A Very Kitschy Christmas

KITSCH:

Happy holidays!

The Christmas Tree, Lithograph ca1860. Source: NMAH , neg. # 2003-24670, The Harry T. Peters Collection,

Is it just me, or do you also sometimes wonder who invents all of the kitschy stuff being marketed, purchased, and possibly displayed in your own living room this time of year? Christmas is not the only holiday in December, but surely it wins the contest for inspiring the most odd, sometimes amusing, often ridiculous assortment of commercial products in stores right now. And these items appear on shelves earlier and earlier each season. I recall taking a photo in October as I stood in a home improvement store gaping in disbelief at the array of flashing Christmas lights, fake trees, singing Santas, and other decorations already being stocked. It wasn’t even Halloween yet (which arguably wins the overall award for holiday kitsch) and suddenly I felt pressured to consider buying things made by Santa’s little elves.

Christmas aisle...at Halloween.

Now, don’t get me wrong, “kitsch” has its place in our marketplace. There is a supply and demand relationship, and besides who hasn’t bought at least a few items just because they made you laugh?! I certainly have. So I’m not intending here to disparage anyone who decides to purchase, say, a sensor-activated reindeer who sings the Rudolph song while his red nose lights up. [I haven’t actually seen such a thing. Maybe I should invent it?] However, as I was helping my friend and neighbor decorate her house last week, I was struck by the array of items emerging from her holiday storage bins. Who are the inventors behind these products?

Well, I certainly cannot fully answer that question in this blog. Unfortunately I do not have the time or energy to look up patent numbers on my neighbor’s holiday décor or my own, let alone search for non-patented kitsch. However, I was intrigued when a colleague of mine shared a recent blog about a 1950 patent from inventor Leo R. Smith for a vibrating Christmas tree (not the phrase he used on the patent application but I didn’t want to seem too risqué).

This led me to quickly search “Christmas” on Google’s patents website, which brought up approximately 199,000 results including in just the first few pages: a “Pop-Up Artificial Christmas Tree” (U.S. patent #6514581, inventor Cheryl A. Gregory); “Christmas Tree Shaped Pasta (design patent #D392785, inventors Ricardo Villota and Guillermo Haro); “Christmas Stocking, Puppet and Story Media Combination” (patent #5389028, inventors Catherine Cabrera, Pepper de Callier, and Priscilla de Callier); and “Christmas Deer Toy Capable of Moving Head, Neck, and Tail” (patent #6769954, inventor Lien Cheng Su).

Patent drawing for “Christmas Deer Toy Capable of Moving Head, Neck, and Tail."

Aha! The deer toy sounded a bit like my Rudolph idea.  So then I looked at the patent citations on Lien Cheng Su’s 2003 patent application. The first one on the list is for a “Voice Making Device for Moving Animal Toy and Moving Animal Toy Using the Voice Making Device” (patent #4820232) by inventors Hajime Takahasi and Elichi Maeda. Note I did not make up the patent name.

I could spend innumerable hours conducting this research. Suffice it to say here that pondering these unheralded inventors and innovators reminds me how little we know about the people who have created the material objects around us or their motivations. We will probably never learn why Mr. Smith, Ms. Gregory, and Mr. Su felt it was necessary to invent a vibrating Christmas tree, pop-up Christmas tree, or a moving Christmas deer, respectively.  However, I would like to argue that we should take a moment every now and then to appreciate that people have shared their creative energy with us through their inventions no matter how kitschy they may be.

I will end with a reference to the Library of Congress’s Everyday Mysteries article “Who invented electric Christmas lights?” Regardless of whether or not you celebrate the holiday or like to decorate for it, I think most people would agree that seeing Christmas lights on a dark winter’s night makes things feel festive. As the article says, “We can be grateful to Thomas Edison, Edward H. Johnson and Albert Sadacca for illuminating our holiday season.”

Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen, Skateboard Legends…and Inventors?

