Innovating to Avoid Turkey Trauma

On Thanksgiving, Americans consume about 46 million turkeys. The key to serving a perfect bird is getting the interior to just the right temperature. Too low and you risk getting sick from the undercooked meat. Too high and it’s likely to be dry.

About 30 million turkeys are sold each year with built-in pop-up timers designed to tell cooks when the bird has reached that magic temperature. Today, the pop-up timer market is dominated by Volk Enterprises, founded in the 1950’s by Anthony Volk. When he returned from serving in World War II, Volk began working in a turkey processing plant, which led him to invent a variety of turkey-related products, and ultimately, to start his eponymous company.

Before he invented his pop-up timer, Volk worked with his brother Henry to create a device called the Hok-Lok, which helps to bind the turkey together. The wire contraption, which is meant to be left on the turkey even during cooking, keeps the drumsticks right alongside the turkey breast, and helps make the breast look plumper. Basically, it keeps the whole bird together and looking nice. Though the company has since innovated on the design and created new binding products out of different materials, the Hok-Lok is still used today.

Patent drawing for the Hok-Lok, a Poultry Trussing Device

Patent drawing for the Hok-Lok, a Poultry Trussing Device

After the Hok-Lok, Volk went on to develop a turkey thermometer, but he wasn’t the first to do so. In the 1960’s, a group from the California Turkey Producers Advisory Board began thinking about how to gauge when a turkey was done—but not overdone. The Board was receiving complaints about turkeys being too dry, which they attributed to overcooking. The group began brainstorming ways to combat this, and came up with the idea of an insertable thermometer.

Diagram of a pop-up turkey timer

How a pop-up timer works (via How Stuff Works)

In 1971, after prototyping various solutions, the group filed a patent for a Thermal Indicator “particularly suited for use in indicating temperatures attained by a heated body such as an article of food….” The Indicator was inspired by ceiling sprinklers that activate when they reach a certain temperature. The turkey thermometer consists of four parts: an outer tubular casing, an inner piece that pops up when the appropriate temperature is reached, a spring, and a small amount of metal at the bottom of the tube. The inner pop-up piece is situated in the metal, which is solid before cooking. The metal melts as the turkey cooks, releasing the inner piece and allowing it to pop up.

Patent drawing for the first pop-up turkey timer

Patent drawing for the first pop-up turkey timer

The group established the Dun-Rite Manufacturing Company to make the devices, but in 1973, sold it to 3M. 3M refined the design and continued to make the timers until 1991, when it sold that part of its business to none other than Volk Enterprises.

In the 1970s, Anthony Volk invented his own turkey thermometer. A reverse of the pop-up timer, Volk’s Vue-Temp thermometer was designed to stick out when the turkey was raw and to sink into the bird as it cooked. The design seemed to confuse consumers, however, and Volk soon abandoned that design to develop his own pop-up timer, which was similar to the Dun-Rite/3M device. (It was so similar, in fact, that 3M sued Volk Enterprises in the 1980s for patent infringement. The suit was ultimately settled, however, and both companies continued to produce the timers.)

Patent drawing for Volk’s first Disposable Cooking Thermometer, the Vue-Temp

Patent drawing for Volk’s first Disposable Cooking Thermometer, the Vue-Temp

Though Volk Enterprises dominates the built-in turkey timer market today, there are also pop-up thermometers that can be purchased independently of a bird. The most innovative (at least aesthetically)? This thermometer that is actually shaped like a turkey. Its drumsticks pop up when the meat is done.

Pop-up turkey thermometer shaped like a turkey.

Via Food Beast

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

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

Ambrose Burnside

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

Beard dyed red, white and blue.

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

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

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

Patent drawing for "Razor" by Gillette, 1904.

Patent drawing for “Razor” by Gillette, 1904.

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

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

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

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

Gillette razor and shaving cream carried aboard Apollo 11.

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

Who Invented the Super Bowl Trophy?

