Manny’s Medical Alley

Recently I traveled to Minnesota to conduct additional research for the Places of Invention exhibition about the early days of the region’s medical-device industry now known as “Medical Alley.” This wasn’t just any research trip, though. Thanks to a personal introduction from David Rhees of the Bakken Museum, I had the special opportunity to meet one of the region’s pioneers, Manuel (“Manny”) Villafaña. You may not know his name, but you’ve probably heard of at least one of the seven medical-device companies he has founded in Minneapolis, including Cardiac Pacemakers Inc. (CPI) and St. Jude Medical.

Manny and I first chatted briefly on the phone in early June, while he was waiting for a business flight to Rome and I was in my office in D.C. I had read a number of articles and transcripts of oral history interviews with him and many of his fellow Medical Alley pioneers. Still, there is nothing like meeting with inventors and innovators in person, hearing their anecdotes and getting to know them better. I always leave these conversations feeling inspired.

On June 25, I hurried from the airport to Manny’s Steakhouse in downtown Minneapolis to join him for dinner. (Yes, the restaurant is named for him!)  Manny greeted me warmly from his booth, where he was waiting for me patiently with customary glass of milk in hand. Over Caesar salads, a huge shared NY strip steak, and even bigger “Manny’s brownie” for dessert, we discussed highlights from his fascinating life and career.

Manny Villafaña at St. Jude Medical, June 27, 2013

Manny Villafaña at St. Jude Medical, June 27, 2013

Born in 1940 to Puerto Rican parents, Manny grew up in a tough South Bronx, New York, neighborhood. A high-school graduate, Manny quickly showed his skills as a salesman. By his early 20s, Manny worked for Picker International selling medical products on behalf of many companies, including Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc. In 1967 Medtronic co-founder Earl Bakken and colleague Charlie Cuddihy flew out to New York and lured him away to help expand international distribution of Medtronic implantable cardiac pacemakers. Manny told me he’ll never forget the day he and his wife arrived in Minnesota for his new job. It was March 8 and he recalls the weatherman announcing the temperature as “15 degrees below zero with a negative 43 degree wind chill.” Welcome to Minneapolis!

Manny and Elizabeth Villafaña at his childhood home (undated). Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

Manny and Elizabeth Villafaña at his childhood home (undated). Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

Two days after our delicious steakhouse dinner, details about Manny’s early career in Medical Alley emerged during a great driving tour he gave me. He wanted to chronologically illustrate his career and show both the growth and proximity of his various companies. So we started by driving to the small former Medtronic site where Manny first worked in 1967. At that point the company had moved from the original garage headquarters where it was founded by Bakken and Palmer Hermundslie in 1949 to a building that was about 7,500 square-feet.

In 1971, Manny left Medtronic and founded CPI to develop a cardiac pacemaker he co-invented using a new lithium battery developed by engineer Wilson Greatbatch. Greatbatch, who I met in 1996, is best known for inventing the first commercially successful implantable pacemaker in 1958. Named after him and collaborating surgeon William Chardack, the Chardack-Greatbatch implantable pacemaker was licensed by Medtronic in 1960 and became the driving force behind that company’s success. About a decade later, Greatbatch’s latest battery invention became the basis for the success of Manny’s rival company CPI. As we sat in the parking lot by the 5,000 square-feet building where it was originally located, Manny told me that CPI’s first lithium battery-powered pacemaker is still running today—41 years later.

Once again as his company expanded, Manny decided to leave and start another venture, St. Jude Medical, in 1976. This time he focused on developing a mechanical heart valve, which became the industry’s gold standard. His new company moved into the old CPI office space after it moved across the highway to a bigger building. CPI (now owned by Boston Scientific) and St. Jude Medical remain Medtronic’s biggest competitors in the medical-device industry. Manny drove me to CPI’s and then St. Jude Medical’s headquarters, which are near each other today and dwarf the 5,000 square-feet industrial park buildings where they began.

We ran out of time that afternoon to drive by the sites of his other Minneapolis companies in intervening years—GV Medical, Helix Bio-Core, ATS Medical, and CABG Medical. However, he invited me and my colleague Kari Fantasia to meet him the following day at his newest venture, Kips Bay Medical. So we duly drove to the company’s 5,000 square-feet headquarters in an office park. [Notice a trend? He thinks that size is optimal for medical-device start-ups.]

