Who Invented Labor Day?

1956 Labor Day Stamp

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

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

Matthew Maguire and Peter J. McGuire

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

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

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

American Federation of Labor label

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

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

1882 New York City Labor Day Parade

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

1900 Labor Day Parade in Buffalo

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

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

Happy Labor Day!

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

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

Inventing the Future: 3D Printing

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

A 3D printed cast.

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

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

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

A life-size 3D print of Thomas Jefferson.

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

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

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

Interning at Innoskate

Editor’s Note: This post is by Joel Pelovitz, an intern working on the Innoskate and Places of Invention projects. Joel is a recent graduate from Muhlenberg College with a degree in history and business. 

As a returning intern this summer, I had the pleasure of aiding in the preparation and materialization of the museum’s first ever Innoskate event, which occurred Friday, June 21, and Saturday, June 22. By gathering together some of the world’s most pivotal and influential skateboarding icons—both riders and industry gurus—the Center hoped to gain valuable insight into key innovative strides in technology, skating technique, and cultural impact/adaptations since the sport’s inception. What resulted was a captivating and thought-provoking experience that drew crowds of all generations and backgrounds. The participants—a group consisting of skaters, including famed skaters Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen; designers; media personalities; and engineers—donated their skateboarding history to the National Museum of American History’s collections, held discussion panels on invention, and gave skateboarding demonstrations on a ramp built specifically for the event!

Donors to the national collections included Robin Logan, Mimi Knoop, Laura Thornhill Caswell, Patti McGee, Di Dootson Rose, and Cindy Whitehead.

Donors to the national collections included Robin Logan, Mimi Knoop, Laura Thornhill Caswell, Patti McGee, Di Dootson Rose, and Cindy Whitehead.

Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk talk about their inventive process during one of our panels.

Rodney Mullen and Tony Hawk talk about their inventive process during one of our panels.

Chris Haslam was one of the many pro skateboarders who showed off their skills on the ramp we constructed outside of the Museum.

Chris Haslam was one of the many pro skateboarders who showed off their skills on the ramp we constructed outside of the Museum.

Traditionally, skateboarding has not been considered academic and is often negatively represented in conservative culture as a result of its association to punk movements. The nature of the event—a supercharged fusion between scholarly inquiry and heart-pounding visual display—allowed for the participants to be accurately represented as inventive minds by sharing their collective knowledge and experiences. As a former skateboarder, Innoskate intertwined my interests for history and skateboarding, creating new perspectives that I had never before considered! My involvement has also evoked further interest into the themes of progress and ingenuity that skateboarding embodies. As for the participants, I have never met a more compassionate, down-to-earth, and appreciative group of people. For the future, I hope that this event not only helped the public reevaluate skateboarding as a constructive endeavor, but also compels us to recognize and appreciate the creative qualities that exist everywhere, especially those beyond our conventional perceptions.

Nikola Tesla’s Place of Invention

Today we host a lecture by noted historian and Tesla biographer W. Bernard Carlson in which he will explore Tesla’s visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs.

In a blog post on Gotham Center, Carlson writes about Tesla’s place of invention, Manhattan:

Leonardo da Vinci’s studio in Milan. Thomas Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park, New Jersey.  Jobs and Wozniak in the family garage in Los Altos, California.  Although we tend to think about creativity as an abstract, cerebral process, invention actually takes place in specific locations that inform the design and content of a device.  For Nikola Tesla, nearly all of his creative work took place in Manhattan, and where he worked, lived, and played profoundly shaped his inventions.

Read more about Tesla’s relationship with New York City.

In the News: Kid Inventors

Here at the Lemelson Center, we believe that everyone is inventive, even—and especially—kids. Our Spark!Lab is dedicated to inspiring creativity in young people and we’re all so excited to hear about kids and teens flexing their inventive and problem-solving muscles. Here’s a round-up of some inspiring kid inventors:

The 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair Winners

What were you doing when you were a senior in high school? I was most likely inventing new reasons to break curfew, so these kids blow me out of the water.

Ionut Budisteanu, a 19-year-old from Romania, was awarded first place and received the Gordon E. Moore Award of $75,000 for inventing an inexpensive self-driving car. Ionut’s invention uses 3-D radar and mounted cameras that allows the car to detect traffic lanes, curbs, and the real-time position of the car.  All of this for only $4,000!