In January 2011 I found myself in a rather unusual place—at the National Surf and Skate Expo in Orlando, Florida. Along with my colleagues Jane Rogers, an Associate Curator in the Museum’s Division of Entertainment, Sports, and Culture, and Betsy Gordon, a Project Executive from the National Museum of the American Indian, I traveled to Orlando to meet some of skateboarding’s founding pioneers and enduring legends. The National Museum of American History had just launched a broad collecting initiative focusing on skateboarding and I was keenly interested in the role of invention, innovation, and creativity play in skate’s history and culture. As a group that feels that it has been cast as “outsiders” most of their lives, the skaters were surprised at the Smithsonian’s interest, but very welcoming and eager to share their experiences with us. The day culminated with an “All-80s” skate competition that featured the likes of Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Andy MacDonald, and a host of other icons of skateboarding lore. At the conclusion of the event, Tony Hawk donated his skateboard to the Museum while standing in the middle of the vert ramp surrounded by 2,500 screaming fans.

Tony Hawk signs deed of gift for his skatedeck. Jane and I are standing by--the skateboarders were expecting the Smithsonian to be represented by a bunch of "old dudes." Photo by Lee Leal, Embassy Skateboards.

Since that time, the Lemelson Center and the Museum have continued to build important relationships with skateboarding’s innovators. The Lemelson Center’s belief that everyone is inventive and that innovation abounds all around us is one of our greatest strengths and affords us the opportunity to explore the history of invention and innovation from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives and across a broad range of subjects. Most associate invention and innovation with technology and science, but the Center often explores other unexpected places where invention and innovation flourishes—like skateboarding. This wide exploration is critical to fostering an appreciation for the central role invention and innovation play in the history of the United States. It also makes our work extremely interesting, fun, and exciting as we meet, collaborate, and explore the world of invention and innovation with all types of people.

Skate legend Rodney Mullen was kind enough to let us film him doing tricks on the roof terrace of the Museum.

In August of 2012, the Lemelson Center invited Rodney Mullen, the unquestioned leader and pioneer of street skating, to visit us to discuss the role of invention and innovation in American life. It was a truly wonderful day in which we exchanged ideas and views not only about skateboarding, but about the role and importance of creativity and innovation to building a better society.  You can watch our video podcast with Rodney below or on YouTube.

Our exploration of the intersection between innovation and skateboarding continues. On June 21-22, to coincide with National Go Skate Day 2013, the Lemelson Center will host Innoskate, a major public festival that will celebrate invention and creativity in skate culture. Innoskate will highlight the contributions skate innovators make to society through demonstrations, hands-on education activities, public programs with inventors and innovators, and donations of objects to the national collections. Activities will also include discussions and demonstrations of evolving technology such as decks, wheels, trucks, board design, materials, etc., as well as innovations in tricks that fueled further technological innovations. Hands-on activities related to skate culture may include aspects of board design and fabrication, use of new materials, and/or the engineering and physics of making decks and performing tricks.

We will continue to share program information about Innoskate in the months to come—so keep checking back with us.

Podcast: Political Machines — Innovations that let people be heard

Laurel Fritzsch interviews Rachna Choudhry for our podcast series.

A lobbyist and a Congressional staffer walk into a dinner party. It sounds like the start of some sort of inside-the-Beltway joke; instead, it’s an invention story. Rachna Choudhry and Marci Harris found common ground on a vexing issue–when constituents write in to Congress, there is no way of the writer knowing if the message has been received or for Congressional staffers to know that it’s coming from a real person. The result of that conversation is Popvox, a web tool that verifies, aggregates, and simplifies communication with Congress.

Rachna sat down with Laurel Fritzsch to talk about the process behind developing Popvox in our latest podcast. Click here to listen in.

Note: This post is not an endorsement of any product.