Kari Fantasia, Monica Smith, and Manny Villafaña at Kips Bay Medical, June 28, 2013

Kari Fantasia, Monica Smith, and Manny Villafaña at Kips Bay Medical, June 28, 2013

Manny gave us a brief overview of technologies he has been involved in, from the Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker he sold for Medtronic to the St. Jude Medical heart valve he co-invented to today’s Kips Bay’s eSVS® Mesh that he believes will revolutionize coronary bypass surgery. Interestingly, his current company is named for the Kips Bay Boys Club in New York where he spent a lot of time as a kid and that he credits in part for his later success.

When I asked Manny “Why Minnesota?” for all of his companies, he answered: Where else are there 10,000 engineers all in one place with such medical device expertise? It’s a highly skilled, tight-knit, hard-working community and he clearly wouldn’t consider founding his companies anywhere else. Manny is very proud of his special relationships over the decades with other key Medical Alley pioneers, including his friend and mentor Dr. C. Walton Lillehei. Medical Alley has a long history of being a collaborative, inventive community indeed.

1985 photo of four cardiac pioneers who trained or worked in Medical Alley (left to right): Dr. Nazih Zudhi, Manny Villafaña, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, and Dr. Christiaan Barnard. Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

1985 photo of four cardiac pioneers who trained or worked in Medical Alley (left to right): Dr. Nazih Zudhi, Manny Villafaña, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, and Dr. Christiaan Barnard. Courtesy of Manny Villafaña.

Innovation and Invention in Fiber Arts

In my explorations of knitting, I have discovered a whole world of invention in fiber arts. This is no rocking-chair field; it’s a contemporary one full of surprises, intelligence, and devoted community. Much like other thriving communities of invention, fiber arts encourages experimentation, tweaking, failure, and entrepreneurship. Here are my top five favorite discoveries:

1. Knitting—and fiber arts in general—is a collaborative field that lends itself well to the invention process

In knitting communities such as Ravelry.com, fiber artists invent new patterns and upload them for other knitters to test. These knitters then recognize mistakes—or errata—in the patterns and report them back to the knitter, who tweaks the pattern to correct it. This pattern is then uploaded for others to purchase. Additionally, many patterns encourage other knitters to adapt patterns to their personal likes or needs. Substitutions of fiber, color, and additional flourishes such as cables or ribbing actually result in new patterns, which are then tested and uploaded for purchase. It’s a cycle of innovation that results in a myriad of patterns to choose from.

Ravelry Screenshot2. Failure is an inherent part of learning in knitting and can lead to surprising results.

Failure is probably one of the best ways to learn how to move forward in knitting. Unlike sewing, where a slip of the scissors can ruin an entire garment, mistakes in knitting can often be easily fixed. This has encouraged me to try new techniques, knowing that if I drop a stitch or lose my place, there are ways to fix it.

Additionally, making mistakes in a pattern can actually create a new and interesting stitch. This stitch can then be incorporated into a new pattern, like the Purl Bee’s Easy Mistake Stitch Scarf. Et voila, a slip of the needles becomes a new invention!

3. Contemporary fiber artists are reusing materials in innovative and exciting ways.

One of my favorite contemporary artists is Nick Cave, a fiber artist who developed iconic Soundsuits. These sculpture-costumes of found objects, hair, and recycled fiber are meant to conceal the wearer’s race, gender, and identity. Cave created the Soundsuits in reaction to the Rodney King riots, which happened while he was living in Los Angeles.

A Soundsuit by fiber artist Nick Cave.

A Soundsuit by fiber artist Nick Cave. Image via laurenfenton.com

On a more mundane level, everyday knitters who are environmentally conscious have begun to unravel old sweaters and knit with the upcycled wool. I’ve started doing this as well, and have discovered that it’s incredibly satisfying to turn an ugly sweater into a something current and fresh. However, it takes a LOT of work—I have to unravel the sweater, wash the wool, hang it to dry with a weight to get the kinks out, and then twist it into a skein. I’m going to have to be pretty intentional to continue this practice.

Reclaimed wool project

One of my reclaimed wool projects.

 

My improvised system of getting the kinks out of upcycled yarn:  coat hanger, rubber band, and coffee mug.

My improvised system of getting the kinks out of upcycled yarn:
coat hanger, rubber band, and coffee mug.

4. There is a ton of innovation going on in knitting.

Yarn bombing, spinning plastic, contemporary basketry—the list goes on and on. In my opinion, a heightened interest in innovation in fiber arts is reflective of a cultural turn towards wanting to do something with our hands and keep a historical tradition alive. In the high-tech sector, knitting is being sourced as a way to improve performance. This can be seen in the Nike Flyknit Racer and gloves with knitted conductive material for touchscreen use.