Eesha Khare, an 18-year-old from Saratoga, CA, received the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award of $50,000 for inventing a supercharger that can charge a cell phone in 20 to 30 seconds. Eesha’s invention is portable and flexible, and is able to last for 10,000 charges.

Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Award for Youth Achievement

Late last year, our director, Art Molella, participated in the first annual Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Awards. For him, one of the most inspiring moments was the acceptance speech by high school sophomore Jack Andraka, the Youth Achievement winner. Jack invented a paper sensor that can detect a protein linked to pancreatic cancer—for which he won him the grand prize at the 2012 Intel Science and Engineering Fair. Art reported, “Bursting with youthful creative energy, Andraka told us how an uncle’s illness prompted his amazingly simple invention.” Jack’s invention uses only a sixth of a drop of blood and takes only five minutes to produce accurate results.

Spark!Lab Invent It! Challenge Winners

In September, Spark!Lab partnered with ePals, an education media company and safe social learning network, for the second annual Invent It! Challenge. The contest challenged students to think about real-world problems and invent something that could help solve it. We received nearly 300 entries!

Each of the three challenges had winners in four different age categories. Winner Chase Lewis, a seventh grader from Chapel Hill, NC, visited the Lemelson Center recently. Chase’s invention was the Refugee Travois, which allows refugees to carry people—children or the elderly—long distances without too much strain on their backs. Chase even made his local news!

Lemelson-MIT Program InvenTeams

InvenTeams are teams of high school students, teachers, and mentors that receive grants up to $10,000 each to invent technological solutions to real-world problems. Each InvenTeam chooses its own problem to solve. Current InvenTeams are working on inventing wind turbines, a compost water heating system, a bacteria powered battery, and a pedestrian alert system. A team from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology presented their emotive aid for combating autism at the National Museum of American History in March during the Open Minds exhibition of student inventions hosted by the Lemelson Center and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

Caviar Manicures and Inventive Dreams

Inventors often combine unrelated ideas and materials to create something new. Like Anna’s recent story of cassette tape woven into wearable fiber or Steve’s car prototypes made out of pasta, invention ‘mashups’ are awesome.

Caviar manicureCase in point: the current Spring 2013 nail art phenomenon of the ‘caviar manicure’. Unlike a normal manicure, which consists of one or several colors of nail polish, a caviar manicure uses a base coat of nail polish combined with a top sprinkling of tiny pearlescent beads. The result is a 3-D effect that adds attention-grabbing, high fashion texture to everyday looks.

While the caviar manicure wasn’t invented this season, it’s become a big deal through major celebrities like Anne Hathaway and Jessica Biel. Considering that I’m not always the world’s most inspiring fashion plate, I thought I’d take a risk and try it myself. However, the brand name kit to create this nail art is pretty expensive, so I started searching for a more affordable DIY alternative.

Some of the materials I found around our office included model toy paint, aluminum foil, cake sprinkles, and clay. I also had a brand new bottle of pretty lilac nail polish I’d purchased, so I thought about what colors would look good, what combinations would be fresh and interesting, and what I could live with for a few days.

DIY manicure materials

sprinkles

The result: I used a base coat of Essie “lilacism” polish with a top sprinkling of clay on just one finger. To be honest, I don’t think it’ll become the next fashion trend, but I’m proud of my foray into haute nail couture. And although I think I’ll be sticking to plain polish in the future, I’m glad I invented my own unique combination.

Manicure close up.

Have you tried the caviar nail trend, or come up with your own inventive nail art? Share with us and your friends! Tweet it at @SI_Invention using #BrightNails.

Michael Jackson, Patented Inventor?

On March 25, 1983—30 years ago—Michael Jackson performed the moonwalk for the first time during his performance of “Billie Jean” on NBC’s Motown 25th anniversary special. While the move may have originated with James Brown, the moonwalk will forever be associated with Jackson, meaning you’ve probably seen headlines and Facebook statuses celebrating the 30th anniversary of the invention of the moonwalk.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the moonwalk is not literally a patented dance move. However, Michael Jackson does hold a patent. Awarded jointly to him and to two of his costume-men in 1993, the patent described specially designed shoes that gave the illusion of his leaning beyond his center of gravity. The move and the associated gadget were created for his 1988 music video, Smooth Criminal.

patent drawing of Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal shoes.