A Concrete Example

Concrete is everywhere. Foundations, buildings, bridges, sidewalks, roads, sculptures, tunnels, retaining walls, and even skateboard parks are made with concrete. We are surrounded by this gray, cold, often impersonal, and ubiquitous material. Yet, I know very little about concrete, except that it is a construction material composed primarily of aggregate (sand and crushed rock), cement, and water, and that it is often reinforced with steel. On the rare occasions when I think about concrete, I immediately picture the Hoover Dam, a construction and engineering marvel built with more concrete than I can fathom.  According to the Bureau of Land Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region, the Hoover Dam “contains enough concrete to pave a strip 16 feet wide and 8 inches thick from San Francisco to New York.”  However, prior to the Hoover Dam’s construction in 1931, others were mixing it up with concrete.

In the early-twentieth century, for example, Robert Augustus Cummings (1866-1962), a civil engineer who worked primarily in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, made significant contributions to the field of reinforced-concrete construction and foundation work. Cummings clearly stated his confidence in his material of choice in a 1904 presentation to the Member Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania (and “member” refers to construction components, not engineers with a secret handshake):

Reinforced concrete makes an excellent paint for preserving iron or steel, adhering to the metal very firmly and protecting it thoroughly against corrosion. It can easily be made water tight, and its durability is beyond question. . . . Correctly designed re-enforced concrete structures are not liable to sudden failures, as is the case with ordinary concrete, but gives warning by the falling off of the surface concrete long before the point of failure is reached.

Pamphlet, Reinforced Concrete The Cummings System, circa 1907.

Cummings knew his concrete and built his reputation and livelihood around it. Founded in 1900 and incorporated in 1911, Cummings Structural Concrete Company specialized in reinforced concrete for the construction of all types of structures, from bridges, barges, warehouses, filtration systems, private residences, machine shops, dry docks, and piers, to retaining walls, abutments, factories, dams, and locks. If it involved concrete, Cummings was doing it.

Cummings is best known for inventing the “Cummings System of Reinforced Concrete,” in which iron or steel bars are embedded within a mixture of Portland cement (a finely ground powder made of limestone mixed with clay or shale) water, sand, and gravel or broken stone. The Cummings system utilized steel rods of any size or grade that were welded together to form a variety of shapes. Cummings held over 25 patents related to reinforced concrete and metal structures (see U.S. Patent 761,288 for one example). Spaces between the metal structure were filled with concrete to form arches, walls, floors, walls, and roofs.

Types of metal bars and framework (1905) that Cummings used.

Cummings's son, Robert A. Cummings, Jr., holding metal framework, around 1905.

Some of Cummings more noteworthy projects included the Davis Island Dam on the Ohio River; a water tank for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad; the Ninth Street Bridge in Pittsburgh; the Harbison-Walker Refractories in Birmingham, Alabama; a concrete floor for the machine shop, National Tube Company in Mckeesport, Pennsylvania; a mill building and boiler house for the National Casket Company in Ashville, North Carolina; pilings, abutments, and retaining walls for the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company; and a clear water basin (a drainage area to collect runoff) for the H. J. Heinz Company in Pittsburgh.

A 1911 image of a commercial building being constructed near H.J. Heinz Company. Depicted are metal bars in wood frames awaiting concrete.

A reinforced concrete column at the National Bureau of Standards Laboratory in Pittsburgh, 1913. Robert A. Cummings is standing to the right of the column.

In 1915, the Scott Paper Company (also known as the Chester Paper Company) of Chester, Pennsylvania, manufacturers of Scott tissues, toilet paper, and paper towels, contracted with Cummings to work on their beater rooms (housing machines that beat, rolled, and processed paper fibers) and machine rooms. Cummings work at the Scott Paper Company is well documented through sketches, blueprints, design notebooks, specifications, correspondence, progress reports, payroll records, and photographs. For example, in a July 21, 1916 letter, Cummings sent a quote for the work to Mr. Leibeck at the company:

[O]ur bid, entire job, $132,250.00. Substitutes reinforced concrete for structural steel in floors. Also flat slabs for docks. Sheet piling omitted. Reinforced concrete piles $1.40 per [linear?] foot in place. Can start work immediately. Alternate bid, actual cost, labor, materials, and miscellaneous expenses, plus ten percent.