You can get touchscreen gloves with knitted conductive materials in your favorite team’s logo. Screenshot from Seahawks.com

You can get touchscreen gloves with knitted conductive materials in your favorite team’s logo. Screenshot from Seahawks.com

5. Contemporary knitters pull from a long and rich history of American fiber arts.

American fiber arts have a long and rich history in America. According to the Anne Macdonald’s No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting, knitting has been an integral part of American life since the very beginning. First Ladies such as Martha Washington and Eleanor Roosevelt were avid knitters, and urged others to take up the craft to make a political statement, and as a way to gain social and financial independence.

The fiber arts collections we have here at the National Museum of American History show the artistry, craftsmanship, and innovative spirit of fiber artists that have been in weaving, carding, and knitting for a very long time. The following image is a pair of mittens knitted by Priscilla Ostrum Wilson (1831-1906). According to the Museum’s collection information, Priscilla lived in Wellsboro, PA. At age 18, she married and went to live on a farm, where she created mittens and sold them to merchants in nearby villages.

Mittens knitted by Priscilla Ostrum Wilson.

Mittens knitted by Priscilla Ostrum Wilson. 1979.-980.01 and .02. Image Number 79-7966

It’s fascinating to see such a rich history of invention and innovation in American knitting and fiber arts. I’m excited to see what’s next for the field, and to participate in its continual evolution. For more, join us on Twitter (@SI_Invention) Monday, August 19, from 1-2PM EST at for a coffee break conversation about the future of knitting using #brightknitting.

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.

Chase Lewis: Kid Inventor

One of the best parts of working for the Lemelson Center is having the opportunity to meet so many cool inventors. In recent years, I’ve met NASA food scientist Vicki Kloeris, roboticist Jason Bannister, skateboarding pioneer Rodney Mullen, and perhaps one of my favorites, Ralph Baer, inventor of the home video game.  I am always inspired by these women and men, and love to hear them talk about how they work, who encouraged them as kids or mentored them as adults, what kinds of challenges they’ve faced and overcome, and what their next big thing might be.

Kid inventor Chase Lewis.

Photo courtesy of Chase Lewis.

Last month, I had the opportunity to meet Chase Lewis, another amazing inventor. Part of what’s so impressive about Chase is the fact that he’s just 13. But perhaps more notable is his invention, the Rescue Travois. Chase describes the inspiration for his invention on his website:

“During the 2011 Somali famine, hundreds of children who were too weak to walk were left by the roadside to die when their parents could no longer carry them on the two to three week trek to a refugee center.  When…Chase Lewis read this in the newspaper, he thought no parent should have to do this. He wondered why they did not have a simple transportation device, like a little wagon, to help them carry the children. After speaking with experts, Chase learned that there is a dearth of simple, wheeled transportation in Africa. Most of the simple transportation people had, if any, were wheelbarrows.  Yet most of the Somalis who had to make the treks to the refugee centers were too poor to even have wheelbarrows.”

So Chase set out to invent a new kind of vehicle that would be inexpensive, simple to put together, and easy to operate. He was initially inspired by travois used by Native Americans, but like any good inventor, he thought about how he could improve upon the existing technology and make it even more effective for the people he hoped to help.

Native American Travois

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

When we met, Chase talked about how his idea evolved from initial concept to end product. He described testing different designs for load-bearing capabilities and exploring various materials from which to build the travois. While he initially considered a wooden frame, he eventually settled on bamboo: it’s lightweight, readily available, sturdy, and sustainable. He also modified the existing travois design by adding wheels to make it easier to pull and a “belt” that can be worn around the operator’s waist, leaving arms free to carry a child. Finally, Chase tested his idea by having both children and adults pull the travois to ensure ease of use. Hearing Chase talk about his work really underscored one of the Lemelson Center’s main educational messages—that invention is a process. He conceived an idea, researched possible solutions, and created, tested, and tweaked a prototype until he came up with a workable design.

Testing the invention.

Testing the travois. Photo courtesy of Chase Lewis.

I first learned about Chase and his invention through the Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, which the Lemelson Center has hosted the past two years in conjunction with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access and ePals, an online global community for teachers and students.  Chase’s was one of 300 entries in the 2012 contest and garnered the top prize for his age group, including the services of a patent attorney. (Chase doesn’t want to profit from the Rescue Travois, but wants to patent it so that no one else can make money from the design either. He hopes to make the design of the vehicle free and available to all.) But Chase’s work didn’t stop when he entered the contest. He continues to work on the travois, and is currently trying to identify suppliers and manufacturers. He has also met with government and non-profit leaders who he hopes can help him make the travois available to those who need it most.

Lemelson Center Art Molella meets with kid inventor Chase Lewis.