After working at The Lemelson Center for a while, it’s not hard to see that invention is all around us. In the news, in our interests, and in our daily life, it’s easy to find the invention story behind the objects and people who we encounter.

For example, I’ve been watching quite a bit of football since the start of the season. I love keeping up with my team, the Seahawks, and following along with the local team here in Washington, D.C. Last year my colleague wrote about innovation in football helmet technology designed to keep more players safe from head injuries, which is still a relevant conversation. Looking to the future, lots of fans are anticipating the 2014 Super Bowl, myself included. Which got me wondering: who invented the Super Bowl trophy?

According to Westchester Magazine, a publication from Westchester, New York, the idea of having a trophy came in 1966 from then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. He contacted Tiffany & Co., where he began collaborating with the head of design, Oscar Reidner.

The Super Bowl Trophy

Screenshot from Tiffany.com

Apparently Reidner had never watched a football game or held a football, so he immediately bought one at a toy store. He then cut up a cereal box for a prototype and met for lunch with Rozelle, where he sketched his idea on a cocktail napkin. Et voila, a major American icon was invented. Tiffany & Co. continues to handcraft a new trophy every year, which is incredible!

A silversmith at Tiffany & Co. works on the trophy.

A silversmith at Tiffany & Co. works on the trophy. Screenshot from NJ.com

Next time I covet that pair of diamond earrings from Tiffany’s, I’m sure I’ll remember that they also produce a football-related invention. It’s fascinating to continue finding invention stories wherever I look.

Inventing for Man’s Best Friend

My dog Crazy Legs with an assortment of his (destructible) toys

My dog Crazy Legs with an assortment of his (destructible) toys

As anyone with a dog knows, finding an indestructible toy for your pooch can be nearly impossible. After coming home from work last week to find that my dog, Crazy Legs, had destroyed three of his toys in one day, however, I decided it was time to renew my quest for the perfect toy. An online search for “indestructible dog toys” yielded more than 150,000 results. I found toys of every material, shape, size, and flavor (yes, flavor) imaginable. But none of them really looked indestructible, and reviews of many of the products confirmed my suspicions. After a little more digging, however, I came across inventor Amy Rockwood who has created a toy she describes as “nearly indestructible” with the patent-pending “Chew Toy Safety Indicator.” Rockwood’s line of toys is made of rubber: green (for “go”) on the outside and red (“stop”) on the inside. As the patent application describes, “If the green layer is compromised to where the red can be seen from the outside of the chew toy…the toy design is no longer safe for the pet to use.” Once the dog chews through to the red, the toy becomes vulnerable and can be chewed into smaller pieces, which a dog can easily swallow. While Rockwood intends for the toys to be indestructible, she has designed them with a safety net of sorts that alerts the dog owner that the toy is no longer safe, thus reducing the risk of choking or digestive complications.

Patent drawing for the “Chew Toy Safety Indicator”

Patent drawing for the “Chew Toy Safety Indicator”

According to the American Pet Products Association, Rockwood’s invention is just one of a growing market of pet products. The APPA estimates that Americans will spend more than $55 billion on their pets this year alone. Pet owners are spending more on everything from toys, beds, and specialty foods, to clothing, seat belts, and designer accessories (think collars and pet carriers from Barney’s and Burberry). Increasingly, Americans view their pets as family members and are willing to purchase supplies and accessories for their pets like those they would buy for themselves.

One inventor trying to capture a piece of this growing—and ever-more-sophisticated market—is 15-year-old Brooke Martin of Spokane, WA. Brooke has invented a contraption that uses an Internet-enabled device, such as a smart phone or tablet, to allow dog owners to talk to their pets via video, and even remotely deliver dog treats!

A dog videochatting with its owner.