In his Manual of Uniform Field Methods, 1915, Cummings outlined how the company would conduct its work. Job sites were to be photographed on the first and sixteenth of each month to show progress and special features of the work, leaving behind a wealth of photographic documentation such as these images from a construction album for the Scott Paper Company. Meticulously documented, the album pages provide a rich visual history of concrete construction processes, equipment used, and men laboring.

The negotiations with Scott Paper Company were carefully and thoroughly recorded, primarily through correspondence. Details of the work, especially the timeframe for completing the job would become an issue for Cummings.  Among papers related to “contract planning” is a letter dated May 7, 1917, from President Edward Irvin Scott of Chester Paper Company to Cummings.

Now Mr. Cummings, we have got some plain talk to give you. We cannot stand for the delay on the buildings at Chester; our beater rooms are nowhere near completion; you only have a small amount of people, and we have absolutely got to have that work finished, and we cannot submit to further unnecessary delay.

Scrapbook of photographs, Scott Paper Company, Chester, Pennsylvania, 1916-1917.

Cummings finally finished the project a month later; clearly, Cumming wasn’t working with quick-set.

To learn more about the concrete endeavors and inventive career of civil engineer Robert A. Cummings, visit the Archives Center.

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References

The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume 50, Ann Arbor: University Microfilm, 1971.

United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region, http://www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam/History/essays/concrete.html (last accessed October 17, 2012)

All images are from the Cummings Structural Concrete Company Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Invention Makes America

As the National Museum of American History (of which the Lemelson Center is of course a part) is busy charting its way forward during strategic planning, its staff is asking a big question—What makes America…America?

Did your mind simultaneously go blank and run wild at the same time? I know mine did when we were asked to write down five things in a recent staff meeting. Here’s what I came up with (no judgement!):

  • The Statue of Liberty
  • Hollywood/pop culture
  • Inaugurations
  • Fried foods on sticks at county fairs
  • The sheer size of the nation

The staff here has had a chance to weigh in, and now the Museum REALLY, REALLY wants to know what YOU think. The survey asks two questions:

  1. When you think about America, what three objects or images come to mind?
  2. What inspires you about America and helps define its essential character?

Everyone’s going to have different answers, though we can expect that certain themes will emerge. But this morning I got to thinking, how would the Lemelson Center answer? It’d be impossible to pick only three inventions! In technology, would it be the telephone or Technicolor? On the home front, disposable diapers or Tupperware? If we looked at medicine, could we decide between the implantable pacemaker and prosthetic legs? Would solar roofing shingles or a water purifier represent solving environmental problems?

Marion O'Brien Donovan, grandmother of the disposable diaper; Technicolor camera; Flex Foot prosthetic; Bell telephone. Smithsonian photos. UV Waterworks apparatus courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Tupperware photo from Wikimedia Commons user OttawaAC.

The options are extensive and equally powerful in their own ways. It would take minds much wiser and greater than mine to pick just three. But I think the second question is easier to answer on behalf of the Lemelson Center. We believe that America is resilient, problem-solving, creative and resourceful—in short, inventive. America has always charged forward, hunting for the next big idea, solution, product, technology, what have you. The Lemelson Center thinks this inventive spirit is so integral to America that we document it—through our exhibitions, collections, programs, etc.—in order to foster that spirit. And we can’t wait to see what America comes up with next.

Sorting It Out

NMAH, Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection #: 1123 Box 1 Folder 11

Elmer Gates's Chevy Chase, Maryland Laboratory, undated. NMAH, Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection

Tucked away in the quiet residential neighborhood of Chevy Chase, Maryland, psychologist and inventor Elmer Gates worked in his personal laboratory at the turn of the 20th century. Though he is an obscure figure in the history of science today, Gates (1859-1923) was known in his lifetime for his original ideas about experimental psychology, his many eclectic inventions, and his strong interest in educating children. He was particularly influenced by the beliefs of Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (1792-1852), the creator of kindergarten. Froebel’s educational toys, known as the Froebel Gifts, were designed to give children the opportunity for self-directed exploration and learning through play.

