Dr. John Hasse, the NMAH’s jazz curator extraordinaire, who described the various leadership lessons we can learn from jazz masters like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. For example, it sounds basic, but in jazz (and on your work teams) you must listen closely to your band mates. Bandleaders must recruit and nurture great talent—like when Miles Davis recruited sax greats Cannonball Adderley AND John Coltrane to play on the seminal Kind of Blue. Finally, team leaders, like bandleaders must create a basic structure for the tune, but loosen the reins and let their best players improvise occasionally.

John then walked to a table where he described some of the treasures of the NMAH’s musical collections. He picked up a pair of black sunglasses and said casually “So these are Ray Charles’ Ray Bans….”—there was an audible gasp! Then he showed us Ray’s special chess set for the blind and his Braille copy of Playboy magazine—he really did read it for the articles! Then it was on to Ella Fitzgerald’s Grammy and Duke Ellington’s conducting baton—real treasures of American musical history.

Ray Bans worn by Ray Charles.

Ray Bans worn by Ray Charles. Photo by Eric Hintz.


Grammy won by Ella Fitzgerald.

Grammy Award won by Ella Fitzgerald. Photo by Eric Hintz.

Then we got a DEMONSTRATION!  A trio from the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra—Ken Kimery (drums), James King (bass), and Chuck Redd (vibraphone)—played a few selections, demonstrating how to listen, how to lead and sometimes follow, and how to improvise. But the most amazing part of the performance was Chuck’s instrument—he was playing the vibes donated to the museum in February 2001 by the late, great Lionel Hampton!

Lionel Hampton's Vibraphone.

Lionel Hampton’s vibraphone, donated to the National Museum of American History in February 2001. It still sounds awesome. Courtesy of Eric Hintz.

Chuck Redd playing Lionel Hampton's vibraphone.

Chuck Redd of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra playing the vibraphone donated by Lionel Hampton. Photo by Kate Wiley.

I play the drums and have dabbled a bit in the other members of the percussion family, so it was thrilling to think that I was so close the same set that Lionel himself had played “The Price of Jazz” and so many other classic tunes. I left the Create: Smithsonian event feeling even more energized than usual about working at the Museum—clearly the grant funds were going to good use!

2013 Jazz Appreciation Month featuring Lionel Hampton.

Legendary vibraphone virtuoso and bandleader Lionel Hampton graces the 2013 Jazz Appreciation Month poster. Courtesy of Smithsonian Jazz.

April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), and we do it in style here at the National Museum of American History, with a full schedule of donation ceremonies by jazz legends, talks on jazz history, and several live performances. Lionel Hampton is featured on the 2013 JAM poster and to kick things off on April 9, his vibes again emerged from the Museum’s vaults to be played in a tribute performance by members of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Quintet.

So, like I said at the top, I have a cool job.  For a music buff like me, working at the Smithsonian is Seriously Amazing!

Yankee Ingenuity: Hartford, Connecticut

Hartford, Connecticut, is a classic story in the history of American technology. If you have ever wondered why people refer to “Yankee ingenuity,” this is what they are talking about. Hartford in the mid-1800s was one of the birthplaces of American mass production, making it a perfect case study for our upcoming Places of Invention exhibition. Around 1850, Hartford native Samuel Colt perfected the precision manufacturing process that enabled the mass production of thousands of his revolvers with interchangeable parts. Over the next several decades, a variety of industries adopted and adapted these techniques and Hartford became the center of production for a wide array of products—including firearms by Colt, Richard Gatling and John Browning; Weed sewing machines; Royal and Underwood typewriters; Columbia bicycles; and even Pope automobiles. In the mid and late 1800s, the United States overtakes Great Britain as the world’s foremost economic superpower, largely on the strength of its prowess in inventing and manufacturing new technologies. Hartford is at the center of that revolution.