You can video chat with your dog using Brooke Martin’s invention (image courtesy of GeekWire)

So-called “smart collars” are also taking the pet market by storm. Dog owners can outfit their canine friends with collars that track location and activity level. (Cat owners, don’t despair; feline models are said to be coming soon!) Data from the collars are then synced to the owner’s smart phone, allowing them to assess the health and fitness of their dog and even share the information with their veterinarians. By tracking the exercise and rest patterns of our pets, we can learn more about how they spend their days (particularly when we’re not around), and ideally, spot behavioral changes quickly. Developers of these new collars believe that with the help of technology, we can help our pets can live longer, healthier lives.

A smart phone app showing data collected by smart collars.

Smart collars allow pet owners to track their dogs’ activity levels (image courtesy of gizmag.com)

Roy Eng, Michael McGuire, and Mark Robinson are another team of inventors working to extend the length and quality of our pets’ lives. Their “Adjustable Wheelchair for Pets” helps animals who have lost use of their rear legs as a result of injury or paralysis. While wheelchairs for pets are not new, they have traditionally been custom-built for each pet, which has meant long wait times and expensive price tags. The adjustable model, however, allows pet owners to purchase the assistive devices off-the-shelf and easily adjust them for their own pets. Once equipped with the chair, pets can resume their regular activities and lead relatively normal lives.

Patent drawing for the “Adjustable Wheelchair for Pets”

Patent drawing for the “Adjustable Wheelchair for Pets”

A 2013 report on pet health in the United States shows that cats are living 10% and dogs 4% longer than they did just a little over a decade ago. The study cites a variety of reasons, including better preventive care and higher spay and neuter rates. While it does not examine the influence that new technologies and tools are having on the life expectancy rates of our pets, I like to think that inventors—and their inventions—are contributing to the extended health and well-being of our animal companions.

(Though it’s true that Americans spend more on their pets now than ever before, creating specialty pet products is not a new idea:  In the 1980s, Ruth Foster invented the Gentle Leader® dog collar, and in the 1950s, Charlotte Cramer Sachs developed her own line of dog accessories including the Watch Dog, a dog collar with a built-in watch. Now those are some smart collars!)

Inventor Ruth Foster and a dog wearing the Gentle Leader® collar (image courtesy of Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments, University of Minnesota)

Inventor Ruth Foster and a dog wearing the Gentle Leader® collar (image courtesy of Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments, University of Minnesota)

An ad for Charlotte Cramer Sachs’ dog products, including the Watch Dog

Pet Accessories advertising sheet for “Watch-Dog,” “Lead-o-Matic,” and “Guidog,” 1953. (AC0878-0000007)

Tailgating: Grilling, Drinking, and Inventing

With summer winding down, most people are looking forward to cooler fall temperatures. However, a new season of football is just heating up and you know what that brings: tailgating.

Tailgaiting

Photo via bishs.com.

Tailgating is a time-honored tradition of gathering together and celebrating one’s team before, during, and—if everyone’s still standing—after a football game. Literally, the term “tailgate” refers to the back part of a truck or heavy duty vehicle. Tailgating, or a tailgate party, is therefore what happens when people socialize around the open tailgate.

Now, as anyone who has been to a sporting event knows, tailgating is where it’s at. Meeting up with friends to reminisce over last year’s wins (or losses), trash talking the other team, and imbibing a few tasty beverages are all part of the festivities.

So what tailgating inventions are out there?

Let’s start with the main event of tailgating—eating and drinking. The Tailgate PartyMate was invented by a fan who was tired of having to haul tables to prepare food, in addition to being frustrated that he never had enough room for everything. So, he invented a table system that hooks onto the trailer hitch of a truck. No more having to haul cumbersome tables or deal with too little space!

a table system hooked onto the trailer hitch of a truck

Photo via tailgatepartymate.com.

Now, the second most fun thing about a tailgate party is all the great games to play—washertoss, horseshoes, wiffle ball, and more. But what happens if you want to enjoy the refreshments and play a game at the same time? That’s where the Scorzie comes in. This handy invention keeps your drink cool and keeps your game score tallied, all in one convenient place.