Patent drawing (US patent 741,903), educational toy or game apparatus, October 20, 1903. NMAH Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection

In 1903, Gates patented an educational toy (U.S. Patent 741,903) that was very much in the Froebel mold. Still in widespread use today, it was a wooden box with openings for sorting different geometrical shapes (e.g., square, circular, triangular). Gates expected children to “discriminate” between different geometric shapes, so each piece fit into only one matching hole. “This mind-training toy,” he wrote in his patent application, “can be advantageously used to amuse and instruct children even before they can speak a word or at least after they have commenced to learn to talk.”

The wooden sorting box was part of Gates’s plan for his children’s education. This included five training stages—image stage, idea stage, concept stage, reason stage, and thought stage (the box was used in the image stage). Elmer Jr., Roger, Donald, and Phebe tested Gates’s prototypes in the Chevy Chase lab, and Gates, in turn, tested the children. In a November 16, 1902, Chicago Tribune article, John Watkins, Jr., wrote of visiting Gates’s Chevy Chase laboratory where “in a well lighted room, several little ones were at work amid growing plants, and in the brightness of a benevolent smile from a bust of Froebel.” In the same article, Gates said that he “wanted his children nourished by science, trained by science, developed by science, taught by science, and schooled by science.”

Gates theorized that repeated psychological tests would increase mental skill, so he created other (unpatented) apparatus to test his children. These included a ring-toss game; a color wheel to teach young eyes to discriminate between various shades and tints; an electric sonometer (an instrument that measured the sensitivity of hearing) to train their ears; an aesthesiometer (a device for measuring tactile sensitivity) to train their sense of touch; and a pendulum chronograph (a type of watch) to evaluate muscular movement.

Photograph, wooden sorting box, circa 1900. NMAH Archives Center, Elmer Gates Papers Collection

No doubt even Gates’s well trained and discriminate small charges managed to fit a square peg into a round hole.

These images provide a glimpse into Gates’s educational training regime, including a photo of his daughter Phebe demonstrating the wooden sorting box. Read more about Gates in the Archives Center’s finding aid.

From the Collections: Technicolor Sets the Scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Sources:

  1. Google Books digitized version of L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1899), p. 33, https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=qbV65PabTEYC. Accessed August 13, 2012.
  2. Richard Haines, Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1993).
  3. Herbert T. Kalmus, “Technicolor Adventures in Cinemaland,” reprinted at http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/oldcolor/kalmus.htm. Accessed August 13, 2012.
  4. Natalie M. Kalmus, “Color Consciousness,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 25, no. 2 (August 1935): 139–47.
  5. “Natalie M. Kalmus Dies at 87; A Co-Developer of Technicolor,” New York Times, November 18, 1965, p. 47.

Revolutionary Invention: Hip-Hop and the PC

What do hip-hop music and personal computers have in common? They were both children of the turbulent 1970s, born to innovative people who, building on inventive skills and technologies, nurtured them through creativity, collaboration, risk taking, problem solving, flexibility, and hard work. As with all inventions, their parents created them using some existing technologies. Hip-hop music evolved from adaptations of sound recording and playback equipment, while personal computers were built on integrated circuits, or “microchips,” co-invented in 1959 by Robert Noyce of Silicon Valley.

Imagine the social, cultural, economic, and political upheavals in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Picture the urban decay happening in inner-city areas of many major metropolises. Then picture the suburban communities that had burgeoned after World War II, representing the American Dream of where and how to live. Within these vastly different contexts, the Bronx, New York, and Silicon Valley, California, became places of invention—for hip-hop music and personal computers, respectively.

From "Yes Yes Y'all." Photo by John Fekner, copyright Charlie Ahearn

By the 1970s, the Bronx served as a national symbol of urban blight. Cut off from the rest of New York City by the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the primarily black and Puerto Rican residents were left to their own devices to deal with crime, drugs, dilapidated housing, few public services, and fewer job opportunities. Meanwhile, across the country, the relatively new, sunny suburbs between San Jose and San Francisco (which became known collectively as “Silicon Valley”) attracted primarily middle- and upper-class white, well-educated residents, many of whom were employed by the rapidly growing semiconductor industry there. Unlike the Bronx, Silicon Valley already had a reputation as a place of invention.