Chase with Lemelson Center Director Art Molella, his friend Janvier, and his mother Michelle Lewis.

As my Smithsonian and ePals colleagues begin to plan the next Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, scheduled to launch in early 2014, I am already looking forward to seeing the next round of inventions. I know there are other young inventors out there who, like Chase, have great invention ideas that can make the world a better place.

Rocket Scientist and Inventor Yvonne Brill

Rocket Scientist and Inventor Yvonne Brill. Photo via the Winnipeg Sun.

Yvonne Brill. Photo via the Winnipeg Sun.

I venture to guess that when most people hear “rocket scientist” either they envision a man wearing a lab coat or think of the phrase “It’s not rocket science” used in reference to comparatively easy tasks. In my years at the Lemelson Center I’ve had the advantage of meeting several fascinating rocket scientists, most of whom were women. Now, naturally, if you read my March blog “Girls Get Science and Invention,” you’re already aware of my particular interest in women inventors. In that light, I noticed a New York Times obituary about pioneering rocket scientist and inventor Yvonne Claeys Brill (born December, 30 1924—died March 27, 2013) and was intrigued to learn more about this recipient of the 2010 National Medal of Technology and Innovation “for innovation in rocket propulsion systems for geosynchronous and low earth orbit communication satellites, which greatly improved the effectiveness of space propulsion systems.”

Yvonne Brill receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2010 from President Obama.

Yvonne Brill receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2010 from President Obama. Photo via USPTO.

Unfortunately, her New York Times obituary received news coverage not so much because of Mrs. Brill’s amazing career accomplishments but rather because of the way the obituary was written…and then revised…due to initial complaints about its apparent sexism. The New Yorker, Slate, and other publications analyzed the “misguided obituary” that originally began: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” Two sentences later the obituary author added that she “was also a brilliant rocket scientist.” In the revised version, that latter statement replaced the beef stroganoff reference (which disappeared). However, as The New Yorker noted, you still had to read many paragraphs before finding out that, while raising three children, she was actually working part-time in the field before returning full-time and gaining fame for her satellite-related research.

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Yvonne Claeys earned her B.Sc. in Mathematics from the University of Manitoba and her M.S. in Chemistry from the University of Southern California. She got a job at Douglas Aircraft and then shifted to the new field of rockets on the Project RAND contract. According to a 2009 MIT article, “she participated in pioneer studies that defined rocket propellant performance.” At RAND she also met her husband, William Franklin Brill, who was a research chemist. After marrying, they moved to the East Coast for his job, and her career path took her to, among others, a full-time job at Wright Aeronautical and part-time work at FMC Corporation during the aforementioned child-rearing years. Then, in 1966, she took a full-time job at RCA’s rocket subsidiary Astro Electronics where she patented her propulsion system for satellites, for which she gained international acclaim. Yvonne Brill’s projects included working on the propulsion systems for Tiros, the first weather satellite, and for Nova, a series of rockets designed for U.S. missions to the moon. From 1981-1983 she worked at NASA, then returned to RCA for three years. From 1986-1991 she was the propulsion manager for the International Maritime Satellite Organization in London until her retirement.

Tiros, a satellite invented by Yvonne Brill.

Tiros satellite. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Nova Rocket invented by Yvonne Brill. Photo via NASA.

Nova Rockets. Photo via NASA.

Thanks to career-focused obituaries about Yvonne Brill I found many interesting resources, including a 2005 interview conducted with her for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Mrs. Brill had received the SWE award in 1986 and was elected the next year into the National Academy of Engineering for her work advancing spacecraft propulsion technology and propellant performance. Other career accolades included: the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2001, given to non-Government employees whose contributions demonstrate ”a level of excellence that has made a profound or indelible impact to NASA mission success”; the 2002 Wylde Propulsion award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; the 2009 John Fritz Medal from the American Association of Engineering Societies; and induction in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010 for inventing the Dual Thrust Level Monopropellant Spacecraft Propulsion System (U.S. Patent #3,807,657).

Throughout her career, Brill touted the importance of encouraging girls and women to become scientists and engineers. In her 2005 SWE interview, she sort of swept aside concerns about herself dealing with a lot of resistance as a woman engineer, but she spoke of challenges facing women generally in the male-dominated field. She commented that “the number of women in the National Academy of Engineering since I was elected [in 1987] progressed from a great tenth of one percent to three percent over almost twenty years. So it’s a very inch-y slow movement.” I hope that girls will be inspired to follow in Yvonne Brill’s footsteps.

