Michael Jackson, Patented Inventor?

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

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

patent drawing of Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal shoes.

A patent drawing from Michael Jackson’s application.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sound and Vision

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

Donated audio cassette tapes in Westbrook's studio

 

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

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

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

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

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

Details of Westbrook's woven cassette tape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special thanks to BarelyPractical.com.

It’s in the Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timothy Westbrook in his Pfister Hotel Studio

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

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

Strongbow shoe by Westbrook

Detail of Strongbow shoe

Strongbow shoe in-process

Strongbow by Westbrook

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

Strongbow shoe by Westbrook

Making "sequins" from Strongbow aluminum cans

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

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

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

"Ruby Slippers" by Timothy Westbrook

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

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

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

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


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

 

 

 

Cool Inventions from Different Invention Cultures

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

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

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

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

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

From "Yes Yes Y'all."

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

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

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

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

 

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.