G Man and his crew DJ-ing at a park Bronx, New York, 1984 © Henry Chalfant

Sometimes lack of material resources encourages inventiveness. People in poor communities in America and around the world put their creativity to work on a daily basis using whatever materials are available. In the Bronx, residents searching for innovative, non-violent ways to express themselves took advantage of the limited resources around them to create the technology and artistry of a new kind of music. As Grand Wizzard Theodore (regarded as the inventor of the hip-hop scratch) said, “Hip-hop came from nothing. The people that created hip-hop had nothing.  And what they did was they created something from nothing.”[i] People like DJ Grandmaster Flash had electronics training and used those skills to adapt record players, speakers, and other stereo system elements to invent the new musical sounds, tools, and techniques that became hip-hop.

In resource-rich Silicon Valley, people like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs had computer experience, access to lots of new technologies, and networks with people in the industry. Among other activities, they were involved in the Homebrew Computer Club, which was founded by electronics hobbyists in a Menlo Park garage in 1975 and later met in a Stanford University auditorium. The two Steves lived and worked in a prime location to invent and promote their personal computer, the Apple I. Although not the first personal computer (that credit goes to John Blankenbaker’s 1971 Kenbak-1), the Apple is arguably the most famous.

What inventors and innovators in Silicon Valley shared with Bronx inventors and innovators was what might be termed “counter cultural” perspectives. Both groups were interested in democratizing their respective inventions—although hip-hop DJs and computer tinkerers probably wouldn’t have expressed it quite this way at the time! In the Bronx, the pioneers of hip-hop wanted to create their own music, uniquely representative of their community, away from the disco clubs in Manhattan and without mainstream limits.

Silicon Valley East. Flickr photo by Andrei Z.

In Silicon Valley, they wanted to break away from the corporate and government control of huge mainframe computers and create small, personal computers for themselves, their friends, and eventually the larger public. As Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak remembered in the 2006 documentary, In Search of the Valley, “There was lots of talk at Homebrew [computer club] about social revolution, we were going to have our own tools at home and own our own computers and not be slaves to what our employers wanted us to use.”

Another important element shared by inventors and innovators in the Bronx, Silicon Valley, and indeed all of the communities featured in the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention exhibition project was the support of like-minded individuals who collaborated as well as competed to further creativity. In the end, it turns out you’re not necessarily limited by limited resources. What you need is imagination, adaptability, perseverance, encouragement from your community, and eventually a wider, welcoming market. Hip-hop music and personal computers ended up revolutionizing not only American but also global society and culture.

Many thanks to Eric Hintz and Laurel Fritzsch for their expertise on these two Places of Invention!


[i] Mark Katz, Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 253.

 

Universal Design and the Museum: Technological Developments

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts by Lemelson fellow Aimi Hamraie. Aimi is a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her dissertation examines Universal Design and disability. Her blogs will discuss accessibility features at the Smithsonian, particularly the National Museum of American History.

My last two posts covered the topic of Universal Design in the museum in terms of structural features, such as ramps, and educational features involving sensory information. In this post, I am going to discuss some of the technological features of accessibility at the National Museum of American History.

You may remember from my first post on America on the Move  that the exhibit has a number of computer kiosks at each major site.

These kiosks are an example of Universal Design because they provide the same information in several ways – through interaction with the screen, text, and audio of the text, and in different languages. This means that international visitors can access the exhibits, and that if one kind of display, such as text or sound, is not accessible, another type is available.

A new exhibit, American Stories, uses a crowdsourcing app to help visitors understand how objects are important to the way that we talk about the history of the United States.

Upon entering American Stories, a sign tells you in both English and Spanish that an app is available for the exhibit. The large, oval-shaped, red and yellow sign has information on how to download the app on your smart phone, if you have one. The sign tells you how to participate in using the crowdsourcing functions of the app, or how to just listen if that is what you would rather do. This app was developed by the Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program, using existing open-source software and adapting it for museum use.