Coming out of Hartford at this time is a whole class of general purpose machine tools, like the turret lathes, drill presses, and milling machines. These were essentially machines that ground and shaped metal blanks into precise shapes that became the components of finished products—things like revolver barrels, sewing machines needles, and bicycle gears. These milling machines were general purpose technologies. Essentially, these were machines to make other machines. I think of it as similar to today’s microchips—a basic memory chip can go into any number of products, from laptop computers to digital cameras to the cable box. Once the basic techniques of forging and milling pieces of metal were understood, you could make just about anything, and they did in Hartford.

In addition to the manufacturing industries, there was so much more going on in Hartford at the same time. Most people, if they know much about Hartford, probably know it as “the insurance capital of the world.” So in addition to all of these manufacturing firms, at the exact same time, you have the emergence of all these major insurance firms, like Aetna, Travelers, and “The Hartford”—firms that still exist today.

Hartford also had this amazing literary scene in the mid-1800s. The city was home to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which ignited the abolitionist movement in the decade before the Civil War. Her next door neighbor was none other than Mark Twain, who wrote many of his classics in Hartford—including The Gilded Age (1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince & the Pauper (1882), Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In fact, the protagonist of Connecticut Yankee is based on the superintendent of the Colt armory.

Hartford reached its peak in the decades before and after the Civil War. It begins to wane in the first decade of the 20th century, when some of the original inventors and entrepreneurs begin to retire and sell their businesses. In 1901, Colt’s widow, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, sells the firm to a conglomerate; Pratt & Whitney also sells out in that same year. Many of these parent firms are based outside of Hartford, and they begin to relocate certain operations. Meanwhile, Albert Pope’s bicycle and auto-making operations face labor unrest and a banking crisis—he gets over-extended and declares bankruptcy in 1907 and the firm gets broken up into pieces. At the same time, firms looking to expand can’t do so within the city limits of Hartford, so they start to move to the suburbs of West Hartford and Manchester, and to cheaper labor markets in the Southern states and outside the U.S. By the 1950s, Hartford—like many industrial cities—begins to lose its commercial tax base, and starts to experience white flight some urban decay. However, because Hartford is the state capital and maintained the insurance industry, it has remained an important and vibrant city. Even today, we still have Colt-brand firearms, Columbia-brand bicycles, and Pratt & Whitney’s precision gauging and measurement tools.

Read Part II to learn more about the inventors of Hartford.

Don’t make me get the flying monkeys

A souvenir "Chistery," the original flying monkey, soars on the breezes in my office, above a sign that reads, "Don't make me get the flying monkeys! — The Wicked Witch" (a gift from my sister years ago!). Photo by Joyce Bedi

OK, let’s get the confession out of the way. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Wizard of Oz. I know, I know. I should pick something more edgy, or more indie, or even something French. But I am an unabashed fan of the Emerald City gang. Even though I grew up in the era of black-and-white television, a local station showed Oz every year around Easter. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was the Easter-egg hues of the film’s sets and costumes (even though we couldn’t see them). Maybe it was to mark the beginning of tornado season in the Midwest. I honestly don’t know. But my Mom and I looked forward to that broadcast each Spring. And when I finally saw the film in color in my college years, when I opened the Kansas farmhouse door and stepped into the Technicolor world of Oz for the first time, my addiction was complete, undeniable, and irreversible.

A year ago or so, I discovered a new dimension to the Oz story. I had seen Gregory Maguire’s book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, in bookstores but never quite brought myself to buy it. I guess I could have gone to a public library, but that never happened, either. Then, I got an iPad and started delving into e-books, and one of the first I read was Wicked. What a great complement to the story I know so well. It had more in common with L. Frank Baum’s original book published in 1900 than the classic 1939 MGM film, and added new plot points from Maguire’s imagination. I really enjoyed this deeper glimpse into the history of Oz, if you can call it that.