A patent drawing from Michael Jackson’s application.

Shortly after Jackson’s passing in 2009, our director Art Molella wrote about his inventiveness:

“We shouldn’t be all that surprised by Jackson’s invention; he was a known technological enthusiast. Consider, for example, that widely publicized video arcade he installed at Neverland Ranch. Jackson was a gamer. Still, I was somewhat taken aback by reports that he once planned to build a fifty-foot robot likeness of himself that would roam Las Vegas publicizing his acts, an image as much threatening as it was peculiar. That he not only invented but also sought and earned a patent is no mystery. Protecting an invention would come naturally to a man who zealously guarded his music rights and was reported to have acquired the copyrights to the Beatles’ songs. Then again, perhaps being certified by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as a bona fide inventor conferred a kind of status and satisfaction that even Hollywood could not bestow.”

As Art points out in that column, many other musicians and movie stars are also inventors:

“Jackson was far from the only “patented” celebrity performer. For instance, his friend Marlon Brando also dabbled in invention, at least toward the end of his life when he earned several patents related to a device for tuning drumheads. One can envision him on some beach in Tahiti, turning out invention ideas to the beat of bongos. The ranks of improbable inventors also include two of the Marx brothers, who showed that even comic geniuses could take to the serious task of invention. Unlike Jackson’s and Brando’s, however, their inventions did not relate specifically to entertainment, at least not directly. Zeppo (Herbert), considered the mechanical genius of the family, patented a cardiac pulse-rate monitor, while Gummo (Milton) earned his patent for “Improvements in Packing-Racks,” something that undoubtedly came in handy for life on the road.

Patent drawing by Zeppo Marx of a pulse tracking watch mechanism.

Patent drawing for a “method and watch mechanism for actuation by a cardiac pulse” filed by Zeppo Marx.

Patriotism motivated other performers. During World War II, the stunning Austrian-born movie star Hedy Lamarr approached her Hollywood neighbor, the avant-garde composer George Antheil, about contributing ideas to the National Inventors Council, established under the National Bureau of Standards to solicit inventions from U.S. citizens for the war effort. She even thought of cashing in her acting career to become an inventor. Their 1941 patent for “frequency hopping” was applied to secret communications and to radio-guided torpedoes, among other weapons. Eventually, some of this technology found its way into Wi-Fi networking and wireless telephony.”

Patent drawing for "Secret Communications System" filed by actress Hedy Lamarr.


U.S. Patent Number 2,292,387 granted on August 11, 1942, to Hedy Keisler Markey aka Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil for a “Secret Communications System.”

At the Lemelson Center, we believe that everyone is inventive—and as Michael Jackson, Zeppo, and Hedy Lamarr demonstrate, that includes the rich and famous.

Editor’s Note: This post quotes from a 2009 article by Art Molella titled “Notes from the Director: National Inventors’ Month,” which first appeared in our newsletter, Prototype.

Eco-Cities: Can They Work?

From time to time in earlier columns, I have reported on the rising global phenomenon of eco-cities, an urban innovation touted as one of the solutions to conjoined problems of urban sustainability, environmental degradation, and climate change. While eco-cities were proposed as early as the 1970s, they have only become real in the last decade or so, with announcements of the construction of model eco-cities Dongtan, near Shanghai, China, and Masdar, near Abu Dhabi, UAE. Hundreds more are now underway or about to be launched worldwide. But can these cities really do the job their advocates claim they will? Along with Westminster University (UK) and the Johns Hopkins University, the Lemelson Center is co-sponsor of the International Eco-City Initiative.  Among the products of the collaboration is a new study of eco-city standards, which attempt to put these new cities to the test.

“Tomorrow’s City Today—Eco-City Indicators, Standards & Framework”

This recently published Bellagio conference report addresses a key area of contemporary sustainability research and policy: how to define “indicators” and “standards” for sustainable cities, or “eco-cities.” I interviewed the report’s editor, Simon Joss of the University of Westminster.

 

What are eco-cities and why are they important?