You may notice that the sign does not say anything about this app being a feature for disability access. This is because as a Universal Design feature it is usable by a range of people seeking information in the exhibit. What makes this app interesting and significant, however, is the fact that it is accessible to people with disabilities, who can record their own perceptions and experiences with the objects of the exhibit for other people to hear. Including the voices of people who are often excluded from accessing spaces where knowledge is shared, like museums and schools, in the exhibit itself shows that people with disabilities are valuable parts of the public and have important things to say about the history of the United States.

How does the app work? When you download the app, the first screen you see asks whether you want to “listen” or “speak.” You can also record feedback on the app and the exhibit by clicking the yellow “i” icon at the bottom of the screen.

Image courtesy of Beth Ziebarth.

You can choose to listen to the stories about the objects recorded by the museum curators or members of the public.

Image courtesy of Beth Ziebarth.

You also have the choice of recording something about one of the objects, describing something else that should be included, talking about your experience in the exhibit, or responding to someone else’s recording.

You may notice from the above image of the menu that it is a clear and easy to read interface. The text is in a sans serif font. The parts of the menu with text feature high-contrast text, with the text itself in white and the background in either black or dark turquoise blue. This is another Universal Design feature – it helps make the text more visible and readable.

Image courtesy of Beth Ziebarth.

This slide of Step 3 of recording through the app uses high contrast text, this time with black sans serif text on a white background. It also uses large, intuitive, and easy to understand icons that are explained within the menu. Using this menu, you may record and upload commentary on an object.

Another feature of the app is a map, again in high contrast, with white text on a black background, that shows the layout of the exhibit. You can choose which part of the exhibit you want to talk or hear about through the app using the map. This is both a part of the function of the app itself, and a way of helping with wayfinding within the exhibit.

Image courtesy of Beth Ziebarth.

There are, of course, access issues that are raised any time technology is used. For example, not everyone has access to smart phone technologies. However, the museum is working on a pilot program that involves checking out iPhones and iPads to visitors on a provisional basis. (Apple technologies are designed with Universal Design in mind – and have been around almost as long as the company itself has existed.) Designing an app that is usable on these technologies also makes it possible to use voice recognition, screen readers, and screen magnification to enhance the accessibility of the experience.

Individual technologies like smartphones are making it possible to provide information to visitors in museums in a range of ways. Whereas some exhibits must build accessibility into their structure – by placing placards at certain heights and making sure to have kiosks with sound or screens with captioning – smartphones are now becoming able to provide multiple sources of data (text, sound, and even haptic feedback) to users. They can be mounted on stands, attached to arms, and used without a lot of upper body strength. Most importantly, these devices move through exhibits with the visitor. If a sign is not at the right height, the device can still provide the same information. If audio is unclear, it can be replayed.

Both software and hardware developments allow users to choose how they receive and provide information. (For more information on accessibility research on wireless devices, such as cell phones, see the work of Universal Design advocates, James Mueller and Mike Jones, at the Wireless RERC at the Georgia Institute of Technology.)

It will be exciting to see how this app is further developed to incorporate usability for languages beyond English and Spanish, and also whether it will set a standard for interaction and accessibility in other exhibits. Future versions could have text transcription of the audio, or incorporate video and other kinds of crowdsourced information.

One last bit of Universal Design: American Stories, like many of the museum’s exhibits, has a website, where you can access images and information about many of the things in the exhibit no matter where you are.

Universal Design and the Museum: Sensory Features

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts by Lemelson fellow Aimi Hamraie. Aimi is a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her dissertation examines Universal Design and disability. Her blogs will discuss accessibility features at the Smithsonian, particularly the National Museum of American History.

In my last blog post, I discussed different Universal Design strategies used in the America on the Move exhibit at National Museum of American History. Universal Design is the idea that spaces and products should be intentionally designed to be accessible to as many people as possible. Because museums have so many visitors and have to represent information to a range of people – of all ranges of ability, ages, and cultural backgrounds – they have adopted some very innovative Universal Design strategies.

