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.

Football Helmet Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sivowitch Law of Firsts

Eliot Sivowitch

Elliot Sivowitch in the electricity collections, around 1970. Photo courtesy of Hal Wallace, NMAH.

The invention process is seldom straightforward. People always seem to want to know who invented something first, but we don’t often have such definitive answers. Elliot Sivowitch, one of my very favorite colleagues at the Museum, summed up the messiness of invention in his typically witty “Sivowitch Law of Firsts”:

 

 

Whenever you prove who was first, the harder you look you will find someone else who was more first. And if you persist in your efforts you find that the person whom you thought was first was third. Someone will appear on the scene who was more first than you thought was first in the first place. [1]

With great sadness, we learned today of Elliot’s passing. Hal Wallace, curator of the Museum’s electricity collections, wrote:

Elliot first came to work at the U.S. National Museum in 1959. He left to work at the Library of Congress for a year and returned to the Smithsonian in 1961, retiring in 2000. Elliot spent his career in the Electricity Collections as our expert on radio and television history. Since retirement he had continued in an emeritus capacity, working with researchers, answering public inquiries, and assisting museum staff in identifying and cataloging objects. During his long career he helped move the collections to the new National Museum of History and Technology (now NMAH) and brought in many significant additions of radio and television material. That our radio technology holdings and archives are among the finest in the world is due in no small measure to Elliot’s expertise.

Elliot earned a Master of Arts in history from Syracuse University in 1957 with his thesis, “A History of Radio Spectrum Allocation in the United States: 1912-1926.” He participated in exhibitions both large and small over the years: Information Age, Person To Person, Patent Controversies in the History of Radio, and Transistors at Fifty to name just a few. He influenced the work of a host of fellows and visiting scholars during his five decades of service to the museum. An amateur radio operator (K3RJA), he was instrumental in the establishment of the Smithsonian HAM station, NN3SI. An excellent violinist, Elliot used that talent to give demonstrations of acoustical science to visitors. He was a member of the Audio Engineering Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Elliot’s friendly nature was as welcome as his expertise was invaluable.

I first met Elliot in the 1980s, about a dozen years before I came to the Smithsonian. I was doing research on the early history of television and remember very well how generous he was with his time and knowledge. Over the years, I learned to turn to Elliot not only when I needed help with research, but also when I just needed a good laugh. Elliot had the best giggle on earth—a surprising contrast to his deep radio-announcer’s voice. I already miss that giggle, and the amazing brain and kind soul behind it.

[1] Quoted in Ira Flatow, They All Laughed: From Light Bulbs to Lasers: The Fascinating Stories Behind the Great Inventions That Have Changed Our Lives (New York: Harper, 1993), p. xv.

NPR Announces “What’s Your Big Idea?” Video Contest

Did you know that high school students have come up with all of the following ideas?

  • how to turn yard waste into hydrogen fuel
  • a new navigation system for traveling through space
  • a new way to detect cancer early
  • how to make medical tests using radiation less dangerous

It’s no news to us here at the Lemelson Center that you people have big and great ideas. NPR thinks along the same lines and is challenging thinkers ages 13 to 25 to share their bright ideas through video.

Videos will be shared on NPR’s YouTube channel and Facebook page and the very best idea will be shared with a leader in the most relevant field of science.

Find out more at NPR.