Ideas and propositions about eco-cities have been around for at least three decades, and the last five years or so have seen a considerable global mushrooming of practical eco-city initiatives. In the recent survey carried out by our research group, we identified at least 178 eco-city projects globally, although this may be a conservative figure: in China alone, there are reportedly over 250 cities embarked on eco-city development!

That said, defining the eco-city is challenging, for both theoretical and practical reasons. Conceptually, beyond the general idea of eco-cities being more sustainable than current “conventional” cities, it is quite difficult to settle on specifics. There is no agreed norm or standard of what counts as an eco-city. Even agreeing on the basic balance between environmental, economic, and social goals of sustainability can be tricky. Practically, the fact that eco-city initiatives are applied in often vastly different national, cultural, and economic contexts means that they end up taking diverse forms and shapes: a city generating ten per cent renewable energy may be ambitious in, say, India, while the threshold is typically much higher in European cities, such as Freiburg (Germany) and Stockholm (Sweden), with several decades more experience.

However, there are some general, global trends that I think drive current eco-city innovation, against the background of the dual challenges of global climate change and rapid urbanization (in 2008, for the first time in human history the majority of people lived in cities), particularly in Asia and Africa. Among these is the policy of “ecological modernization” which seeks to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. An illustrative example here is the World Bank’s Eco2 Cities initiative which goes by the slogan “environmental city as economic city.” Another trend is increasing international knowledge transfer, with international architecture, technology, and engineering firms playing a central role. Furthermore, the “carbon” discourse has become a core characteristic of the modern eco-city, as illustrated by terms such as “low-carbon,” “zero-carbon” or “carbon-neutral” cities. In this sense, the eco-city has become more ubiquitous in comparison to earlier examples from the 1970s and 1980s which were much more locally defined.

Wind farm at Caofeidian International Eco-City, about 50 miles south of the port city of Tangshan and somewhat farther from Beijing. Courtesy of SWECO.

Where is the major action today in building eco-cities?

If I had to pick one global region, I would choose Asia, where a whole range of new eco-city initiatives have been launched within just the last few years. As mentioned, this is mainly due to the unprecedented urbanization occurring there—China is said to have to build a new city of the size of New York every year for the next twenty years to accommodate people migrating into urban areas. Similar developments can be observed in India, Indonesia, and Africa. A further factor that I witnessed on visits to China and South Korea is the determination to be at the forefront of technological innovation: one really gets the sense that the new urban age is being shaped in and across Asia.

Of course, innovation in sustainable urbanism is currently also taking place in many European and North as well as South American cities. The recent eco-city initiative of Alexandria (VA), or the eco-districts in Portland (OR) may not be on as large a scale as Masdar (United Arab Emirates) or Sejong (South Korea), but they are just as illustrative of the global attempt to transition to a low-carbon economy.

Artist Impression- Aerial View of Proposed Master plan of Masdar City (Eastern Orientation). Courtesy of Masdar City.

Why should we care about “standards” and “indicators”? In fact, what are they and what problems are they supposed to address?

History teaches us that once in a while a process of consolidation and standardization occurs, often as a result of technological innovation: for example, in the late 19th century when the increasingly ubiquitous application of electricity in daily life prompted the need to develop standardized electrical power systems (though we still often have to pack adaptors when traveling abroad!). Similarly, as more and more cities, businesses, and political organizations strive to implement sustainable strategies and practices, at some point the need arises to develop a “common language.” Otherwise, how can we agree on a bottom line and framework for sustainable cities? It is for this reason that there has been a recent flurry of eco-city indicators, standards, and frameworks. While this is partly driven by efforts by scientists and policy-makers trying to define various aspects of urban sustainability, it is no doubt also driven by business interests aimed at marketing urban sustainability as a “product.”

Our new research initiative, which involves the Lemelson Center along with several other partners across the world, aims to contribute to this emerging debate. We are interested in mapping the various approaches to eco-city indicators and standards—there are so many schemes that we first need to take stock of what is out there—followed by in-depth analysis of how individual approaches actually work: how they contribute to defining sustainable urbanism, guiding policy implementation, and encouraging practice learning among scientists, policy-makers, planners, business, and citizens.

