Rocket Scientist and Inventor Yvonne Brill

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

Yvonne Brill. Photo via the Winnipeg Sun.

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

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

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

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

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

Tiros, a satellite invented by Yvonne Brill.

Tiros satellite. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Nova Rocket invented by Yvonne Brill. Photo via NASA.

Nova Rockets. Photo via NASA.

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

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

Inventing on Wisconsin’s Waterways

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

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

Sunset over a Wisconsin lake.

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

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

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

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

Outboard motor patent drawing.

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

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

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

1910 and 1924 outboard motors.

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

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

Michael Jackson, Patented Inventor?

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

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

patent drawing of Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal shoes.

A patent drawing from Michael Jackson’s application.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sound and Vision

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

Donated audio cassette tapes in Westbrook's studio

 

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

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

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

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

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

Details of Westbrook's woven cassette tape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special thanks to BarelyPractical.com.

It’s in the Details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timothy Westbrook in his Pfister Hotel Studio

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

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

Strongbow shoe by Westbrook

Detail of Strongbow shoe

Strongbow shoe in-process

Strongbow by Westbrook

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

Strongbow shoe by Westbrook

Making "sequins" from Strongbow aluminum cans

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

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

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

"Ruby Slippers" by Timothy Westbrook

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

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

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

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


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

 

 

 

Cool Inventions from Different Invention Cultures

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

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

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

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

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

From "Yes Yes Y'all."

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

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

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

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

 

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.