Inventing on Wisconsin’s Waterways

I grew up in Wisconsin, a place well known for its waters and woods. It seems like you can’t go more than a few miles before running into a stream, pond, or lake. But little did I know that the waterways I grew up on were the same as those of an inventor and were the inspiration for his invention.

Ole Evinrude emigrated to Wisconsin in 1882 when he was five, growing up in Cambridge, WI, on the shores of Lake Ripley. Like Ole, I also grew up in Cambridge, went swimming and fishing in the lake, and enjoyed meals along its shore.

Sunset over a Wisconsin lake.

Sunset over a Wisconsin lake. By peterrieke (Balsam Lake Sunset) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cambridge is about thirty minutes from Madison, so I spent plenty of time not just at Lake Ripley but also on the four lakes the capital is built around. Ole spent plenty of time in Madison too, gaining experience with machinery from various positions in machine shops. In addition to his hands-on experience, he used the university’s library to teach himself advanced mathematics, mechanics, and engineering. After briefly working in Pittsburgh—where he had first hand experience working with steel—he returned to Wisconsin for positions building engines.

Both of my parents grew up in Milwaukee and most of my family lives still lives there. Ole moved to that city to work and began building his own engines during his spare time in the basement of his boarding house. All the times that I drove to and from Milwaukee (about an hour past lakes and woods) I never guessed that the blue waters of Lake Okauchee that I saw from the road was the site of an event that got Ole thinking about using his homemade engines to power boats in a new way. On an outing on Lake Okauchee, Ole, his future wife Bess, and some friends rowed their boat across the lake. They bought some ice cream that they intended to take back across the lake with them but it melted by the time they reached the other side of lake, two miles away). This inspired Evinrude’s idea to clamp a motor to the stern of a boat.

Although forms of outboard motors for boats had existed since 1896, and had even been patented in 1905, in 1907 Evinrude designed the first commercially and mechanically successful outboard motor. His outboard motor had a mechanical arrangement that became the standard for all outboard motors.

Outboard motor patent drawing.

Patent drawing for “Marine Propulsion Mechanism” by Ole Evinrude.

Evinrude tested his invention on the nearby Kinnikinnic River. Having myself canoed on the Kinniknnic on many occasions, with its mix of forested, beach, rock, and house lined shores, I can easily picture Ole’s first trial. Without a muffler, when the motor started it was so noisy that it brought dozens of people to the river bank. It obviously needed a little tweaking before being sold, but Ole was able to go about five miles per hour. Ole’s first motors (built in 1909) were all hand-built, weighed 62 pounds, and had two horsepower. They sold quickly and in 1910 Ole had nearly 1,000 orders. By inventing the first commercially and mechanically successful outboard motor Ole forever altered the boating world. Outboard motors can be easily removed for repairs, storage, or use on other boats. Can you imagine a world without water skiing or motor boat racing?

After World War I, Ole utilized new techniques and processes of using aluminum to develop a lighter (48 pounds), two-cylinder, three horsepower outboard motor. He also invented a quieter underwater exhaust system. This new motor was on the market in 1920. Over the years Ole continued to develop lighter motors with greater horsepower.

1910 and 1924 outboard motors.

Evinrude’s 1910 and 1924 motors. Courtesy NMAH Archives Center.

Wisconsin is known for its waters and woods. Growing up in a place where a body of water nearly is never far away is not only beautiful and enjoyable but inspiring. Ole Evinrude designed the outboard motor we use today, but perhaps Ole would have invented a motor for an entirely different purpose if hadn’t been surrounded by the waterways that we both grew up on.

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.

Sound and Vision

Editors Note: This is a follow-up to “It’s in the Details,” Anna’s recent blog about fiber artist Timothy Westbrook and his use of repurposed materials. Originally from upstate New York, Westbrook has enjoyed becoming part of Milwaukee’s robust arts community, itself at the center of a vibrant place of invention

Donated audio cassette tapes in Westbrook's studio

 

Westbrook's "The Unicorn Maiden" comprised of woven cassette tape with cotton, blue velvet curtains, bed sheets, a Victorian hand-embroidered curtain, and a Victorian unicorn button. Modeled by Raquel and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

“Blue, blue/
electric blue/
that’s the color/
of my room/
where I will live— /
blue, blue—”

These lyrics from David Bowie‘s “Sound and Vision” have been lolling through my mind ever since I began thinking about the hand-woven cassette tapes in Timothy Westbrook‘s
designs. If it wasn’t for Bowie, after all, or the Clash or the Ramones or Troublefunk (you get the picture), I might not have felt such a familiar and sentimental pull towards Westbrook’s use of crinkly, sparkly, magnetic cassette tape. Who knew that old cassettes full of hiss could LOOK so good. Recognizing the tape in Westbrook’s jackets, dresses, and scarves was like seeing an old friend in a new context. In Westbrook’s Pfister Hotel studio, once-loved tape was woven into shimmering new life with pearl cotton, wool, and blended silk bamboo.