So recently, when my husband and I saw an ad for performances of Wicked, the musical, I mentioned that I would like to see the play. Being the best husband in the world (no exaggeration), he announced a few days later that he planned to take me to a performance as part of our anniversary celebration! I wasn’t sure what to expect, and that turned out to be a good mental state to bring to the theater. The show was amazing. But my historian-of-technology’s eye couldn’t stop seeing the inventions and innovations that appeared as uncredited actors throughout the production.

Jeanna De Waal as Glinda and Christine Dwyer as Elphaba in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus

For example, in one scene, it begins to rain. It truly looked like rain, but it was all done with lighting and projections. The vaguely steampunk, clockwork design of the sets also displays innovative techniques, like the bicycle brakes and bass drum pedal used to manipulate the enormous Wizard’s-head puppet. Of course, there is the makeup that makes Elphaba (the alleged Wicked Witch of the West’s real name) her signature green. Makeup designer Joe Dulude II tweaked a commercially-available product from M.A.C. to give Elphaba a complexion that, as he put it, looks like skin, not makeup.

Mandy Gonzalez as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus

Then there are the costumes created by Tony-award-winning designer Susan Hilferty. She calls her concept for Wicked “twisted Edwardian,” taking inspiration from Baum’s book and from the characters themselves. For Elphaba, a character she sees as rooted in the earth, she created a variation on the stereotypical witch’s black dress and hat, designing an asymmetrical costume of many dark colors, reminiscent of the hues found in coal, mica, and other minerals. Glinda the Good’s costume is the opposite—light and airy and “of the sky.” Then there are the flying monkeys, whose hand-painted costumes must allow them to move like, well, monkeys, but also to “fly,” with integrated mechanical wings.

The National Museum of American History recently collected Elphaba's dress, hat, and broom, a donation from Susan Hilferty. As soon as it went on display in the American Stories exhibition, I dashed up to see it. As great as it looked on stage, it was even more impressive up close. Smithsonian photo.

As I did a little research into these behind-the-scenes features of the show, I found that, not surprisingly, the creative process of the designers isn’t all that different from the inventive process that we document and teach at the Lemelson Center. In our Spark!Lab, we break down the invention process into a number of nonlinear steps:

  • Identify a problem or need (Think it)
  • Conduct research (Explore it)
  • Make sketches  (Sketch it)
  • Build prototypes (Create it)
  • Test the invention (Try it)
  • Refine it (Tweak it)
  • Market the invention (Sell it)

Susan Hilferty articulated a number of these same steps in talking about her design for Elphaba’s costume. “First of all,” she said” “I do a sketch and I have a very clear idea about what I want it to look like. And there is a draper who interprets my sketch. So we first look at in a . . . cheap fabric so I can look at what the draper has put together. . . While we’re doing that step, we’re talking about how it’s going to be fabricated . . . The skirt itself, for instance, takes about 40 yards of fabric where we piece it together. We take yards of fabric, rip it up, and piece it back together again, to make it feel like an organic material, which incorporates many, many different colors. Then they are stitched together by one person and it takes her about 40-60 hours stitching all of those layers on so they’re right up next to and around each other, almost like a topographical map.”

Susan Hilferty's sketch for the Elphaba costume was part of the donation to the Museum.

Imagining, sketching, prototyping, manufacturing, tweaking. These are activities with which inventors are intensely familiar. To modify an old chestnut (perhaps an appropriate thing to do during this holiday season), great creative minds think alike.

Stanley Moves In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Collections: Voting Technology

My first voting experience was the presidential election of 1988…and I was three years old. My daycare provider brought me, my infant brother, and her young daughter to the polls and a photographer from my hometown’s newspaper snapped a photo of us. I was not even tall enough to be concealed by the privacy curtain and was looking up in awe, probably mesmerized by the curtain and the lever. (My mom saved the photo, but alas could not find it in time for this blog.)