A drink koozie that keeps score for you.

Photo via scorzie.com

And then there’s what Popular Science Magazine calls “the sports fan’s dream”: a totally tricked-out grill. Lance Greathouse, a dental-laser repairman, invented a grill that’s a “fire-spewing, beer-chilling machine that can drive from one parking-lot party to the next.” Apparently, he had seen tailgating setups that included separate components, but never combined them all together. So, from out of his head popped his tailgating monster, which has a grill and refrigerator on opposite ends, with a satellite stereo, MP3 player, speakers, and a live TV feed of what’s cooking in between. Add on a steel cylinder that shoots fireballs into the air for fun, and I’d say you’ve got your Sunday afternoon all set.

A grill that also has a refrigerator, sound system, and fire-ball shooting abilities.

Photo via popsci.com

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for this year’s gridiron extravaganza. Bring on the grilled meat and the fireballs. Bring on the games and keeping score and keeping drinks cool. Bring on hooking stuff up to the back of the truck and making even more space for mom’s seven-layer dip. Looks like I’ve got plenty of inventions to help me enjoy my football games.

Set Em’ Up! Knock Em’ Down! Bowling’s Automated Pin Technology

According to the United States Bowling Congress (the national governing body for bowling as recognized by the United States Olympic Committee), 71 million people bowled at least once in 2010 and bowling is the number one participation sport in the United States. I began bowling at a young age, thanks to my parents who bowled in a weekly league at alleys in Northern Wisconsin and Upstate New York. In fact, my father and uncle were pin setters (aka “pin boys”) at the Lakeview Recreation (Chicago) and the Red Ray Lanes (Kewaunee, Wisconsin) respectively. And, no one “rolled” quite like my mother. She was so good that she even appeared, briefly although unsuccessfully, on Rochester television’s Bowling for Dollars. I recently rolled a few games and began thinking about how mechanization changed bowling. The AMF Automatic Pinspotter Records at the Archives Center details part of this history. The AMF Records allowed me to learn about part of the story—bowling’s “electric brain.”

Letterhead of the Ten-Pinnet Company, automatic bowling alleys, 1911.

Letterhead of the Ten-Pinnet Company, automatic bowling alleys, 1911. (AC0060-0001482)
The Tin-Pinnet Company of Indianapolis introduced an automatic bowling alley circa 1911 boasting the game was healthy, thrilling and automatic. Owners could purchase the alley (38 to 50 feet long), easily set it up in a space, and make a profit.

The game of bowling has changed over the years, thanks in large part to technology. Automatic pin setting technology was the first of many advances that would transform the game of bowling. Other advances, including the automatic ball return, lighted pin indicator, automatic scoring, and the electric-eye foul line violation detection, made the game more efficient and caused bowling as an industry to thrive.

Brochure, "The Automatics are Here..." AMF Pinspotter's Inc., [circa early 1950s]

Brochure, “The Automatics are Here…” AMF Pinspotter’s Inc., [circa early 1950s] (AC0823-0000001)

Brochure, "The Automatics are Here..." AMF Pinspotter's Inc., [circa early 1950s], inside spread. (AC0823-0000001-01)

Brochure, “The Automatics are Here…” AMF Pinspotter’s Inc., [circa early 1950s], inside spread. (AC0823-0000001-01)