For those who remember, cassettes were high-maintenance friends: easily degraded by heat and humidity, often stuck in Walkmans, and with a tendency to spew ribbons of crumpled tape that had to be carefully rewound with a pencil. (This was best-case scenario: more often, the tape was mangled.) You work with what you have and I loved that technology. Soundtracks, mix tapes, and “cassingles” got me through.

Where do all the old “new technologies” like cassette tape go, though? I often think about that here at the Lemelson Center where we study innovative technology that supplants the old. While collections documenting the history of invention are carefully preserved by the Smithsonian and its counterparts, cassettes mostly go from shoe boxes to giant landfills where they degrade and leach pollutants into our water table and get into our food chain.

Details of Westbrook's woven cassette tape

Thankfully, artists like Westbrook are inspired to re-think this cycle and imagine how materials can be repurposed. Each of his gowns, for example, use between 6 and 12 yards of cassette tape. He makes it a point to never use virgin materials: “The goal is zero-waste which is often confused as ‘take this rectangular fabric and make a muumuu wrap dress.’ I simply mean do not throw anything away that is not biodegradable.”

Naysayers who think eco-friendly/sustainable fashion means burlap and muumuus will be more than surprised when they see Westbrook’s holiday dress. Made from a combination of gospel and holiday tapes, wire hangers, roses, grommets, and a Mrs. Claus costume, the materials inspire humor and play a metaphorical role in the visual story of the dress. Varying tape colors add visual depth.

The "Alexis Rose" holiday dress made of gospel and holiday-themed audio cassette tapes, red velvet from a Mrs. Claus costume, wire hangers, and donated grommets filled with roses. Sue Lawton's "Willow Tree" is in the background.

The relationship between sound and vision is not only a constant in Westbrook’s work—it also is the inspiration for his experimentation with audio tape. As a child, time spent listening to books-on-tape with his blind grandfather made him think about ways that sensory experiences could be translated. What if the books they listened to could be transformed back into something visual that could be understood through touch?

"The Stripe" (right) with woven cassette tape and a cotton and vintage chiffon curtain. Modeled by Michael and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

Asked about the challenges of his medium, Westbrook muses, “I don’t really have problems with the cassette tapes—only inspiration. The story is in the wording: cassette tape is a kind of ribbon. So where else do we hear ‘yarn, thread, string, rope, ribbon’? Fabric. Weaving. What are other related things? Line, floss, string—violin string!—electric wire, silk. All of a sudden new materials make themselves available.”

His ability to look at things differently—to see all of the preceding materials as monofilaments to be woven, for example—keeps Westbrook’s work evolving. Strong mathematical ability and a fertile imagination stoke this fire, even allowing him to think about similarities between the sensorial process of weaving and playing audio cassettes reel to reel.

"The Femme Nouvelle" made with woven cassette tape and wool and a scarf made with woven plastic bags and cotton. Modeled by Layna and styled by Alexis Rose. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

So what next? Coming off a successful final gallery night show at the Pfister Hotel, Westbrook is winding down his time as Artist-in-Residence. He plans to stay in Milwaukee where he will continue to explore new ways to create sustainable, low-impact works that challenge established ideas about luxury and beauty in our disposable culture. He is innately good at connecting different people, ideas, and industries together—an important figure in any thriving place of invention—and I expect we will hear remarkable things about the community-focused projects he and collaborator Alexis Rose have on the horizon.

Alexis Rose and Westbrook at his final gallery night show. Rose styled the show and was its creative director. Photo by Gerard Heidgerken at BarelyPractical.com.

Earlier today, New Yorkers had a chance to hear Westbrook speak at the GreenBizForum about every object’s potential reuse. 

Special thanks to BarelyPractical.com.

It’s in the Details

We think a lot about sequins here—about their care and conservation—the history of their invention and evolution—and they ways their sparkle conveys the magic and glamor of performance.

From the Hollywood movies of Judy Garland to the honky-tonks of Patsy Cline, sequins have played an important role in audience enchantment. Their very glimmer is a kind of short-hand for magic—the magic of a fantasy world conjured upon a screen or the magic of a voice stirring powerful emotion. It was the marriage of sequins, intense light, and Technicolor, after all, that gave those slippers their ruby glow in The Wizard of Oz and conveyed their inner power. [1]

Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," 1938, designed by Gilbert Adrian, NMAH

“The iridescent glimmer of sequins are essential elements in the larger-than-life persona of many a performer. It’s as if the shimmer allows them to bring their own special lighting to the stage.”