Since that first time, now being of age to actually vote, I’ve performed my democratic privilege and duty three times—via gear and lever machine, absentee ballot, and paper ballot machine. However, I don’t think I’ve been awed by how I was voting, as opposed to the meaning behind my vote, since that first time as a toddler.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about the technology I’ve voted with recently because this year’s New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation symposium, “Political Machines,” is examining the technology that has been used—and will be used—during campaigns and elections. (Though I actually had to call the DC Board of Elections and Ethics because I couldn’t remember how I voted in 2008. I was just excited to be voting in person for president for the first time!)

As you might imagine, the National Museum of American History has wonderful collections documenting the history of voting. In fact, an exhibition titled Vote! The Machinery of Democracy was on view between June 2004 and February 2005. Fortunately, that exhibition is still available online. Here I’ve pulled out just a few of the voting technologies and machines that Vote! explores.


Debating the Candidates, Family Style

On November 2 and 3, the Lemelson Center will be exploring the innovations that enable our democratic system to work and the technologies that have featured prominently in past campaigns and elections in our annual symposium, Political Machines. In the following post, which originally appeared on the National Museum of American History’s
O Say Can You See?, associate curator Debra Ann Hashim shares how televised debates spurred conversation amongst her family.

Federal government and politics have surrounded me for most of my life. I grew up in Washington, D.C., the hub of the nation for topics of national importance, where people tend to respond to the events in the national news. Even though I didn’t really start thinking about politics as a participant until I reached high school age, in the early 1970s, I have some vivid earlier memories of hearing conversations about politics at the dinner table.

The photograph of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon is from the debate held in Chicago on September 26, 1960, at the CBS studio. This was the first Presidential debate in history and it was televised, attracting 60% of American households with televisions.

Sometimes these conversations were lively. At first they were especially so when friends or out of town family members joined us; later on, I was often the one who stirred things up when I started asking questions. My older brother generally sided with my parents in these conversations, while my two younger brothers were too young to get involved. I was the “bleeding heart liberal,” so named by my father, and was usually alone in the views I held. However, that never stopped me from opening my mouth.

One of the activities we always enjoyed in an election year was discussing the candidates. I think the televised presidential and vice presidential debates offered the easiest way to get informed and made for the most immediate family conversation, whether in person or over the phone. Yet for us as a family who thrived on point-counterpoint, for quite a period of time we had to rely on the regular news and TV spots for information. There were no televised debates after 1960 until 1976.

I was too young to recall the very first presidential debates in 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. My first strong memories of talking about issues of the candidates were in 1972 when I was a junior in high school. I was against the Vietnam War and supported George McGovern—even though I remember feeling sad for his first running mate for Vice President, Thomas Eagleton, with the disclosure of his past health history. In terms of family conversation, we actually had some accord this time on certain issues, if not party preference. My older brother, who was of draft age, had filed for conscientious objector status and lost. We were worried sick.

By 1976, at the age of 21, I was right there by the television, anxious to watch and listen to the debates between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. That was the first year I would be able to vote in a presidential election, so it was especially important to me to become as informed as possible. I felt important, too. I would finally begin to understand the feeling of being a citizen who could vote.

Today, I can’t wait to watch these debates; they are one of my favorite parts of any campaign cycle. They offer an opportunity to hear the candidates address the issues in their own words, however rehearsed they may be. I look forward to being able to “get into it” with friends and family even though, as far as the family is concerned, I’m still their bleeding heart liberal.

The Division of Political History is fortunate to have in the collections some objects associated with presidential debates. Below are just a few:

These two chairs were used by Kennedy and Nixon in the televised debates. They are the same chairs that you see in the above photograph.

This photograph of then Governor Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford was from the 1976 debates. These were the first presidential debates since 1960 and they were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. 1976 was the year of the Bicentennial and the sense of history was very much in the descriptions of the debates given by political commentators. About 53.5% of American households with televisions watched.

This photograph, taken from the 1996 exhibition We the People: Winning the Vote held at this museum, depicts the podiums and chairs used at the 1976 debates.

Debra Anne Hashim is an associate curator in the Division of Political History.