Bowling is simple right? Throw a ball weighing approximately six to sixteen pounds down a lane and knock down ten pins. If you’re lucky, you’ll avoid throwing a gutter ball and knock down a few pins. Then, the pins you knocked down will disappear, the remaining ones will be reset and your ball will appear magically in the ball return and you can try again. This wasn’t the case with bowling prior to 1946. The technology of the automatic pin setting machine was slow to catch on. Pin setting apparatuses, such as John Kilburn’s 1908 invention (US Patent 882,008), were early attempts to mechanize the process. Before mechanization, humans did the pins setting, typically young men. Not only was this terribly inefficient, the work was tiring, gritty, and low-paid. Subsequent patents by Kilburn in 1911, 1917, and later years were not adopted, but in 1941, Gottfried “Fred” Schmidt of Pearl River, New York, patented a bowling pin setting apparatus (US Patent 2,208,605) and a suction lifter (US Patent 2,247,787). As Schmidt noted in his patent application, previous apparatuses did not work satisfactorily because they “could not accurately spot the pins or engage with the pins left standing.” Schmidt would know.  A bowler himself, he received twelve patents for bowling pin setting apparatuses. All of Schmidt’s patents were assigned to the Bowling Patents Management Corporation, which was later purchased by American Machine & Foundry Company (AMF) thus giving AMF the patent rights to manufacture and use the technology. AMF was no stranger to diversification or tackling mechanization projects. In 1900, the company made tobacco manufacturing machinery; in the 1920s, bread wrapping machines; and in the 1930s necktie making machines. Bowling fit right in with their plans.

Photograph, American Bowling Congress Tournament, Fort Worth, Texas, 1957 March. (AC0823-0000002)

Photograph, American Bowling Congress Tournament, Fort Worth, Texas, 1957 March. (AC0823-0000002)

Photograph, American Bowling Congress Tournament (showing machinery), Fort Worth, Texas, 1957 March. (AC0823-0000003)

Photograph, American Bowling Congress Tournament (showing machinery), Fort Worth, Texas, 1957 March. (AC0823-0000003)

The pinspotter weighed 2,000 pounds and operated at a speed of seven to ten games per hour—depending on the speed of the bowler. The machine had eight principle assemblies: the cushion (stops the ball); the ball lift (carries the ball high enough to allow a gravity return); the sweep (removes deadwood from the alley); the carpet (carries pins from the alley into the pin elevator); the pin elevator (wheel that carries the pins and delivers them to the distributor); the distributor (takes pins from the elevator wheel and delivers them to the table); the table (location where the pins are spotted for the next frame); and the electrical system (selects the cycle for the machine to perform). After a bowler released the ball and knocked pins down, the rack above the pins came down and using a suction cup, picked up any pins left standing.  A bar then dropped down and swept away the fallen pins (aka “deadwood”). The fallen pins then moved onto a pit conveyor belt and were fed into a moving cylinder that carried them to the top of the machine. The pins, still held in place by suction were reset onto the alley and the bowler’s ball was returned to them via a conveyor belt mechanism. Finally, pins were set back (spotted) into place and the process could begin again.

Ticket for Bellevue Bowling Club Masquerade, 1900 January 20 (AC0060-0001483-01)

Ticket for Bellevue Bowling Club Masquerade, 1900 January 20 (AC0060-0001483-01)

Ticket, Bellevue Bowling Club Masquerade, 1900 January 20 (AC0060-0001483-02)

Ticket, Bellevue Bowling Club Masquerade, 1900 January 20 (AC0060-0001483-02)

In 1946, AMF unveiled the new pin setter, known as the Automatic Pinspotter (Model 82-30), to the public during the American Bowling Congress (ABC) Tournament in Buffalo, New York.  AMF was unable to demonstrate their machine at the tournament itself, so they set-up their new machine in a nearby building to promote its efficiency. Not until 1952 would the Pinspotter be ready for prime time and have finally gained acceptance. By 1958, AMF had leased 40,000 pinspotters, truly mechanizing bowling centers across the United States.

So, if you haven’t bowled lately, get out there and roll a few games!

Sources

New York Times, “40,000th Pinspotter: American Machine & Foundry Marks Bowling Aid Leasing,”  June 22, 1958, page F2.

New York Times, “Diversification for Growth and Stability…Horizons Unlimited for AMF—Serving the Consumer, Industry and Defense,” November 4, 1956, page 376.

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.