               —Dwight Blocker Bowers,
 Entertainment Curator,
National Museum of American History

PBR shoes made from over 2,000 hole-punched aluminum circles; woven white plastic bags in background

Sequins—whimsically employed—are what first drew me to artist Timothy Westbrook’s Pabst Blue Ribbon shoes. They were posted on Facebook by Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel where Westbrook is Artist-in-Residence. Online, the shoes were gorgeous and charming—their blue bows and red ribbons lining up just right—but it was the sequins’ brilliance and texture that put them over the top. I have two-stepping friends who would die to dance in them.

My cousin Rebecca’s wedding brought me to the hotel soon after, and in a quiet moment I discovered Westbrook’s studio just off of the hotel’s ornate 19th-century lobby. An odd place for PBR shoes, you might think, but this is Milwaukee, home of the Pabst family of brewery pioneers. Pabst Blue Ribbon is about as iconic as it gets in this place of invention.

I spotted the shoes right away—twinkling amid mannequins, gowns, and sparkling fabric being woven on a giant loom. I moved closer. I had never seen sequins like these—like round pieces of confetti arranged as if scales on a mermaid’s tail. I couldn’t stop looking.

Timothy Westbrook in his Pfister Hotel Studio

“Please touch!” enthused a voice from behind a non-electric treadle sewing machine. The kind and welcoming artist himself. Even with permission, I was hesitant to touch, but I’m so glad I did. Those weren’t sequins at all! They were red, white, and blue aluminum circles hole-punched from PBR cans! I loved the shoes even more for their surprise—for the inventive way that they not only celebrated an iconic American product—they were the product, recycled back to life.

Each shoe, Westbrook explained, was covered in over 2,000 aluminium circles hole-punched from used PBR cans. Separated for color and pattern, the “sequins” were then meticulously glued to a pair of vintage shoes over the course of 32 hours. Next to the PBR shoes were the latest entries in what Westbook calls his, “Drinking Shoe” collection: “Strongbow shoes” made from the hard cider’s distinctive yellow and black cans.

Strongbow shoe by Westbrook

Detail of Strongbow shoe

Strongbow shoe in-process

Strongbow by Westbrook

Strongbow kit: cans, vintage shoe, hole punch, glue

Strongbow shoe by Westbrook

Making "sequins" from Strongbow aluminum cans

The “magic” of the PBR shoes, I told Westbrook, made me think on some level of that most celebrated pair of sequinned shoes in the Smithsonian’s collection. Funny I should say that: Westbrook recently created “Ruby Slippers” for a project commissioned by Misha Rabinovich.

Westbrook's glistening red "Ruby Slippers" made from another American icon—the Coca-Cola can; photograph by Alison Barnick www.alisonbarnick.com

The result is a spectacular pair of shoes that would make the Wicked Witch of the West take notice: a sparkling duo made of thousands of aluminum “sequins” from another American icon: Coca-Cola. The project was difficult on several levels—the heel, for example, is often wrong in reproductions—but Westbrook’s greatest challenge was creating something that evokes the public’s powerful memory of the shoes while providing a 21st-century twist.

"Ruby Slippers" by Timothy Westbrook

Model wearing Westbrook's "Ruby Slippers"; photograph by Alison Barnick www.alisonbarnick.com

“The closer I get to garbage the more interested people are, ” Westbrook said. ”When they don’t know what they’re looking at, when they have to look closer and differently to figure it out, they see the innovation—that it’s not garbage at all—it’s something beautiful and a piece of Americana.”

Turns out, there was more to see, including other pieces made from recycled materials such as audio cassette tapes, MRI film, scrap yarn and fabric, umbrellas, medical splints, electric wire, and those ubiquitous white plastic bags. Even retired sheets donated by the Pfister get a second life as gowns.

Since that meeting in Milwaukee, I’ve enjoyed an ongoing conversation with Westbrook about his work and commitment to using re-purposed material. So much of what he talked about resonated with conversations the Lemelson Center has had with the many creative and innovative people that come through our doors. In my next post, I will talk about the work Westbrook is doing to transform discarded audio tape into shimmering textiles that challenge one’s definition of luxury.


[1] Blocker Bowers, Dwight (Entertainment Curator, National Museum of American History). 2007. From the Smithsonian Channel’s America’s Treasures video.