From the Collections: Technicolor Sets the Scene

Within a short time she was walking briskly toward the Emerald City, her silver shoes tinkling merrily on the hard, yellow roadbed. The sun shone bright and the birds sang sweet and Dorothy . . .

In the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, author L. Frank Baum gave the Wicked Witch of the East a pair of powerful silver shoes that became Dorothy’s when her Kansas farmhouse dropped out of the sky and landed squarely on the witch. Whether or not Baum meant those silver shoes skipping down a golden road as a commentary on the late-19th-century debate over basing American currency on a gold or silver standard, his vision of silver shoes remained intact in early versions of the screenplay for the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Yet the shoes were certainly not silver in the final film. While we may never be certain why Baum chose silver, we do know exactly why Dorothy’s shoes became a pair of sequin-covered, iridescent ruby slippers in the movie. The answer: Technicolor.

Photo: Only the Oz portion of the movie was filmed in Technicolor; the Kansas scenes were shot in black-and-white and toned sepia.

Inventors and MIT graduates Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock, and the technically adept W. Burton Wescottfounded Technicolor in 1915  (the “Tech” in Technicolor was a nod to Kalmus and Comstock’s alma mater). In 1938, Kalmus spoke about the beginnings of the company:

“The earliest Technicolor laboratory was built within a railway car. This car was completely equipped with a photochemical laboratory, darkrooms, fireproof safes, power plant, offices, and all the machinery and apparatus necessary for continuously carrying on the following processes on a small commercial scale; sensitizing, testing, perforating, developing, washing, fixing and drying positive; printing, developing, washing, and conditioning air; filtering and cooling wash water; examining and splicing film; and making control measurements and tests.”

Photo: One of Daniel Comstock’s former students at MIT, Joseph Arthur Ball, was primarily responsible for developing the three-strip motion picture camera that was used until the 1950s when color negative motion picture film was introduced. The camera was large, heavy, and loud. It was attached to a dolly to help move it around the set, and an outer box was called a “blimp” surrounded the camera mechanism to muffle the noise.

The Technicolor team continued to tweak the invention through several iterations before it reached its full glory in the 1930s. Technicolor Process Number Four, or 3-strip Technicolor, used in The Wizard of Oz, wasn’t a type of film, though. Instead, the action was filmed with a modified motion-picture camera that contained a prism and colored filters that, in turn, separated the scene onto three different strips of black-and-white negative film. Each strip correlated to the filtered colors and was used to create an intermediary strip called a matrix. In a method similar to lithography, the matrices were then used to print the final movies that were distributed to theaters. Making a Technicolor feature film was such a complex undertaking that movie studios were required to hire specially trained Technicolor staff to oversee production. These included color consultants, under the direction of Natalie Kalmus, Herbert’s ex-wife.

A former art student, Natalie became the ultimate mediator between the lab and the silver screen, unwavering in her commitment to make Technicolor shine. She made decisions about makeup, costumes, sets, and lighting, and even went behind the camera as a cinematographer a few times. She controlled (some say with an iron fist) the aura of Technicolor, describing her role as “playing ringmaster to the rainbow.”

Photo: Natalie Kalmus wrote, “We must constantly practice color restraint.” Did that philosophy influence Adrian’s choice of muted colors for the Scarecrow’s costume?

Natalie Kalmus was the Technicolor consultant on The Wizard of Oz set. We don’t know if she played a part in transforming Baum’s silver shoes into ruby slippers or if costume designer Gilbert Adrian and screenwriter Noel Langley came to the decision independent of her influence. But with one seemingly simple change, an American icon was born.

Photo: Several pairs of ruby slippers were made for the film. The Museum’s pair have felt soles, suggesting that they were worn by Judy Garland in dance scenes.

The Museum’s collections are rich in artifacts from The Wizard of Oz and the Technicolor era, and the ruby slippers are among our most visited treasures. The image of Dorothy clicking those sequined heels together three times, repeating “There’s no place like home,” is part of our shared memory. Would the ruby slippers have attained such star status if they had remained silver?