In this post, I am going to discuss some of the design features of museum exhibits that incorporate sensory information appealing to sight, touch, sound, and even smell! Providing information through different senses is one way of doing Universal Design, because it takes into account all of the different ways that people perceive and learn.

Smell

This image from America on the Move shows a cast iron of food with a sign that says “sniff” on the lid. You can turn the handle on the pot to smell the food inside. This provides information about the food, as well as the vessel in which it would have been cooked.

 

Touch

One of the most important ways of designing for multiple senses is to provide haptic information – information that you can touch. Touch can help us understand how something feels, how it is shaped, and how its parts relate to one another. If a person has low vision, but can touch something, they will be able to get a more complex understanding of the object that is being seen. Throughout the Smithsonian, there are a number of objects that ask you to touch them in order to get more information. These are usable by anyone, and, for many of us, provide information that the text of the exhibit does not.

Here is a map that you can touch from America on the Move. It shows the layout of a house, with raised walls. If you touch more than one part of the map at once, you can think about how the rooms are spatially related to one another. At the bottom, there are railroad tracks that are also raised. Inside of each room, there is text that tells you what the room is. This text is unfortunately not raised. If you have low vision or your eyes are closed, you may be able to feel the words but you will not be able to read them necessarily. Even though some aspects of the design are accessible, others may not be necessarily.

The above sign from the National Museum of American History exhibit, The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, shows a haptic map of the exhibit with a block of Braille text to the left. A person wanting to know what is in the exhibit can look at the map, touch it, read the Braille, or do all of the above! To understand how to move through the space, there are raised tactile arrows leading from one area into another. The text inside of each space is also larger than in the previous map, so that it can be touched and read. Haptic maps such as this one make the layout of the exhibit clearer and establish better wayfinding

This image shows a red plastic model of a house in the Within These Walls exhibition at the American History museum. By touching the model, you can get a sense of the dimensions of the house and where the windows and doors are. You may not be able to read the placard below or get information about what happens inside the house, however.

The above image of a haptic model from the Wright Brothers exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum shows how a tactile map can display different kinds of information that are useful to people with different abilities. The bronze map has raised text and Braille text. It shows the details of a journey, complete with land, mountains, and a railroad. When I visited this exhibit on several occasions, the space around the map was the most crowded part of the exhibit. Adults and children were both touching the various parts of the map to get different kinds of information.

Here is a model of the Big Bang from Explore the Universe at the Air and Space museum. It is the most interesting of all of the models I have seen because it not only represents an image in three dimensional form, as the others do, but it also conveys a sense of time. On the side of the image furthest from the viewer in this image, the Big Bang begins and the bronze on the panel is relatively smooth, with small dimples and bubbles. As it moves to the left, the bubbles grow larger and more complex, demonstrating the way that matter in the universe became more complex over time. By feeling the contours of the model, as well as looking at its appearance, we get a very interesting story about how matter changed over time as the universe expanded.

Vision

Have you ever been to an exhibit where there was a lot of text that was hard to see? Maybe there was low light, or the font was too small? This image, also from the Air and Space museum, shows a high contrast display. This means that the image background and text contrast with each other so much that the text is clear. In this case, the white text on black background makes it easier to see if you have low vision, or if you have been inside of a dark exhibit for a few minutes and you are straining to see. The images of various space rocks are also backlit to make them easier to see.

 

As you go through the Air and Space or American History museums, you may notice that the videos have captions on them that describe the sounds being made and also tell you what words are being said. This serves many purposes. For people who are hard of hearing, it provides the information visually. It also is helpful for people who have hearing but may be in the exhibit at a time that is very busy.

These are only a few examples of sensory-based accessibility at the Smithsonian. As you can tell, these features are useful for everyone – not only people with particular disabilities, but also people who benefit from having information displayed in multiple ways. Visiting these exhibits and imagining what they would be like without these features helps us understand that accessibility is not an issue about individual people needing accommodations to help them get into the space, but a collective issue that benefits a broader range of people.

Stay tuned for Aimi’s final post on technological developments at museums.