 

 

 

Cool Inventions from Different Invention Cultures

Cultures of invention are as diverse as places of invention. One community of inventors’ attitudes toward failure, success, competition, and collaboration during the invention process may differ widely from other inventor communities. An interesting example of this contrast is the pioneering counterculture communities of hip-hop and skateboarding.

Skateboards were invented in California during the 1940s and 1950s by laid-back surfers interested in finding a way to do on land what they did for fun in the ocean. Skateboarding gained wider recognition and popularity in the 1970s and 1980s with the construction of skate parks, improvement in skateboard materials and designs, and an explosion in the invention of tricks.

Hip-hop music was invented in the 1970s and 1980s by a disadvantaged community of African American and Caribbean (Jamaican, Puerto Rican, etc…) American urbanites in the Bronx. When the elements of hip-hop coalesced, gang territories became DJ territories and physical fights became break dancing fights, rapping contests, or DJ battles. The community reinvented the turntable as a musical instrument through physical alternations and new techniques of use. In the mid to late 1980s hip-hop expanded both artistically and geographically and around the 1990s became a part of mainstream America.

In both communities, then and today, individual inventors tend to work first in isolation; when they meet with others, the two communities, generally speaking, have different attitudes toward collaboration. Skate culture values humility. Egos are disliked. Many skaters resist skateboarding being labeled as a sport and don’t want skateboarding to be included in the Olympics for fear that skateboarding could become “jockified.” Experimentation in front of peers is encouraged and failure is accepted as an important part of the process. It typically takes a skater many days of attempting the same trick to succeed once. If a guy fails for two hours then does an amazing trick, the community embraces him. It is an open-source community where skaters enjoy sharing their tricks with others. Skateboarders create an environment supportive of failure, and the quantity of failure enforces skaters’ humility.

In hip-hop, ego and competitiveness is valued. As DJ Cash Money says “I’m a very competitive person [and] I wanted to be known as the world’s greatest DJ.” The records from which a DJ samples music is a closely guarded secret. Some early DJs replaced record labels with others and even spied on each other while they were out buying records. Young DJs often learned techniques through observation while “paying their dues” (carting around equipment for more prestigious artists). When two DJs showed up at a venue it was often not for experimentation but competition—a DJ would throw down a challenge to another to meet at a specific time and place for a battle. Some had a crew to give them an aura of power and intimidation (and, because DJ’s had so much large and heavy equipment to transport to and from gigs, crews helped transport it and ensure that it wasn’t stolen). DJs set up their equipment on opposing sides of the venue and the one with the most cheers and dancers won. At first DJs won primarily by having the louder sound system, but later they won more through showing off better techniques. The winner continued to rock the party and the loser went home to tweak their system and techniques then fight another battle. As Cash Money put it, “If someone beats you, you just go back to the drawing board and try to do better the next time.” Ego in the form of a crew, a superhuman DJ name (like Immortal), MC boasts, clothing, and sound volume could all help win battles and respect, or street cred. DJ Immortal describes competing competition the following way: “I saw them going back and forth, fighting each other with the turntables. The crowd was totally eggin’ ‘em on. It was this awesome instrument that I was seeing, the turntable. Plus that competitive element, too, where you could just destroy someone. It was like a real sport.”

From "Yes Yes Y'all."

Competitions and contests exist within the skateboarding community as well. Skaters seek recognition by, say, being featured in magazine articles, garnering lots of positive comments on their YouTube videos, or winning skating contests. But once you have fame, it can often be prohibitive to further invention. As a skater is defending their title or reputation, they may be more likely to keep doing their signature tricks and take fewer risks on new moves, as it becomes difficult to retain an environment where they feel comfortable failing. So while competing well can be a motivating factor it is only one path to the success of receiving credit for inventing a new trick.

Similarly with hip-hop, a skate contest can provide the street cred or name recognition many seek. But hip-hop artists are typically motivated to achieve more than just name recognition, such as a recording deal, commercial endorsements, more money, wider fame, their own brand labels, etc. Cash Money’s DJ name in itself illustrates this focus. Skaters tend to invent for the purpose of inventing and impressing their own community, and many are satisfied with receiving recognition for their inventions in the form of a contest title, magazine photo, or YouTube video.

That these two inventive communities value different means for achieving success emphasizes to me that place matters. A place or environment shapes the values of the inventors that live there, and their values shape their invention process and definition of success. Any place can become a place of invention because people in any community can develop amazing inventions with a mix of creativity, collaboration and competition, risk-taking and problem-solving along the way.

Source for Cash Money and DJ Immortal quotes: Katz, M. (2012). Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press.