  1. Google Books digitized version of L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1899), p. 33, Accessed August 13, 2012.
  2. Richard Haines, Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1993).
  3. Herbert T. Kalmus, “Technicolor Adventures in Cinemaland,” reprinted at Accessed August 13, 2012.
  4. Natalie M. Kalmus, “Color Consciousness,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 25, no. 2 (August 1935): 139–47.
  5. “Natalie M. Kalmus Dies at 87; A Co-Developer of Technicolor,” New York Times, November 18, 1965, p. 47.

My Trip Behind the Scenes of the NMAH’s Hip-Hop Collection

It’s always exciting going into the vaults of a museum’s collection. Ok, so actually they’re rarely “vaults,” but it’s still exciting to open collection cabinets and discover what objects may lie inside. On this particular occasion, National Museum of American History curator Eric Jentsch was showing me items in the Museum’s hip-hop collection. Although for several months I’ve been reading about hip-hop culture and technology, and looking at images related to it, this was my first opportunity to handle the objects themselves.

Afrika Bamabatta coat, front view, NMAH photo.

Eric opened up a cabinet and before me was an outfit worn by hip-hop advocate and community leader Afrika Bambaataa. Bambaataa was a pioneering hip-hop DJ known for playing obscure records, but his key contribution to the early hip-hop movement was bringing peace to a drug and gang riddled Bronx. He was a founding member of a gang in the Bronx River Projects but had a transformative experience when he visited Africa. He returned with a desire to provide his community with peaceful alternatives to gangs.  Bambaattaa turned his turf-building skills into peacemaking skills and used them while performing grassroots promotion for hip-hop parties. In the 1970s he formed first the Bronx River Organization and then the Universal Zulu Nation, an awareness group of reformed gang members who organized hip-hop parties for youth to provide peaceful and fun havens away from violence.

Afrika Bambaataa coat, back view, NMAH photo.

Despite having read all of this about Bambaataa I lacked a sense of what he was like in person. But by holding one of his jackets, I could better comprehend him. From the jacket’s size I got a better idea of how big he was. From seeing the outfit’s colors and examining the quality of its workmanship I got an idea of his taste. Taking it all in together I could picture him filling out the jacket and was better able to get a sense of what it would have been like to be in his presence.

Mixer donated by Grandmaster Flash, NMAH photo.

My visit to the collections also gave me information about the technological advances of hip-hop music. I have virtually no experience with sound mixing, so attempting to comprehend the evolution of mixing equipment from a record player to a mixing board has been a bit mind boggling. For example, DJ Grandmaster Flash invented a mixer from spare parts. According to him, “today you can buy turntables, needles and mixers that are equipped to do whatever. But at that particular time, I had to build it. I had to take microphone mixers and turn them into turntable mixers. I was taking speakers out of abandoned cars and using people’s thrown-away stereos.”

Once hip-hop became popular, the music industry took notice of the technologies artists invented to produce hip-hop’s sound. The Rane Corporation worked with Grandmaster Flash to develop a mixer that in Flash’s opinion, corrected the various problems he encountered as a DJ. The Rane mixer in the NMAH’s collection was donated by Flash. I was surprised by its appearance. Having read about the heavy use hip-hop equipment got, and how even after mixers no longer functioned they were re-purposed, this Rane mixer was in nearly mint condition. I expected something with heavy wear and tear and mis-matched parts. I was also surprised by its complexity. I didn’t think it would look so much like the mixers currently in use. Seeing this mixer designed (and donated) by Flash really impressed upon me how rapidly mixing technology improved.

I think that sometimes people undervalue doing research in museum collections, but it’s something that I have found useful in my research. At the very least, it’s exciting to handle objects used by the people you’ve been researching. I look forward to delving deeper into the Museum’s hip-hop collection as research for Places of Invention continues.