One of the challenges our project will have to grapple with is at which level indicators and standards are most appropriate. Perhaps expecting standards or frameworks to emerge at the global level is unrealistic, given the vastly different local contexts of cities across the world. Then again, reducing carbon emissions is a global concern, which suggests the need for comparable, international measures.

Apart from generating knowledge, we hope that our research will also directly contribute to policy debate and practice innovation. For example, one of our partners is the Clinton Foundation’s Climate Positive Development Program, through which we will have access to, and will be in dialogue with, cities across the world.

London Building With Integrated Wind Turbines. Photo by Christine Matthews, via Wikimedia Commons.

What is and should be the role of technological and other sorts of innovation in the development of eco-cities?

Engineering and technology firms have increasingly become centrally involved in developing eco-city indicators and frameworks. The reason is obvious: cities are one of the main sources of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. So, attempting to effect a transition to a low-carbon economy, one inevitably has to address urban development. Given this focus on energy, it is no surprise that technological innovation is to the fore. At the same time, increasingly various “smart” urban technology solutions, based on information and communication technologies, are applied to manage urban infrastructure and services. Together, these open up huge business opportunities: hence, the current jostling among international technology firms for a market share in urban development. However, as a political scientist, I would add a word of caution: a city is not just a “system,” and not just made of infrastructure; it is also a center of social, cultural, and political activity. Therefore, we surely also need social and cultural entrepreneurs to get involved in eco-city innovation!

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.

A Career in Video Games

A visitor plays Pong with inventors Bill Harrison and Ralph Baer in 2009.

Students all over the country have just headed back to school. But what to go to school for?  Video Game Design is one of the fastest growing degree fields, even though as recently as 1996 Bachelor of Arts degree programs didn’t even exist. Two year diplomas in video game programs weren’t even established until the mid-1990’s. Now, however, according to the Entertainment Software Association, “American colleges and universities will offer 343 programs in game design, development and programming, including 301 undergraduate and 42 graduate programs, during the 2011-12 academic year.” The majority of schools with degree programs are located with California, but programs can be found in 45 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia.

As the popularity of video games seemed to become permanent, the demand for qualified personnel to produce them rose. It is a familiar story to the Lemelson Center. Invention leads to an industry built around that invention, and that industry leads to the establishment of programs to train and educate people to work in that industry. Industry pioneers look for people with the certain set of skills they need to reach their goals or produce their inventions. Over time a set of “standard” skills for an industry’s workers establishes itself. Around that set of skills degree programs are built. According to Rich Taylor, senior vice president for communications and industry affairs at the ESA, “with an increasing number of schools now offering graduate programs in game design and development, students have even greater access to the training they need to meet this growing demand.”

In 1967, Ralph Baer and his colleagues at Sanders Associates, Inc. developed a prototype for the first multiplayer, multiprogram video game system. The "Brown Box" is part of the collections at the National Museum of American History.

There are multiple historical comparisons, but the most apparent is the computer industry. The PC was invented during the 1970’s, resulting in an industry to create computers and a need for skilled workers to create them. Within a few years colleges and universities were offering degrees in computer science.  As the industry expands, so do the areas of specialization. When studying video games, people can focus on art, programming, sound and audio, production, and writing, to name a few.

The very fact that video gaming degrees are offered helps legitimizes the industry. But tension over respect still exists. Tell someone you’re getting a degree in engineering and they tend to be impressed. Tell someone you’re getting a degree in video gaming and they tend to think you’re going to be playing video games all day long.

The degree—and the people who earn them—still have a long way to go to earn the same respect that Philosophy, English, Math, and History majors enjoy.  But it wasn’t that long ago that degrees in the computer industry held a similar status. Now little thought is given to people majoring in computer technology. In fact it’s looked on as being rather lucrative. Perhaps video game degrees will find themselves on a similar trajectory to respect as more and more people continue to choose video game design as a career path and its applications expand. This process—of building a new industry around a new invention—has happened throughout history and will continue.  According to Taylor, “while computer and video games have been a source of entertainment for decades, our society is increasingly recognizing the broader uses of games and their positive impact. Whether it is in healthcare, education, business, or government, schools across the country see the value of games and are training their students to meet the demand.” So video game students headed off to school this fall are riding the wave of a cresting industry.